Much credit is due co-chair Garry Douglas and the other members of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council for bringing home the bacon. As reported last week, the council has secured $90 million in state funding for a broad range of state grants designed to benefit our region in almost every conceivable way.
The council should also be thanked for what it did not do this year. Fortunately it did not secure taxpayer funding to pursue Mr. Douglas's dream of restoring rail service throughout the Adirondacks, regardless of whether this would serve a useful purpose and be money well spent. While there's no question that we need better, faster trains linking our population centers, it is hard to justify spending $43 million in public funds (the state's estimate) to restore freight and passenger service between Utica and Lake Placid.
Reviving unneeded rail service through the Adirondack Park would not only waste scarce public funds that could be used to good effect elsewhere. It would also have profoundly negative consequences because it would eliminate one of the greatest opportunities we've had in my lifetime to stimulate our tourist economy and enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors.
Thanks to the salvage value of the old steel rails, creating a recreation trail will cost taxpayers nothing. The project involves converting 90 miles of rail bed into a year-round, multi-use recreation trail connecting Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, Tupper Lake, Piercefield, Beaver River, Big Moose and Old Forge. We're calling this the Great Adirondack Rail Trail, and there would be nothing like it anywhere.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates was launched in late 2011 to make this trail a reality, in the face of impassioned resistance from a cadre of dedicated railroad buffs. With 2013 about to begin, it seems useful to look back to see how far ARTA has come in just one year.
On December 9, ARTA signed up its 10,000th advocate for turning the rail bed into a safe, easy, scenic trail for people of all ages and physical abilities, for biking, hiking, running, birding, wheelchair use and greatly improved snowmobiling. The petition will be presented in January to Governor Cuomo and his commissioners of transportation and environmental conservation, the state agencies responsible for reviewing the unit management plan that governs use of the rail corridor. This long-overdue review is the essential next step in making the trail a reality.
Earlier this year, an ARTA-commissioned study by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy identified the costs and benefits of the proposed rail-to-trail conversion. This was followed by another report by rail-restoration advocates. A comparison of the two studies shows that the economic benefits of the rail trail would outweigh the economic benefits of restoring train service by a 30:1 ratio. As for the recreational benefits that will be enjoyed by a great many residents and visitors, the trail wins hands down.
During 2012, many local governments voted either to revisit the management plan to determine the best use for the corridor, or they voted outright to replace the rails with a trail. St. Lawrence County, the towns of North Elba and Piercefield, and the village of Lake Placid have called for replacing the tracks with a trail. The village of Saranac Lake, and the towns of Harrietstown and Tupper Lake, voted to re-open the UMP in order to decide how best to utilize this extraordinary public resource for the greatest public good.
In addition, the 58,000-member NYS Snowmobile Association has called for removal of the rails, a step that would vastly improve snowmobiling in the corridor and make Tupper Lake a hub for winter tourism.
Newspaper support was also forthcoming. An editorial in the Albany Times Union declared: "For all the emotional attachment many people have to trains, a push to spend tens of millions of dollars restoring an old rail between Lake Placid and Utica just doesn't make sense. It's especially wasteful when there's an alternative that would cost far less, be enjoyed by far more people, and bring far more badly needed tourist dollars to the Adirondacks: turning the rail line into a multi-use trail. Choose the trail option, and New York won't be known for a multimillion-dollar rail to nowhere. That's something any politician can understand."
The Utica Observer Dispatch announced that it's time "to get public input on future use of the corridor by reopening the unit management plan and laying the options on the table for public scrutiny." And an editorial in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise called for "a formal reckoning, especially now that municipalities along the tracks are taking stands."
All in all, it's been a banner year for ARTA. If progress continues at this rate, it won't be long before the legendary rail corridor connecting the communities of the Tri-Lakes area, and extending all the way to Old Forge, will be reborn as one of the nation's finest rail trails. For further information you can visit theArta.org, and to register your support, simply click the sign-up icon.
Dick Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake and a founding member of Adirondack Recreational