For a thousand years we have had a perceived face-off in the Adirondacks (sometimes perception is reality, sometimes not, right?), one which plays out every day on the pages of the Almanack – and everywhere else there is an outlet for opinion. In the green corner we have the the preservationists and environmentalists who want more wilderness, more protection for the ecology of the park and less development. In the blue corner we have many local residents, businesses and government leaders who want to see healthier communities. They see the restrictive policies of DEC, the APA and the preservationist agenda as a big problem and they see the balance between preservation and the welfare of the residents of the park as out of whack. They love the wilderness too but they would like fewer restrictions on development, a green light for the ACR and a wider variety of recreational uses for the Forest Preserve. Okay. Whichever of the myriad of associated positions and disputes may be rhetoric and whichever may be real, everyone knows this story.
As we mire about in this endless brouhaha along comes an unprecedented economic opportunity, an opportunity with massive potential. There is no such thing as a sure deal in economics but this proposal is as close as you get. It is favored by every relevant economic trend you can measure, it requires a relatively small investment with relatively little risk and it is a perfect fit with a strategy for the Adirondacks with which all parties seem to agree: a park anchored by a green, sustainable economy.
What is this project? The proposed Adirondack Rail Trail from Old Forge to Lake Placid.
Naturally, in defiance of this project’s eminent sensibility, everyone is champing at the bit to take sides. This is the Adirondacks, after all.
So who’s for it? A broad and growing coalition of citizens in the park, including many residents, visitors, businesses and local leaders.
Who’s against it? A lot of the people in the blue corner, those who want to focus on exactly what this project would do: develop the economy of the park. Thus my opening sentence: we have ourselves a contradiction.
Why are some in the blue corner against it? Honestly – and I like to think I’m not a fool – I have no idea.
Ah, but me being me and this being my weekly column, I can speculate. Part of it is obvious: the tracks that would be removed currently support the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) which runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. Clearly the first reason for opposition is that a lot of people like the train. This is a legitimate reason as far as I am concerned. Take heed, those of you with your knives already out: I like the train and I think it is a lovely idea.
The organization advocating for a recreational trail, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates or ARTA, is often accused of being anti-train (if you think that’s an exaggeration just read this article and pay attention to the language used). Full disclosure: I am a member of ARTA, having realized what a great idea this is for the communities through which the trail will pass. I am not anti-train. Many volunteers have put a great deal of effort into helping the train to operate: maintaining tracks, restoring stations and the like. They should be lauded for their work. I am sorry to think that any of their work would be displaced. Nevertheless, the welfare of communities like Old Forge, Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake is more important than the train and the economic argument in favor of the trail is overwhelming. Not only that, there is a potential project to fund a recreational trail from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid apart from the rail corridor, so the creation of the Adirondack Rail Trail does not necessarily require the end of the ASR as it exists today. Let’s not allow a love of the train to stop us from from doing what is best for the residents of the park.
I think the second reason is that a number of people and groups in the blue corner backed the train long ago as an economic benefit and don’t want to give up on it. Adirondackers are nothing if not a stubborn lot and having taken one side are unlikely in my experience to switch. This reason impresses me less. Organizations like the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) need to be committed to doing what is best for the region regardless of any previous positions. I am unfairly singling them out? Read on.
My suspected third reason troubles me; it’s the kind of reason people don’t like to talk about. I get a clear sense from the rhetoric that a big part of the opposition to ARTA’s plan is the long-held distrust of the green agenda, of tree-huggers who tell other people how they can and can’t earn a living in the park. In my opinion this reason is not entirely incomprehensible in general, but it is tragically misplaced in this case.
This is where my hackles go up. I have written extensively in support of Tupper Lake, to pick an example. I want to see Tupper Lake become a more vibrant community with better permanent jobs, new businesses and, yes, new development. The Adirondack Rail Trail could literally help to remake Tupper Lake as no project has since its heyday as a logging town. I think it borders on outrageous to oppose a project like that which has no negative impact I can see except eliminating the possibility of having a tourist train in Tupper lake that doesn’t even go there now.
All of this means that the only relevant question is whether the Adirondack Rail Trail is the better option for the economy of the Adirondacks or whether upgrading the rails and supporting more train service is the better option for the economy of the Adirondacks. Should this be about anything else? No. The people of the Adirondacks need a better economy, end of story.
The opponents of the ARTA proposal will tell you the train is the better choice. They will claim a variety of benefits for the future of train service. They will also raise all sorts of questions and issues about ARTA’s claims. Any reasonable, rational examination of the facts will show they are simply wrong.
First let us take their promises of great economic benefit. We’ve heard these promises before. This rail corridor saw its last regular passenger service in 1965 and its last freight use in 1972, these discontinuations are the result of hard economic realities: the service was not profitable. Two decades later train supporters saw the opportunity for a tourist train. Here are excerpts from an article in the July/August 1990 issue of Adirondack Life. Keep in mind the current claims by train supporters as you read this twenty-three-year-old article:
The Adirondack Railroad may chug once again across the backcountry, says the feasibility study just completed by Northwest Engineering, of Tidoute, Pennsylvania. The railroad consulting firm was hired by the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) to conduct a two-part examination of the railroad’s potential business and rehabilitation costs.
The first phase of the study found that a significant market exists for rail service between Utica and Lake Placid, justifying the estimated $12 to $17 million cost of revitalizing the route… through a combination of passenger and freight service, the authority could begin to realize a profit in its third year of operation…
By any reasonable standard this rosy outlook has not come close to being achieved. It is no one’s fault: it is economic reality. Ridership from Utica to Lake Placid was never achieved. Ridership on the short ASR line has never exceeded 14,000 per year. The tracks have not been rehabilitated as promised and freight service was never restored. There are arguments over whether the ASR ever turns a profit, but a balance sheet comparing investment to return on the entire project since the Adirondack Life article was written would should scant returns on a multi-million-dollar investment. Yet ANCA still supports the train, including promises of future service that look remarkably similar to the promises made in 1990. This is why I mentioned ANCA before. They of all groups, having commissioned the original feasibility study, should be distressed, if not hopping mad, about a grossly inaccurate forecast and a failed return on investment.
On the other hand precedent after precedent across the United States shows significant economic benefits to recreational trails. My home state of Wisconsin is full of slam-dunk examples of the benefits to be obtained from converting rail beds to trails. One of the first recreational trails to be put on a rail bed, the Elroy-Sparta trail, thirty-two miles through the Wisconsin countryside, is a perfect case in point. In 1970 you could not find anyone outside the area who knew where Sparta and Elroy were. There are no huge tourist draws in the area and the population is rural and sparse. Then the trail went in. Now hotels along the route book solid a year in advance. The annual economic benefit of this relatively short and remote trail has been well over a million dollars per year since the mid 1980’s.
Tupper Lake, are you reading this?
The ARTA web site has numerous other examples, many of them in the Eastern US, that show similar results. The list of recreational trail failures and disappointments is mighty slim. It takes an extremely biased cherry-picker to make recreational trails look bad.
The ARTA trail could easily eclipse the Elroy-Sparta trail’s performance, having as it would no peer in the recreational trail world, thanks to the incredible uniqueness and beauty of the Adirondacks. Several studies, one commissioned by ARTA from the respected Rails-To-Trails Conservancy and several others not commissioned by ARTA, all show a significant economic return on investment. These reports are available on the ARTA web site.
Yet the naysayers claim these studies are speculative and/or overstate the benefits. In doing so they engage in a time-honored game of ignoring statistics and mathematics almost entirely, as though casting aspersions on something has the same effect on all possibilities regardless of the numbers. Let me explain what I mean with an analogy. Suppose you win a contest and get to choose a prize. The “keep the train” prize puts a hundred dollars in your pocket. The “build the trail” prize puts you in a booth swirling with ten dollar bills and you get sixty seconds to grab all you can. The promoters of the show assure you that you will be able to grab a hundred or so bills in sixty seconds. Previous winners grabbed anywhere from forty bills to a hundred and twenty bills. The naysayers offering the “keep the train” prize charge the booth promoters with exaggerating the potential winnings, citing the worst case, the folks who only grabbed forty bills, as an example. They hope to discredit the booth entirely with this objection. Suppose they are right, even though it is statistically unlikely that they are: so what? Forty ten dollar bills = $400, four times their benefit. Even though the exact magnitude of the outcome is uncertain, you’re going in the booth, right? That’s a no-brainer, right? Apparently not to people who oppose the trail.
Let’s briefly look at some numbers so you can see what I mean. The Rails-to-Trials study examined a phase one route: Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. In analyzing the economic benefits of just that part of the trail they offered a range from high to low, developed using comparables, statistics from other trails. This is a common methodology – by no means accurate, but credible. Nonetheless let’s assume that the report was too optimistic. I’ll take the lowest estimate and halve it. This is almost certainly well below the mark based upon the results of trails across the country, but it will make a powerful point.
Half the lowest estimate of yearly benefit works out like this:
11,625 local (resident) users, spending an average of $9.14 per day = $106,253
25,875 non-local users, spending an average of $63.86 per day = $1,652,378
Total yearly economic benefit of the ARTA trail: $1,758,631
Do you think that’s ridiculous, even though at half of the low estimate it requires you to desperately suspend reality to do so? Okay, halve it again. That’s still approaching a million dollars per year of benefit to the area. Now go compare that to any number you choose for the benefits of a train. It’s not even close.
Saranac Lake, are you reading this?
Oh by the way, none of these numbers take into account snowmobile use. If the argument was a slam dunk before, imagine the same corridor connecting the Tri-Lakes Region to Old Forge in the winter with no rails in the way that require a foot of snow before the corridor is useable. Add some conservative economic numbers to the snowmobile portion of the scenario and.. all together now: it’s a no-brainer. Really, kids, is there anyone who can make a rational argument against it? I’d like to see it.
Still, some continue to contend that a premier rail trail in a region that sees millions of visitors per year would be too “obscure” (someone actually used that word), sitting off in the remote Adirondack woods; therefore it would see little use. To the contrary, the simple fact of the matter is that this trail stands to have national recognition and appeal.
Do you think that is lip service? Let me introduce you to Trek Bicycle Corporation. Trek, based in Wisconsin, is one of the largest bicycle companies in the world, with more than $800,000,000 in annual sales, over a thousand employees and worldwide sales of 1.5 million bikes in 2011. Trek is looked at as a trend setter and industry leader. In testimony to Congress on transportation issues two years ago John Burke, CEO of Trek, testified to the financial impact of the bike industry on the US economy: more than $6 billion in annual retail sales with 15 to 20 million bikes sold in America alone, providing jobs for more than than one million Americans. He testified that in his home state of Wisconsin a study estimated the annual economic value of bicycling at nearly $2 billion. He went on to cite the Great Allegheny Passage, a 132-mile recreational trail In Western Pennsylvania which generates more than $40 million in annual direct spending and another $7.5 million in wages. More than 25 percent of businesses along the trail are in the process of expanding. Are you listening, Lake Placid?
In other words John Burke knows, Trek knows, that cycling is a growth industry and an exemplar of green economic power. Trek knows that recreational trails offer big markets for them and massive upside for communities, a winning combination.
As a very successful company in a growing market, Trek has lots of fish to fry, lots of projects and priorities. They have an international scope. Like any corporation they don’t like to waste their time. So what project has Trek held two meetings to review and is in the process of studying to see if and how they might support it? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. If you used your solitary guess to say the ARTA Rail Trail, you’re a genius. Those of you who think some remote Adirondack trail would sit unknown and unused might ask why one of the major companies in the industry, headquartered a thousand miles away, would take that kind of interest even before it is a sure thing.
Fortunately, the State of New York seems to have gotten the message and the relevant UMP is going to be reopened. Now is a good time to get behind this project with passion and conviction, because the potential benefits to the economy of Adirondack communities we love is tremendous. This is the very thing we wish for and have all too often feared will never come to pass. Hard questions should be asked to those who stand for economic growth in other arguments but for whatever arcane reason oppose a project that makes one hell of a lot of sense.
Photo: Former railroad tunnel on the Elroy Sparta rail trail in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.