Still time to do it right
“Use and misuse of the travel corridor through the Adirondacks.” That’s the subject of a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo from Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, the nonprofit that’s been working for many years to establish a 90-mile recreational trail through the Adirondack Park from Lake Placid to Old Forge. ARTA achieved partial success when the state announced its grand compromise back in 2015 — 34 miles of the old railroad line would be converted to a year-round recreational trail linking Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. The rest of the state-owned “travel corridor” would be devoted to creating the longest tourist train ride in the country.
On one side, the compromise meant connecting the Tri-Lakes with a multi-use trail that will add a new recreational dimension to the Adirondack Park. This was a clear win for residents and visitors, based on the comparable Virginia Creeper Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia.
The Creeper Trail is the same length as the Adirondack Rail Trail and runs through similar terrain. It enriches the local quality of life, encourages physical fitness and good health, and provides an economic boost for the “rail towns” along the way. Town officials estimate that the Creeper Trail attracts some 250,000 residents and visitors a year who account for an estimated $25 million in local spending. People of all ages and abilities use the trail, many on a daily basis. They ride bikes, jog, hike, stroll, watch birds, walk dogs, push baby buggies. All enjoying the fresh air in a natural setting of woods, waterways and mountains — on a trail well removed from the hassle and dangers of road traffic.
A problem of timing
This sounds like something we can expect from the Adirondack Rail Trail, which will connect the Tri-Lakes area as it’s never been connected before. The immediate problem, however, relates to timing. Yes, the Adirondack Rail Trail is coming, and that’s cause for celebration. But it is taking much too long. State officials announced last fall that the rail-to-trail conversion won’t be completed until the end of 2024. That’s four years to convert just one section of a railroad line through the Adirondacks that was completed in 1892 and constructed IN ITS ENTIRETY IN 18 MONTHS!
Bottom line: For every year the Adirondack Rail Trail is postponed, the quality-of-life benefits are postponed. Ditto with the economic benefits which, if the Creeper Trail is any indication, could exceed $20 million a year in tourism revenue. “This delay represents a lost economic and recreational opportunity and a disservice to Adirondack residents and visitors,” ARTA informed the governor.
The letter also questioned New York’s decision to extend a tourist train 45 miles north from Big Moose to Tupper Lake “at a cost of more than $30 million.” On the surface, this 2015 compromise — extended tourist train service here, a rail trail there — was intended to placate everyone. But closer scrutiny reveals what is shaping up as an embarrassing government boondoggle. While the rail trail will be win-win for the northern portion of the travel corridor, the extension of the little-used train service on the southern portion will likely be lose-lose.
For starters, the state’s priorities are upside-down. The train extension is scheduled for completion this year, but the rail-to-trail conversion will take four years to complete. A more fundamental question relates to the demand for an extended tourist train. No serious financial analysis or ridership study has been undertaken on what will be the longest tourist train ride in the United States — 120 miles from Utica in central New York to Tupper Lake in the northern Adirondacks. At a regulated top speed of 30 mph, this will be a nine-hour round-trip.
“How much repeat business would this extended service attract?” ARTA asked Gov. Cuomo. “How many potential customers would take this long, slow trip even once, especially with children in tow?”
Then there’s the matter of who will operate the tourist train. The current licensee, Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, is functionally bankrupt and burdened with a long history of questionable results, including the train that operated sporadically between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for 15 years. The company’s liabilities exceeded assets in every year for which its tax filings are available, the last being 2017, and its tax returns have not been made available since then. Even the company’s auditors have questioned “the organization’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
Governor urged to act
ARTA urged the governor to undertake the following actions:
1. Accelerate construction of the Adirondack Rail Trail … by earmarking the requisite funding and lining up a general contractor to complete the trail by the end of 2022.
2. Delay rail restoration north of Big Moose until an adequate economic and environmental analysis can be completed, including realistic projections of ridership.
3. Do not spend more taxpayer money (in the unlikely event of a favorable economic analysis) until a competent, financially stable operator has been selected.
4. Establish a management organization that can bring the relevant municipalities together to coordinate the operation and promotion of the Adirondack Rail Trail — an essential step for successful rail trails elsewhere.
Though it’s late in the game, there’s still time for the state to do this right.
Dick Beamish lives in Middlebury, Vermont. A former resident of Saranac Lake, Beamish is an original board member of ARTA and founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine.