Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Analysis: Rail or Trail on the Adirondack Railroad?

What follows is a guest analysis by Billy Martin, a senior at Paul Smith’s College in the Natural Resource Management and Policy program who is interested in the economic and environmental sustainability of the Adirondack Park.

Adirondack history has been shaped by contention over how to manage the region’s resources. Maintaining this historical trend, contention over the use of a state-owned rail corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake has led to another divide among residents. The Adirondack Recreational Trails Advocacy (ARTA) and the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) represent opposing poles on the issue, each with seemingly equal support from residents of the Tri-Lakes Region.

ANCA and its supporters feel that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, operated by the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, is a vital historical and economic asset to Adirondack communities—an asset that attracts tourism and stimulates local business. ANCA supports improvements of the rail line to provide a future option for transportation. This is of special concern in light of rising fuel prices and the region’s ability to maintain and potentially increase the flow of tourism. Restoration of freight service has also been discussed for goods such as biofuels. ANCA and other proponents of the rail line are currently pushing for renovations to sections of track between the villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake and feel that upgrades will help connect Tupper Lake to the more popular tourism destinations of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

The use of these rails to carry freight ended in 1965, and by 1972 passenger trains were no longer economically viable and ceased to run the tracks. This can partly be attributed to the construction of the Northway in 1969, which allowed more convenient access to the Adirondacks. The evolution of large shipping trucks and passenger vehicles seems to have forced the railroad out of commission. ARTA and other proponents of trails feel that the economic feasibility of the train will never be restored to what it once was. ARTA would like to see the section of rail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake converted to a recreational trail.

ARTA informally began less than a year ago when a group of people decided the railway would make a great bike trail. Over the past seven months, 5,400 people have signed an ARTA petition in support of a recreational trail. ARTA head, Lee Keet, says the next step will be to get the support of town board members, elected officials and eventually the governor. Keet said that according to state policy, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for reviewing permit holders and unit management plans (UMPs) for the corridor every five years. Yet, the DEC has gone sixteen years without a review of the permit holders or the corridor’s UMP.

ARTA feels that one of the main reasons the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s operating permit has not been reviewed is the lack of anyone pushing for other uses of the corridor. ARTA would like a review so the state will see that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has not “demonstrated its worth” or “fulfilled its promises,” according to Keet. Keet explained that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad permitting conditions required the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society to improve the rail conditions to Class 3 standards, allowing for safe travel up to 60 miles per hour from Thendara Station to Lake Placid. Currently, only the 9-mile section of track between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid has been upgraded to these standards. ARTA thinks that if a review is conducted objectively the Adirondack Scenic Railroad may lose its lease.

ARTA is currently conducting a paid study with the support of the nationally recognized Rails to Trails Conservancy to gain a more substantial fact base before asking DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to upgrade the unit management plan for the corridor. The study is expected to be completed this summer. A similar study was conducted last year by Camoin Associates. It was funded by AdkAction.org, a non-partisan organization that Keet is also involved with. It determined that either expanding an upgraded rail service to Tupper Lake or converting the existing rails to a trail would be more economically beneficial than the status quo. Estimates from this study indicated that converting to a trail would cost approximately $3 million more than expanding upgraded rails. The results were based upon best available standards and did not include potential donations, volunteer work, or local labor. The current ARTA-backed study hopes to address these exclusions.

ANCA head Kate Fish said that contributed labor and individual stakeholders would play a significant role in upgrading the rail and that the rail between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake will be upgraded to Class 3 standards by the summer of 2012. She explained that the steel rails are not going to be replaced, only wooden railroad ties that have begun to deteriorate over the years; removing and replacing these ties is where volunteer work and contributed labor will be valuable.

Keet argues that contributed labor is more applicable for a recreational path than a railroad due to the precision and expertise involved with laying and leveling track. Based on the progress of the current study, he estimates the cost of a 34-mile recreational trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake to be around $5 million, which is only $600,000 more than what has been projected to build a recreational path alongside the tracks from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, a distance of less than ten miles.

Fish said that the funding for the recreational path alongside the rails between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake fell short. The organization was unable to combine two separate grants that would allow the path’s construction from Lake Placid to Ray Brook and then from Ray Brook to Saranac Lake. Town boundaries make this situation complicated, but ANCA has recently secured a $1.2 million grant to close the deficit in funding and complete the recreational path from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake in the near future. ANCA doesn’t envision a recreational path continuing past Saranac Lake, but Fish is hopeful that completion of a new carousel near the tracks in Saranac Lake will increase the scenic railroad’s support.

Keet said that the economic potential of converting the railroad to a recreational trail is greatest on the 24-mile stretch of corridor between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Fish seemed to agree with the economic potential of this section, but in favor of upgraded rail service. As for the 50-mile stretch of corridor between Tupper Lake and Old Forge, many would love to bike or even ride the train through this section, but from an economic standpoint, ARTA and ANCA seem to agree that the section between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake is much more vital. Two hundred thousand people visit the campgrounds between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake each year.

The current ARTA-supported study is taking the idea of connector trails from Rollins Pond and Fish Creek campgrounds into consideration. Last year, ARTA asked local DEC campground attendants to keep a count of how many visitors brought bikes with them. After a few weeks, they responded by claiming it would be easier to count the visitors who didn’t have bikes. These campers would be only nine miles from the Wild Center and Tupper Lake, which seems to be the most disconnected village in the Tri-Lakes Region. This section of corridor also has a natural aesthetic, being in a much more wild state than the section between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

Fish said that ANCA is funding a study to address the economic impact of upgraded rails to Tupper Lake. In this study, connector trails will also be considered along with the viability of having passengers bring bikes and kayaks or canoes on the train. This type of attraction has proved to be a valuable asset among other scenic railways outside the Adirondack Park. This study is slated for completion this summer as well.

Some residents have suggested that converting the rails to trails is not an option because some sections of the corridor are part of the National Historic Register. Others have suggested that changing the UMP could result in portions of the corridor being relegated to “Forever Wild” lands, which are the most regulated and restricted in the Adirondacks.

According to Keet, the DOT, DEC, and other legal officials say that such claims are unfounded because the corridor operates under a separate UMP than state land outside its 100-foot-wide right of way. Keet said that because of these misconceptions, “It’s going to be quite a while before we win the hearts and minds of people that count.” Those people are those with the authority to make changes; people such as Teresa Sayward and Janet Duprey of the New York State Assembly, and Betty Little of the New York State Senate. These people were on record supporting the railway, but that was before anyone brought up the idea of converting to a recreational trail. Now, Betty Little and Teresa Sayward are claiming they are neutral on the subject. According to Keet ARTA sees this as a sign that they can be swayed by the rails-to-trails study.

ARTA thinks that the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) should run and maintain the recreational trail if it goes through. The tracks run within a quarter of a mile of the Olympic Training Center and would provide athletes a safer, better surface to train on (no pun intended). Other options for who would run the trail are the DEC or DOT, but ORDA demonstrates the most potential to invest in what is best for the region, according to Keet. ARTA plans to talk to ORDA board members as soon as the study is complete. If ARTA gains the support of local elected officials and board members, Keet feels confident that Governor Cuomo will sign off on it as well.

Input from a small sample of students and faculty interviewed at Paul Smith’s College indicates a fairly even split in preferences. Some would like to see the rail converted to a recreational trail and others not. Many responded that they were not informed enough to commit to one side or the other. Some local snowmobilers seemed to show support for a trail due to the improved riding conditions it would create. Fish suggested that a recreational trail might be more suitable for another former railroad corridor in the region. Others indicated support for both rails and trails alongside one another.

Unfortunately, the economic, legislative, and environmental barriers to building a recreational trail alongside the rail to Tupper Lake and beyond make the last option not viable. There are sections of the rail corridor that intersect “Forever Wild” lands, which makes further widening and leveling of terrain difficult to overcome from a regulatory standpoint. The danger involved in having a pedestrian trail in close proximity to an active railroad is another barrier in itself. Also, the further infill of wetlands and blasting away of cliffs would cause significant environmental and economic disturbances. Over the years, the Adirondacks have witnessed numerous paradigm shifts in regard to land-use management.

The ability to rezone land is perhaps a double-edged sword; the system can either grant or remove rights from different entities. In this instance, some local businesses would be set to increase sales and marketability if the corridor were to be rezoned. Brian Delaney, owner of High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid, would love to see the recreational trail put in place. He claims he would open up a shop or tent sale location at all the stops along the way to Tupper Lake, and maybe even establish some hot dog stands to go along with them.

ANCA feels that converting any section of the tracks would significantly degrade the value of the whole rail line, which runs all the way to Utica. The consensus seems to be, though, that the section of rail from Tupper Lake to Old Forge is of secondary concern at the moment. More attention and potential economic impacts are expected from the section of corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. In paradigmatic fashion, the pendulum swung towards restoration of rails in the early to mid-1990s, tied to claims of economic stimulus. Maybe we will see the pendulum swing yet again.

Photograph courtesy of MWanner, Wikimedia

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

3 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    This covers a lot of the issues, but while it does mention that the Camoin Associates study found that either option provided more economic benefits than the status quo, this analysis does not discuss perhaps the biggest single factor in the debate, which somehow avoids much discussion in general: the comparative economic benefits.

    I’ll wait for the Rails to Trails study (as will we all) but every experience points to a far greater economic benefit from a recreational trail than the rail line. It’s not even close.

    With Adirondack communities like Tupper Lake, which need an economic boost so badly, trying their luck with massive risks like the ACR, the fact that a sure bet like a recreational trail does not gain overwhelming traction boggles the mind.

    I’m left to wonder why so many pro-business voices in the park – the same ones who back the ACR and decry environmental groups – oppose the trail even though a recreational trail is such an obvious economic win. This defies logic, so there must be another reason. Is it because a bike trail seems like the kind of thing greeny tree-huggers would love? Far be it for me to think that such reflexive political thinking might exist on either side of the debate…

  2. Bushwhack Jack says:

    This is a pretty good analysis but the side by side option gets short shrift. The comment, “Unfortunately, the economic, legislative, and environmental barriers to building a recreational trail alongside the rail to Tupper Lake and beyond make the last option not viable,” is off the mark. I believe a side by side trail is desirable, possible, and deservable. (the last word isn’t really a word but I had to throw it in anyway. It means we deserve both.:-)All issues with a side by side trail are relatively minor “problems to solve.” As I say in my blog entry on the topic,”If the wealthy can waste their money on absurdities while the federal government is subsidizing their businesses I think the lowly middle class ought to be able to get both a rail line AND a recreation trail.” http://www.realworldlearning.info/1/post/2011/09/railroad-line-or-recreation-trail-we-deserve-both.html

  3. bevst says:

    It is so unfortunate that our politicians, ANCA and towns like Tupper Lake have NOT investigated the economic benefits that a rail trail have brought to so many towns, cities and other areas all across the US. Every Rail/Trail Conservancy magazine reports about more and more places that have completed sections of trails and how small businesses have expanded and praised the results! What a shame that it has to be the “tree huggers” (environmentalists) vs trains lovers!

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