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Next big taxpayer boondoggle?

November 15, 2012
By Joe Mercurio , Adirondack Recrational Trail Advocates

"You have got to be kidding!" That was my first reaction to the recent proposal to bring "high-end" overnight passenger train service to the Adirondacks. But it turns out those touting this plan aren't kidding at all. They include Bill Branson, president of Adirondack Rail Preservation Society; Kate Fish, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association; Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce; and a supporting cast of diehard railroad fans.

So what's wrong with this picture? Plenty. Let's begin with Iowa Pacific Holdings, the Chicago-based railroad conglomerate that owns railroad properties across North America and the United Kingdom. ARPS has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Iowa Pacific toward establishing luxury overnight passenger service between New York City and Lake Placid, using restored Pullman cars.

According to a recent ARPS press release, "Iowa Pacific will bear the equipment and operating costs and risks, and will be open to partnering in the costs of capital improvements required on the rail line, to be defined as part of the full plan." This is not quite the same as saying that Iowa Pacific will pick up the estimated $30 million to $50 million to rehabilitate the rail line from Utica to Lake Placid to accommodate an overnight tourist train that few will ride. No, New York taxpayers will likely be expected to pick up that portion of the tab, in return for the hollow promise of freight and passenger service to follow.

Why, then, is ARPS suddenly interested in partnering with Iowa Pacific? And why would IP want to establish a presence in our area in the first place? I'll tell you why.

For starters, this has nothing to do with delivering economic benefits to the region. Rather, ARPS has brought the prospect of luxury train service to the table because it increasingly is concerned about keeping its own tourist train going. By joining forces with IP, it hopes to strengthen its argument that the corridor's deteriorating rails and ties are worth saving, and the cost to refurbish them should be borne by the state. Second, Iowa Pacific is skilled at manipulating government agencies to get the permits, subsidies and grants it needs, without having to spend its own money.

Truth be told, Iowa Pacific is not much interested in the economic growth and well-being of the North Country. Their interest is in making a profit, as one would expect of any business enterprise. In this instance, however, it would be at taxpayer expense.

This is the same approach IP took two years ago to obtain access to taxpayer-owned tracks for the Saratoga-North Creek railroad. They sweetened the deal with promises of freight-related service in Saratoga and Warren County, knowing that government agencies are not likely to underwrite a tourist train. (Local officials frequently play along with this ploy because it brings in outside funding.) We are unaware, however, that Iowa Pacific has hauled any freight on its Saratoga-North Creek line, even though IP claimed this was a main interest. Furthermore, that same line transports very few passengers.

This is not really a transportation system, as alleged by IP, but an entertainment system, with taxpayers subsidizing the amusement rides.

Meanwhile, two prominent development agencies - ANCA and the North Country Chamber of Commerce - persist in their obsession about restoring the Utica-Lake Placid railroad. Given their commitment to extending the tourist train and restoring freight and passenger service no matter what the cost, and despite the lack of demand for such service, they are thwarting rather than fostering the region's economic growth. Their actions are, in fact, blocking regional development across a broad spectrum of economic, recreational, health and safety-related issues.

Part of the problem is the refusal by ANCA and the North Country Chamber of Commerce to open their minds to the alternatives, as have a great many other interested parties, including town and village officials in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Harrietstown, Tupper Lake and Piercefield. Each of these local governments has asked the state either to replace the tracks on the Old Forge-Lake Placid corridor with a 90-mile recreational trail or at least to conduct a long-overdue review of the 1995 unit management plan governing the use of the corridor.

The dream of luxury train service, complete with dining and sleeping cars, admittedly has nostalgic appeal. What is not at all nostalgic or fanciful is the golden opportunity we now have to create a multi-use recreation trail connecting the Tri-Lakes area and extending all the way to Old Forge. What a joy this would be for running, walking, birdwatching, wheelchair use, snowmobiling in the winter months and, above all, bicycling. What a wonderful way for families to experience the outdoors together, enjoying healthy exercise in a safe and scenic environment, on a trail suitable for all ages and all levels of ability.

There has been no shortage of wild-eyed ideas about the use of this rail corridor, dating back to the 1970s and the Winter Olympics. The latest push for lavish overnight train service from NYC to Utica may be the wildest scheme yet. Tourist trains are seldom runaway successes, and most often they tend to be marginal enterprises, like the one between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. In contrast, bike trails on old rail beds tend to be hugely popular with residents and tourists alike. They are low-risk enterprises - the one connecting the Tri-Lakes would cost the taxpayers nothing - and are a boon to the communities along the way.

Buyers, beware! Iowa Pacific is a private enterprise whose primary interest is capital gain. While they may be heroes to some railroad fans, they depend on government largesse to operate profitably. If people knew the truth about the railroad business model, stretching back to the 1800s, they might not find them so heroic.

Bringing luxury train service to the Adirondacks may be good for Iowa Pacific, but it's not good for us.


Joe Mercurio lives in Saranac Lake and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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