Saturday, June 15, 2013

Commentary: ARTA Rail Trail, Economic No-Brainer

Elroy Sparta TrailHere’s a classic Adirondack contradiction of the kind that drives me crazy.

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.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

63 Responses

  1. AdkBuddy says:

    The railroad is a novelty and has had almost 20 years to prove itself as an economic driver. It failed. The hiking and biking numbers are speculation. Snowmobiling has an economic impact of $245 million annually in the Adirondacks, yet no mention of it in this article. Snowmobiling is the only proven economic driver in this whole debate. They tried the train it failed. Give the hiking and biking a chance. My guess is that combined with the proven snowmobile business will be the winning use of the corridor.

  2. AdkBuddy says:

    PS-The snowmobilers need to keep their eyes open. I don’t trust some of these ARTA people.

  3. Smitty says:

    Excellent analysis. Adk buddy must not have read the whole piece. It did discuss the snowmobile aspects of the trail.

  4. Apprehensive says:

    I think the author said it best in the article, “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.” If the economic study is by “no means accurate” how can the results be considered “credible”?
    The prospect of this rail system is not a simple solution to increase the economic growth of the Adirondack Park. By no means should that amount of money be put into a plan that will be short lived at best without more studies and research done. Why is it assumed that the train would be used to carry “freight”? What business would build a plant or distribution channel along the rail system where they could economically use a train car’s ability to carry freight? It seems that the rail system shut down for reasons that still exist today.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      The difference between accurate and credible is pretty simple. If I suggest that in my morning run I will be able to run a mile in a time between 7 minutes and 8 minutes that is credible given my running history and fitness. But I am offering a range, not being accurate.

  5. Hope says:

    Hey Buddy you might want to read the whole article for it does infact discuss the economic benefit of snowmobiling in a paragraph near the end.

  6. AdkBuddy says:

    Sorry, I read thru the article too fast. I understand NYSSA and Jim McCulley support the trail. I am a member of NYSSA. I support the trail concept. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be a little bit suspicious of a couple ARTA supporters.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Well then, this makes the ARTA project a chance for people from different factions to put aside their distrusts and help reach a common goal that benefits all. That’s something we could use a little more of in the Adirondacks.

      • Wally says:

        Time to put aside this distrust. I have been working for about 5 years with a group that Is planning and gradually building a 60-mile trail along the old Champlain Canal corridor between the Mohawk River and Lake Champlain at Whitehall. This trail will connect to the Erie Canalway Trail and bring lots of bicycle tourism to communities in the corridor. All kinds of trail advocates, including snowmobilers, have been working together to make this happen. The energy that such partnership with trust brings to such a project has been amazing – and the outcomes reflect that.

      • Andrew Dawson says:

        ARTA is a fraud, they don’t expect roads to make money.

        Trails are good things, though they can be built along side rail lines too.

  7. AdkBuddy says:

    OK, I missed the blurb on snowmobiles. I support the trail over the railroad. I also believe this issue is making for some strange bedfellows, and I reserve my right to be a bit suspicious.

    • AdkBuddy says:

      Not trying to beat a dead horse. My previous post didn’t show so I added another. Hopefully everyone can work together when all is said and done. This area needs a real economic shot in the arm.

  8. Big Burly says:

    Good morning Pete,

    As always, a well written opinion. The saying that one is entitled to one’s opinion is apt in the conversation that must occur during the examination of the UMP. Conclusions based on facts must however be the outcome.

    To be transparent in what you will read below, I was a senior executive for one of the world’s major rail organizations for over a decade following the implementation of the Stagger’s Act and the beneficial results of changes in operations and customer service that followed. Certainly I contributed to decisions that were part of the rationalization of infrastructure, including large-scale rail line abandonments, across the country and the consequent changes in labor practices and the adoption of technology productivity that continues to this day.

    A couple of lessons from that experience: the first and probably the most important is that changing an economic system like a railway happens over many years. The second is that change brings unintended and unanticipated consequences. A thorough examination of alternatives takes time. Rail line abandonment is essentially irreversible if the infrastructure is removed. Transportation alternatives need to be already in place.

    Opening the UMP provides the opportunity to examine what is in the best economic interest of New York State, the owner of the right of way used by the current rail operator, not particular interest groups. The rail operating organization has existed in a state of contractual uncertainty from day one, compounding the normal challenges any company faces.

    New York State has not fulfilled its responsibilities as outlined in option 6 of the current UMP. This is the option that was chosen in 1996. The recriminations by ARTA about the rail operations leave this out. To succeed, option 6 has always needed the State to meet its obligations.

    Another lesson learned in every instance of rail to trail is that each conversion is unique. There are as many examples of unfulfilled aspirations in conversions as there are the successes like the ones you have cited. There really is no universal template.

    Pete, the conversation ahead hopefully will be civil. Having listened to and read the statements made by other ARTA leaders, it will be a welcome change. Those of us who believe that a robust trail system with complementary rail operations along the entire length of the existing right of way welcome a dialogue that results in an optimal solution that meets the needs of all interested parties.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Big Burly:

      So from you – as is typical – we get a reasoned and measured comment. Thank you. As you evidently have expertise in this area your input is important and I respect your views.

      I will agree that as a practical fact rail line abandonment is irreversible. As you say in your comment, “transportation alternatives need to be already in place.” However since the rail line has not been used for transportation of either people or freight in more than four decades save for the short tourist excursion train, along with the fact that there is a highway system connecting larger communities along this corridor, I’m not there is an issue here.

      Not only that, the rail corridor is nowhere near any sort of condition to support such transportation. How close to irreversible are we already? Is there enough of a distinction between the current rail bed and one with banked rails to ignore the huge potential of a recreational trail?

      You go on to say that “in every instance of rail to trail is that each conversion is unique.” I agree with this. An examination of comparables, as the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy performed, cannot be in any way precise for that reason; it can only offer a reasonable range of possibilities. However your next statement, that “there are as many examples of unfulfilled aspirations in conversions as there are the successes like the ones you have cited” is statistically false. Rail to trail conversions across the United States are overwhelmingly successful by any count of numbers.

      That doesn’t mean all are. But let’s look at the what the Adirondack version has to offer. An incomparable wilderness corridor; varied and quintessential scenic beauty; world-class recreational destinations at either end and in the middle; large tourist towns with existing infrastructure to support visitors; massive upside for snowmobilers, leveraging one of the world’s great snowmobile destinations (Old Forge). Is there a rational basis to underestimate this trail?

      Your usual comments about the tone of the conversation are most welcome. Let’s continue to try to set an example.


      • Big Burly says:

        Thanks Pete,
        There are many elements in the upcoming public hearings by DOT/DEC that hopefully will be discussed in a productive way.

        My perspective, as noted in my original post, is trying to find the middle ground to have both robust trails in, and alongside where necessary, the rail corridor as well as a viable rail operation. For sure outdoor recreation is a growing segment for our nation and our state. I own and use a TREK product; my family paddles the streams and ponds and lakes all over this magnificent part of the world where I live year round.

        The facts and fictions about climate change, some observed directly over the past 50 + years of visiting and living in the ADKs, are still not resolved in my mind. Shorter winters, less snowfall, rising prices for transportation fuels don’t present strong support for the traditional winter pursuits I’ve indulged in.

        All that said, the impetus for welcoming the conversation about the future of this multi-modal transportation corridor is driven by creating / sustaining solutions that offer the optimal opportunities for residents and visitors. I care deeply about the viability of this part of the world that has nourished and revived my spirit and that of my family for most of our lives.

        For illustrative purposes, I’m outlining some of what I would want to have discussed and provide answers to if I were in charge of this review process of the UMP for NYS.

        Railroading is an economic system that is complex and front-load capital intensive. It is an integral and essential part of the national and NYS transportation network.
        • The Surface Transportation Board of the federal government has abandonment jurisdiction for cessation of rail operations. What is involved and in what priority in the process of this UMP review?
        • What are the implications and costs/benefits of rail infrastructure removal?
        • What costs/benefits result from rail retention and needed infrastructure improvements?
        • Do other transport modes, including the highway network, have capacity to meet future transportation needs in our Region?
        • NYS currently pays to offset costs of AMTRAK operations throughout the State. Is that operating subsidy a precedent? What conditions should be considered and made contractual obligations for future passenger rail operators if the decision is made to retain the rail corridor infrastructure?
        • What areas of the rail corridor can support parallel multi-modal transport? What areas adjacent to the corridor could be developed to support multi-modal transport? What needs to be done to facilitate that? At what cost?
        • Rail infrastructure was pervasive in the discovery of the region prior to the amendment of the NYS constitution. How much of the roadbeds for those rail lines are feasible for trail development, especially away from today’s population centers? Would rail retention facilitate access for bikers, hikers, paddlers? What is the ease of alternate access to the more remote sections of the current rail corridor?
        • The individual elements of rail infrastructure and the entire corridor are registered with historical protections. What is involved with all that?

        Who should pay for conversion from rail to trail? For on-going maintenance?

        Why should snowmobilers be privileged in a trail conversion? Why not other motorized recreation vehicles?

        Should the existing multi-modal corridor in the proposed Bob Marshall Wilderness revert to that classification? What are the implications?

        A short list Pete. Some of what could be solutions will result from thoughtful conversations in the process ahead. Many of us who live here certainly don’t fully yet understand the perspective you have described. I believe there is a common ground we can find.

        I think we need a deeper examination than the either / or perspective stated in the ARTA petition that other folks have referred to in this exchange. Best regards.

        • Paul says:

          ” Would rail retention facilitate access for bikers, hikers, paddlers? What is the ease of alternate access to the more remote sections of the current rail corridor?” An excellent point to consider. I have seen other rail lines that transport Mt. bikers to remote spots. Good thing to consider as well as hikers and paddlers.

          • Hope says:

            First, to be clear, bicycles are not permitted in Wilderness areas. The travel corridor goes through a lot of Wilderness territory thus there will be no transporting of bikes of any kind to those areas. Second, virtually every paddling opportunity is already available via automobile with infrastructure already in place. The only opportunity to travel via bicycle or snowmobile through this Wildrness area will be thru the travel corridor. This take a train to a wilderness trail is a red herring. Only place these vehicles can be used is in Wild Forest on designated trails. None of which connect the many Adirondack Towns and Villages like the Rail Trail is proposed.

  9. TiSentinel65 says:

    The success on any project will entail certain risks. Anyone in the investment world will tell you this. Commoditization is the act of making a process, good, or service easy to obtain by making it as uniform, plentiful and affordable as possible. As any one in buisness will tell you when your product becomes a comodity your revenues will be competeing with other commodities of the same. I am neither against the railroad or against the trail system. But just because it works in Wisconsin does not mean it will work here. A case in point. Gambling Casinos have been touted as an economic rocket booster for ailing economies all over this country. The problem is for every new casino built you compete against other casinos for the same dollars. New Jersey has found out the hard way by recently opening a state casino only for it to file bankruptcy 11 months later. If everyone builds trail systems then they to will become a comodities. That is the way buisness works. Does that mean the railtrail sytem would be bad?, No. But it should not be offered as an economic windfall as the author states. One thing is for certain. The taxpayer should not be required to put these projects in motion unless it can demonstrated with a high degree of probability that the taxpayer will not be on the hook for failure. The rail proponents want more money to complete the line. In theory this could help with ridership and freight. Most freight moves by rail and is the cheapest and most energy efficient at doing it. The problem is it needs a taxpayer subsidy to complete the line. If private investors are not willing to step forward, the taxpayer should not be required to get involved. This state is in no position to subsidize everyones pet project. The Adirondack Park’s major headwind to economic development is the APA itself. No investor in their right mind would try to start a buisness here. One need only look at what is going on in Tupper Lake with the ski resort and see that it will drain investment dollars to the lawyers, while they get their permits hashed out in court. How long has it been sincethe ski area develoment in Tupper was first brought up? Over regulation is a killer of economic activity. New York State has proven time and time again that contrary to what Andrew Cuomo says, We are not open for buisness. We are still overly taxed and overly regulated. The problem is still here and buisness men have decide to show thier discord by leaving N.Y.State.

  10. Gary Broderick says:

    We are cutting back on everything in New York State and yet we still have people willing to send my tax money to keep a pleasure train running because it can’t support itself. The train benefits the communities where it picks up and drops off. The rest of the communities in-between see Zero benefit. This land, the Adirondack Park, belongs to the people of New York.

    Let the people in New York decide if they want to keep the train running or do something that many more people can enjoy and many others can see a benefit from.

    The UMP is being opened. The New York State Snowmobile Association has passed a resolution supporting this with conditions. We hope that that a review will show the best way for New York to proceed, best for the citizens (like you and I that own the Park) and for the communities. Year round use for everyone? In my opinion, it’s a great idea.

    Gary J. Broderick
    Immediate Past President
    New York State Snowmobile Association

    • Big Burly says:

      Does there exist a digital version of the resolution that you can point me to please? Thank you.

      • Hope says:

        Pete provided a link to NYSSA resolution above.

        • Big Burly says:

          I carefully read Pete’s missives. Did not see a link to NYSSA the first, second or third time, other than in one of Pete’s responses. Perhaps you refer to links to the ARTA site Hope? I’d like a response from NYSSA thanks.

          • Hope says:

            Suite yourself but it is the actual NYSSA resolution there if you want to read it. Not ARTAs interpretation of it.

          • Hope says:

            That link Pete provides takes you directly to the resolution and not the whole ARTA site.

            • Gary Broderick says:

              Big Burly,

              That is the link to our resolution. It was passed I believe by something like a 30 to 1 vote. Virtually no opposition to it as it makes sense for the Park and it makes sense for New York State and us, the owners of the Adirondack State Park-the citizens of New York State.

              Gary Broderick

  11. Tony Goodwin says:

    Pete, a great summary of the issue to date.

    To ADKBuddy and others, remember that Jim McCulley and I were on opposite sides of the dispute over whether the Old Mountain Road in Keene and North Elba was still a road and available for motorized use. When the judge decided it was still a town road, both towns passed ordinances saying either no (North Elba) or limited (Keene) motorized use. Both Jim and I accepted these decisions and have moved on, so it can happen that those who once had serious difference can work together without any hidden agenda.

    To Big Burly: Sounds as though you were “present at the creation” of the rail system we have today. Congratulations for a job well done. From my reading of the efforts by the New York Central and later Penn Central to abandon this line, they had given up on the line by 1950, so it would take an unprecedented change in the transportation economy to make this line again viable. In the initial work on the UMP, ARPS said they would restore the line to Class III condition at no cost to the State. The first draft of the plan did not provide for any State aid, while the approved version said “mostly private funding”. To date the railroad has not funded any of their capital improvements and 20% of their operating budget comes from the State. I’m not sure what the State has failed to do. The DEC was directed to develop trails where possible within the rail corridor, but the UMP acknowledged that there were limited opportunities for trails within the corridor. You are right that the railroad lacks a long-term contract, but that was only supposed to be awarded to an operator who could operate the whole line “with mostly private funding.”

    To TiSentinel: I don’t think the casino analogy really fits. Once the trail is built there is no additional cost each time someone uses the trail as is the case with a casino or any other commodity where the user/purchaser must spend money. Now money will be spent by visitors as part of their visit, but with rail trails proliferating there seems to be no lack of users on long-established trails. Furthermore, this trail will be unique in the truly remote terrain that it traverses but other longer trails have indeed drawn many riders for multi-day trips.

    Finally, I really don’t see how further investment in rail operations is justified. True, they have carried over one million riders (with many round trips being counted as two rides), but it has cost the State $35 million for a subsidy of approximately $30 per ride. I just don’t see any possible way anyone can say the State is getting a good return on their investment.

  12. Tim says:

    Anyone worries about the popularity of such a trail only need hop on the ferry to Burlington and see the many people biking on their rail trail.

    • Paul says:

      The one next to a fairly large city. Same goes for the one in York PA described in the study.

  13. JohnC says:

    The bike trail will bring all kinds of people out of their homes to ride or walk the trail. This kind of family economics is incredibly smart economics. I live near two trails and both are the busiest places in town through the three seasons. Bikes, walkers, fishermen seeking to get deeper into the woods, old and young use the trail. It isn’t just people from nearby but bikers who do day trips to one end or the other. THat railway is a gift that will bring people into the area, buy an ice cream, a dinner, a hotel room, and a decision to buy a cabin or condo.

  14. adirondackjoe says:

    i think the people of Tupper lake step over the dollars to get to the pennies. the trail system will bring in far more money and have zero impact on the environment than the ACR could ever hope to.

  15. george says:

    The rail line should be used for an Adk trolley system, that would permit residents of all of the towns served by the line to move easily between towns. In other words, primarily as a form of mass transit for the Adks, not primarily as a rail line for tourists from NYC. The trolley stations would be met by local buses that would drive through the town centers. The trolley approach needs to be combined with a state funded effort to bring or create (yes create) industry somewhere along the trolley corridor. That is the governor’s job. The Adks needs economic rejunvenation which means adding industry and transportation. I highly doubt that summer bike riders on a trail would bring the equivalent benefit. Snowmobile riders are already riding, so their economic contribution would just be shifted. It is a mistake to determine the outcome based on two opposing uses, neither of which is optimal.

  16. If recreational biking trails are so popular (and I don’t doubt that they are – I have friends who do it) – how come no one has established a recreational trail on one of our already abandoned rail lines – like the one that goes through Gabriels? Prove to the residents of the Adirondacks that this could become a great economic opportunity for the communities involved.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I have no idea why no one has converted the Gabriels rail corridor. I do know that one corridor has nothing to do with the other and therefore constitutes no evidence either for or against the ARTA proposal. I also know that the two routes are in no way comparable. I also know that the Placid-Remsen corridor is anchored throughout by major towns and tourist destinations and the Gabriels corridor is not. I also know that there are no studies on the Gabriels corridor like there have been on the Placid-Remsen corridor.

      As to your challenge: “Prove to the residents…” That’s a pretty obvious in-your-face kind of statement. What, my carefully constructed and documented argument did not impress? Well then, here are a few questions in return:

      1. What would constitute “proof” for you? I’m going to assume nothing short of actual success, right? This type of challenge allows a critic to lay in the weeds and take shots, pooh-poohing any claims and evidence they like, since proof is impossible.

      2. If point one is correct, if no proof is possible short of success, then I would think your position would be “let’s do it and see,” so that you would get the proof you seek either way.

      3. If you think point two is silly, then I will ask you if you challenged train advocates in 1990 with the same demand of “proof” before they actually tried it, sinking millions into a project that has not provided an adequate return. They having tried it, was your standard of “proof” met? No, right?

      The bottom line is that is that neither I nor anyone else in this arena have to prove anything, since no one can. What we have to do is offer good ideas with evidence to back them up and let the people of New York State decide.

      We have do to one other thing, too: call naysaying statements like “prove it” what they are: empty challenges. Then we can move forward with a reasonable evaluation of the evidence for and against a very real possibility that could provide tremendous benefit to the residents of the Adirondacks.

      • Paul says:

        Pete, this is one that seems like it “is in the face”? She was just making a point that if there were another trail like that folks were already using that this would be an easier sell. We have lots of abandoned rails around here we have lots of bikers it is surprising that nothing else has happened.

        I agree there is evidence in the study that was done to predict success and it may
        “prove” to be accurate.

        But when a study tell us that this rail trail will bring in more visitors per year than the High Peaks Wilderness (almost twice) you gotta wonder how accurate it is?

        Once you remove the tracks there is really no going back.

  17. Hope says:

    That rail corridor is privately owned and utilized by ATV’s in the summer. ATVs. It is already popular with snowmobiles in the winter and those snowmobilers are anxious to be able to continue on down the corridor.

    You don’t get thousands of people to sign up, write letters, donate money to a cause that is considered unrealistic. Over 12000 people have expressed an interest in this project. You don’t get an organization like NYSSA to support you without providing compelling information. You don’t get the State to open up the UMP unless there is significant demand to do so. I’d say there is an overwhelming desire in and out of the Park to see this happen.

    Tupper Lake has finally started their recreation path from the Train Station to the Wild Center. Saranac Lake is moving ahead with its version to connect Dewey and Pisgah. This is all great and shows me that these communities understand the value of the outdoor recreation industry. There is a burgeoning group of bicyclists who travel to destination trails in highly desirable areas. We do not have a venue for this and we should. Aren’t we a destination throughout the Park for outdoor recreation and adventure? Don’t we want to market the Park regionally and encourage our residents and guests to visit other areas within the Park? Well, this trail, in my opinion, will do all of that and more for less money and in less time then the tourist train.

    • Big Burly says:

      The corridor from Lake Clear to Malone has portions that are indeed privately owned — I own some of that. Other portions awere conveyed to National Grid for the power line that feeds Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, in accordance with rail abandonment procedures.
      ATVs are not permitted users. Snowmobilers are, in season.
      There is no effective enforcement to curtail not permitted use by ATVers and the right of way has deteriorated.
      This is one of the many issues that need to be discussed to find what is the right solution, now that the UMP is open.

  18. scott says:

    a trolley system ?? REALLY , the rails aren’t complete , that would take millions , nobody is using the train now . snowmobiles only use the tracks for a short period.A trolley system dumb what nobody has a car . Please stop the bleeding rip out the tracks while in can still be done at no coast , scraping will pay for it

  19. TiSentinel65 says:

    Tony,there will be legacy costs associated with maintaining the trail just as there are with maintaining a railroad, albeit at lower costs. However bridges are not cheap, heavy equipment is not cheap. Has any one done a Return On Investment analysis? Yes it would be cool to ride, walk and snowmobile from Lake Placid to Old Forge however N.Y.state is not actually overflowing with cash. I don’t want us to end up like Detroit, broke and cutting vital services, because we thought we could have everything without paying for it.

    • Gary Broderick says:

      The money that the state is currently paying to shore up the tourist train-the trails could be maintained for a fraction of that cost.

  20. Jim McCulley says:

    The people who think the environmentalist are suddenly going to take our snowmobile trail.Are missing the fact we don’t have a snowmobile trail because of the rails being in place, we lose 75% of the season.
    Personally I think this is one of the few win/wins for the Adirondacks and the state. First the state will not have to keep subsidising this railroad. For example this spring a 15 foot bridge in Saranac lake was replace by the taxpayers for $150,000. That’s more than the ticket sales for the ride between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
    Rail trails draw people to a region. The train according to their own economic impact study does not create an over night stay. Ironically the big winner here will be the ASR no longer having to try to operate the money losing Lake Placid to Saranac Lake run. This will allow them to focus on Utica to Old Forge. Where they receive 80% of their ticket revenue.And maybe they could earn enough to stay afloat once the state finally pulls the plug for good.

    • Paul says:

      Jim, again you are comparing apples to oranges. Looking at revenue for the railroad as it is at the Saranac Lake end is pointless. You have to compare the trail to a fully restored line. Maybe the end that gets 80% of the revenue does that because it is attached so something? What would happen if Lake Placid was attached to the other end, open year round and servicing tourists, hikers, paddlers, and others? Maybe nothing, but that is the fair comparison to make.

  21. Matt says:

    Good article. I’m with you, Pete.

  22. Cardiff Giant says:

    I REALLY don’t trust that snowmobiling will *always* be allowed on *all* of the trail. While I’m sure the tracks really will be pulled up this time, I feel like the enviros are just showing us another Cardiff Giant…

  23. Paul says:

    “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.”

    Pete, aren’t you leaving out the tracks that needs to be torn up at the other end? Thendara to Big Moose? That seems like the first stretch of tracks to really get into some good territory.

    This is like dejavu? I could swear we have had this conversation before!

  24. Don Dew Jr. says:

    Interesting piece Pete. I am wondering if the Trek company might be interested in expanding their operation to have an East Coast/ Adirondack presence. The old OWD factory in Tupper Lake comes to mind. I also need to follow up with you on a previous invite to meet with you in person. Let me know when you plan to be in the area and hopefully we can get together. Thanks.

  25. Paul says:

    Remember this is not only a bike trail. It is also a high speed track for snow machines. If the environmentalists and the motor heads can get together on this maybe fate is telling us to tear up the tracks??

    • Paul says:

      Of course if it turns out to be too noisy and dirty we can always turn it into a ski and snowshoe trail later. But we do appreciate all the sledders help in getting the tracks torn up.

      • Cardiff Giant says:

        I am afraid that is exactly what’s going to happen… Oh well.

      • Cardiff Giant says:

        This will be an interesting fight…

        • Paul says:

          These babies are water cooled can’t you just ride them year round with the bikes? You don’t really need snow.

          • SCOTT says:

            NO you need snow or you would wreck the sled, the snow clubs would be great ambassadors and take great care of the trail

  26. TiSentinel65 says:

    My personal interests would be achieved if the tracks were torn up and replaced with a walking, snowmobiling, biking trail. I can always ride the North Creek Line for a good scenic train ride. My fiscal interests will always say make sure it is cash flow positive. That means let the revenue that the supposed users will generate, support it. If it works, we should see a rise in collected taxes from motels. This could in turn support the upkeep of the trail. I like recreation as much as the next guy, I just don’t want to keep upping my taxes to support it. We are after all of limited means. We don’t want to end up like Greece.

    • Paul says:

      In one comment on an earlier story (at NCPR) I saw that this rail trail was the only hope for saving Tupper Lake. Now it sounds like the RR could lead to a local economic death spiral. I think I have heard it all.

  27. Dominic Jacangelo says:

    It really is unfortunate that NY does not have a state rail banking law like that of its neighbor, Vermont. If NY had a state rail banking law then jurisdiction over the corridor would remain with NY DOT (Department of Transportation) and all the user groups would be assured that over the decades all with get access. In the absence of rail banking, I am concerned that jurisdiction through state administrative action can occur and then we will be fighting a battle over the land classification of the railroad corridor. You can bet that there will be groups pushing for wilderness designation of the corridor if jurisdiction is moved to DEC.
    NYSSA’s support of a conversion to a multi use trail is conditioned by the corridor staying in the hands of DOT.

  28. Rebecca Allen says:

    I am on outsider from Michigan, but will be relocating to the area in the next few months. On my visits to St. Lawrence County and the Adirondacks regions I have been amazed at the sheer capacity for recreational outdoor pursuit. I envisioned a developed, well promoted bike touring route from Plattsburgh to the wine regions of Lake Ontario, along with agri-tourism and American History touring. Highway 11 seems already well situated for this. I also saw the potential for a touring train in the region, along with a hiking, fishing, camping, kayaking, biking system.

    I don’t fully understand why these have to be mutually exclusive. Build trains that will hold large recreational items (Bikes, kayaks, even snowmobiles) and let me people get on or off depending on what area of the parks they want to explore. There are trains like this out west which have become very popular. It removes cars from areas that really cannot take the congestion of robust tourism (and Lake Placid and Saranac Lake definitely seem to be at their limit).

    While building the rails, include an adjacent path for hiking, biking, snowmobiling, with other feeder path systems attached for those who want to get off the beaten trail. Is there a reason this wouldn’t work?

    Additionally, I might add that the Adirondacks is resource rich and it is just a matter of time before resource extraction is a foregone conclusion. The more people committed to the region for recreation and travel, the more likely you’ll weather the power of those influences. Again – entirely an outsiders viewpoint. I hope when I do join you all out there I get a chance to learn more and be a part of a real solution. You have so much there to protect and to cherish.

  29. Tom says:

    Has any of the debate on the proposed recreational trail addressed property values along the route? I would imagine a home with the trail out its back door or across the road would be a plus for the home’s value. I also think that anyone who rents a place to stay nearby would get more rentals or could charge more. If I had property along the route I would think seriously of what services I could offer and stuff I could sell; snacks, drinks, sunscreen, flat tire fixing and minor bike repairs, etc.


  31. chuck samul says:

    I spent 23 years working at Conrail and Norfolk Southern Railway, much of that time working in economic development and branch line sales/abandonment. many of you have already contributed sound ideas so let me summarize about the railroad.

    1)The economics of the existing railroad are bad and it is not likely to improve just by stretching the line a few more miles. it has no connection to a class I rr and no reasonable hope that it ever will. it cannot cover its operating costs and the deferred maintenance will be become (or perhaps already is) too great to ever achieve class 3 track condition.

    2) Whatever people think the number to rebuild and rehab the rr is, that number is probably too low. i dont know what the sizes or condition of bridges on the line are but replacement of even one girder bridge could be in seven figures. forget getting the bridges up to modern weight standards if moving freight is on your mind.

    3) the net liquidation value of the track,ties,ballast etc is substantial. that money could be put to other use, for example to build a recreation trail on the r.o.w.

    4) track and structure maintenance on the railroad is an expensive proposition and maintaining a recreational trail lacks the most expensive components.

    5) sharing the right of way between railroad operations and recreational use is ill advised. snowmobiles are especially problematic – i have seen derailments caused by compacting the area between the gauge from running snowmobiles over the tracks. that final point should not be an issue in seasonal operation, but the interaction of hikers, bikers, atv riders and others in a shared r.o.w. is scary to a former railroad guy.

  32. Big Burly says:

    I spent a number of years with Canadian National and did some of the same things you describe.
    Your summary about the NYS owned ROW and the seasonal passenger operator is lacking information. Your conclusion in point 3 cannot be achieved without dispensing with the historical designation of the track infrastructure; removal of the ties outside the corridor will require environmental dispensations — facts you already know, that are complicated by the necessarily special region the corridor traverses.
    This is a more complicated public policy issue than most of the issues you and I dealt with.
    Invariably, in the areas where the thousands of miles of branchlines and some mainline sections that CN applied to abandon, robust alternate transportation options existed, and in fact had made rail no longer a viable option for many shippers. Rail to trail made sense.
    Your point #2 about costs is valid. NYS needs to make the decisions.
    Sharing the right of way is not a new option. It is being done safely in many parts of the country — not on heavily traveled mainline trackage for sure; the frequency of scheduled train operations in this corridor

  33. Big Burly says:

    @ Chuck to complete my send …
    even with the most optimistic projections will leave lots of time for safe recreational pursuits within the multimodal corridor, or along side where that is more practical.
    A conversation between willing parties looking for the optimal solution for NYS as well as the various recreation interests is what is needed, good listeners wanted !!

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