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In the ongoing rail-trail debate, consider locals vs. non-locals

I write in response to the recent commentary by Dick Beamish regarding the rail-trail debate and in particular my prior writing about the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Before the lesson begins, I first want to point out to Mr. Beamish his incomplete knowledge of tourism and especially how tourist dollars impact local economies and their measurement. He used VCT data many years ago and was called out for that, and ultimately was forced to retract his conclusions as not just “wishful thinking” but as thoroughly and intentionally misleading.

Here’s the rub. When assessing the impact of tourists in any given locale, one must first identify the local versus non-local visitor. In the economics of tourism, only those visitors who are primary-purpose overnight visitors can be counted as impactful. Further, they must be non-local overnighters, whether it be tenting, hotel-motel, family or whatever. When Mr. Beamish wrote a few years ago about the 120,000-plus visitors to the Virginia Creeper Trail and all of the imputed consequences that should provide, he failed to disclose the important fact that, as the University of Georgia study demonstrated, 96% of those people were local. In other words, while the shops may ultimately be busy, they are largely busy with people from the next county over, not from out-of-state visitors who are really new to the economic scene of Damascus where the trail is located. The trail conversion proposed in the Tri-Lakes will likely steal most of its users from neighboring towns. The snowmobile argument is also somewhat difficult because the percentage of out-of-state snowmobilers is also quite low and likely not incremental. One need only look at registration numbers to realize that the past many years show huge declines in sleds of any type being registered in New York state. 

Trail use and its relatively low impact on the communities where they exist is supported by a New York state study that drew the same conclusions about hiking trails within New York state. New York State Parks and Rec acknowledged this in their “Every Mile Counts” research a few years ago.

As for Mr. Beamish’s claims that rail operations do not drive economic activity, they do not stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. In 2016, more than 35,000 paying customers visited Saranac Lake and the region to ride the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Rail Explorers rail bike attraction; they are no longer, since the ASR was forced by the state to suspend its service in the community in 2016. At the south end of the line where the railway still operates, one could ask any one of the total of more than 1.6 million tourists in the past 25 years from all over New York state and beyond, who have ridden ASR trains and contributed several million dollars each year to the communities at the south end of the corridor, what benefit the railroad provides. Finally, it must be noted that the rail corridor has NEVER had the benefit of the full state investment that was promised in 1996, and yet the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has managed nonetheless to be a significant contributor to the economy. Imagine what a revitalized railway all the way from Utica to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid could do. The decision being made by New York state is not about the past 10 years; it is about the economic well-being of the Tri-Lakes region in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

So before anybody gets giddy reading these comments by Mr. Beamish, it would be best to consider learning what real tourism is and how it is measured. It is surprising that having gotten caught with his kayaks down a few years ago, that Mr. Beamish would be so bold as to try to sell the same “wishful thinking” again.

Bill Branson is president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which is based in Utica and does business as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

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