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Boondoggle vs. bonanza

First, I offer my solace to those throughout New York state affected by the coronavirus.

The following is from my submission to the Adirondack Park Agency regarding the state’s plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. The state proposes to convert the 34 miles of railroad between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid into a multi-use recreational trail and upgrade the 45 miles of railroad from Tupper Lake south to Big Moose, thus extending tourist train operations from Utica.

As someone who has biked rail trails around the country and witnessed firsthand their economic and recreational benefits, I strongly support the state’s plan for the Tupper Lake-Lake Placid segment of the corridor, which will clearly benefit the Tri-Lakes economy and quality of life.

However, I also urge the state to reconsider its proposal to extend rail service 45 miles from the Big Moose station to the Tupper Lake station. This appears to be a classic example of a government boondoggle that squanders public funds — the word “boondoggle” being defined by Wikipedia as “a project that is considered a waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.”

¯ MUCH TOO LONG: The Adirondack Scenic Railroad route from Utica to Big Moose runs 62.6 miles, and their somewhat more successful route from Utica to Thendara runs 51.2 miles. The total 107-mile trip from Utica to Tupper Lake would represent a major increase in miles traveled and hours spent on a slow-moving train, while massively increasing ASR’s operating expenses. Yet there’s no indication of any kind of market for a tourist train ride of that distance.

¯ BANKRUPTCY BECKONS: This tourist train operation already teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, according to its latest, publicly available income tax filing. ASR clearly lacks the means to fund such an ambitious extension of an already questionable enterprise.

¯ MILLIONS FOR NOTHING: Over the past two decades, ASR has generated little revenue from its operation north of Thendara/Old Forge. The company operates only a handful of trips annually over a four-week period from Old Forge to Big Moose — after the state spent millions of dollars restoring that 11.4-mile section of the corridor. There is no likely market for extending the service from Big Moose to Tupper Lake, which would make the Utica-Tupper Lake trip nearly 40 miles longer than any other tourist train in the nation. Nor is there any evidence that extending ASR’s route would significantly increase revenue.

¯ ECONOMIC FLOP: Over the many years that ASR operated over the 10-mile stretch between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, the passenger cars often appeared empty and the train produced almost no discernible benefit to the region’s economy. Likewise, little economic benefit can be expected by extending the operation from Big Moose to Tupper Lake. Meanwhile, a far better alternative is staring us in the face. Based on the many rail-to-trail conversions across the country in recent decades, a year-round recreational trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge could substantially benefit the Adirondack economy, at a lower and predictable cost.

¯ DISMAL SCENARIOS: If New York state spends many millions of taxpayer dollars to extend rail infrastructure to Tupper Lake, the most likely outcomes are (a) ASR will go bankrupt, leaving the state with a massive rail investment but with no rail operator, (b) ASR will refuse to extend operations past Big Moose unless it is substantially subsidized by the state for each trip to Tupper Lake, or (c) ASR will begin operating to Tupper Lake and soon thereafter inform the state that it must suspend operations unless taxpayers make up ASR’s annual shortfall between operating expenses and revenues.

¯ RISKY PARTNERSHIP: If New York state undertakes this risky enterprise, it will have entered into a de facto business partnership with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, whereby the state will be in the position of a minority partner with no power but with substantial financial obligations year after year.

¯ TERRIBLE TIMING: The state unfortunately faces massive new coronavirus-related expenses, as well as a severe decline in tax revenues. Does it make sense to take on an expensive, high-risk project of questionable benefit, while under such budgetary duress, simply to mollify a handful of rail fans?

¯ EVIDENCE-BASED DECISION: Far better to build the Adirondack Rail Trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake as soon as possible, assess its success and use that evidence to determine the best use of the corridor beyond that, between Tupper Lake and Old Forge. In other words, rely on evidence, not assumptions or baseless projections.

¯ RAIL TRAIL BENEFITS: A rail trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge would be used by bikers, hikers, walkers, snowmobilers and nature lovers. It would be enjoyed by people of all ages and physical condition, free of charge and during all seasons of the year. It would likely provide far greater benefits to Adirondack residents and visitors, at lower and predictable cost, than an overly extended tourist train between Utica and Tupper Lake.

Please serve the citizens of New York state responsibly, and reconsider. 

David Banks is a former resident of Lake Clear and former board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He now lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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