For more than two years, rail-trail activists have been pushing state officials to end decades of financial support for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and convert a ninety-mile rail corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid into a year-round multi-use recreational trail.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) has argued that the tourism train has been a financial failure, requiring too much taxpayer support, and claimed that a rail trail would provide a bigger tourism draw.
Since incorporating in February 2012, ARTA has barraged the media with opinion pieces and engaged in high-level talks with Cuomo administration and state lawmakers. Its campaign played a role in the decision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) to hold a series of public meetings on the rail corridor’s future last year.
ARTA’s preliminary goal is to get the departments to reopen the management plan for the state-owned rail corridor. Created in 1995, the plan identifies the railroad as the corridor’s primary use. As of mid-February, the state had yet to decide whether to revisit the plan.
In a proposal released last year, ARTA projected that the transformation of the corridor could be accomplished quickly, with sections converted to a high-quality trail within two years. According to the proposal, the work could be done “without demands on New York taxpayers for additional financial investment.”
In 2012, Carl Knoch of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy presented findings that the first phase of the project—stretching from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake—would attract roughly a quarter-million visitors a year, generating around $20 million in spending.
That works out to 685 visitors a day. Even some trail supporters admit the figure may be overly optimistic, but they insist that a trail would attract many more tourists and do much more for the economy than the train does.
The claim that a high-quality trail could be built in stages without significant delay or additional expense to New York State has been made repeatedly by trail boosters. Last October, for example, ARTA co-founder Lee Keet wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: “Best of all, it will cost us very little to create one of the finest recreational trails in the United States.” Keet described the trail as “the single biggest job creator we can seize today.”
But an examination of ARTA’s proposal by the Adirondack Explorer, in partnership with North Country Public Radio, found that questions remain about how much the trail would cost, how it would be funded and constructed, and who would undertake the project. Even if the state agrees to remove the tracks and ties, significant political, financial, and regulatory hurdles would remain.
Experts interviewed for this story say similar challenges have often meant years and even decades of delay for other rail-trail projects around the nation. ARTA officials, meanwhile, acknowledge that their organization has so far made no effort to build the kind of staff or fund-raising capacity that might be needed to create and manage the proposed trail, instead suggesting that New York State would undertake those efforts.
Who Would Manage The Trail?
During lengthy interviews, Keet and fellow ARTA board members Tony Goodwin and Jim Rolf suggested that the work of actually creating the rail trail should be shouldered in large part by state agencies.
“The state could decide, for example, that it would be logical for the Olympic Regional Development Authority [ORDA] to be responsible for this,” Keet said. Alternatively, he added, it could fall under the purview of DEC or DOT. ARTA and other railroad critics have been critical of Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s reliance on state funding, but Keet argued that the state’s investment in the rail-trail effort would be smaller and produce larger returns. However, he also expressed hope that state agencies would find funding to restore historical train stations, including the depot at Lake Lila, to serve as attractions along the route.
In their 2012 report, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimated that the first phase of the project—converting and upgrading the trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake—would cost $2.1 million. The group asserted that the expense could be recouped by selling the steel tracks for scrap. It says the entire ninety-mile stretch could fetch about $5 million.
Once the trail is built, Keet estimates it would cost state taxpayers roughly $180,000 a year to maintain—which he said is far lower than DOT’s annual payments to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. In 2012, the Transportation Department gave ASR a total of $1.1 million.
But there is no guarantee that the state would play a key role in implementing ARTA’s rail-trail vision or that revenue from salvaging the rails would be used to fund the project.
Indeed, ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin downplayed the notion that his organization would have the expertise or resources to operate a rail trail. “At this time there’s no indication that we would do this, and it’s out of our jurisdiction,” Lundin said.
“When we’re gone, whoever the next group is is going to have to take care of it; the state doesn’t want the responsibility,” said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the tourist train and maintains the rail corridor.
The state’s 1995 management plan did discuss possible alternatives for the corridor, including scenarios where DEC might develop and operate a trail like the one envisioned by ARTA. The plan suggested that the state would need to hire additional law-enforcement staff to patrol the corridor as well as “a full-time year-round DEC trail crew” of four workers to handle brush clearing and other maintenance.
Thus, as outlined in the management plan, the rail trail would likely need much more funding than ARTA projects. Also, the plan—including possible alternatives—was written before the state entered a period of austerity and labor-force reductions. DEC and the state parks department, the two agencies that manage trail systems in New York, have lost nearly a thousand employees since 2007.
The management plan also raised the possibility of using millions of dollars in salvage revenue to fund the trail. However, state officials say the fact that the plan discussed this idea does not mean it will be adopted if the plan is reopened.
ARTA acknowledges it has no promises that the state will manage the rail trail or commit the salvage revenue to the trail. Yet Keet said “if Governor Cuomo was convinced that this was something that New York State would benefit from greatly and the North Country would benefit from greatly, this could go very fast and not be the heavy lift that it might otherwise be.”
So far, Cuomo seems to be keeping his distance. “I haven’t taken a position in the debate,” the governor told the Enterprise in November. “I think it’s appropriate the region has the conversation, and then, if it’s appropriate, we’ll take a look at it.”
Adirondack Explorer found that a similar trail project in Vermont that hoped to rely on state funding for its creation has struggled. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail—on a ninety-three-mile state-owned corridor near St. Johnsbury, VT—was approved by that state’s legislature in 2003. But the group that lobbied for creation of the rail trail found that revenue from rail salvage was diverted into other projects.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get legislative support to put the salvage fund into the trail project. It went into the state general fund, which was really unfair,” said Ted Chase, chairman of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail committee. He noted that his group was able to begin construction only last year—a decade after getting the green light. He said ARTA would be wise to get commitments from New York if it plans to rely on state funding and salvage revenue for start-up capital or operations.
Chase also noted that fund-raising for the Lamoille trail has yet to produce significant revenue. A professional fund-raiser was hired last year, but the group has so far been forced to rely on a $5 million federal grant for initial work, which is now underway. “It’s sort of a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy and attitude on our part, knowing this is how rails-to-trails projects have happened around the country,” Chase added.
ARTA’s leaders say they have offered to handle fund-raising, trail building, marketing, and coordination if the state balks at assuming responsibility for the corridor. But Keet acknowledged that the organization has taken no steps to prepare for that responsibility.
“No, obviously not yet,” he said. “We would have to ramp up to do that. I think we have the ability to build that capacity, but we are just a board. We’re not an operating organization, we have no employees.”
ARTA’s board does, however, include members with long experience with nonprofit fund-raising and with track records developing and operating trails systems. Rolf, who is also an active member of the New York State Snowmobile Association board—which has endorsed the rail-trail vision—noted that sledding clubs already handle much of the corridor’s maintenance and care during the winter under a long-standing agreement with DOT.
Rolf said that if ARTA assumed responsibility for the corridor, managing it as a four-season trail, it would expect to be compensated by DOT much as Adirondack Scenic Railroad is now. “We [would] go in and do with volunteer help what needs to be done and they can continue to reimburse, just as they do now,” he said, adding that local groups, towns, and counties might also manage segments of the route.
One additional complication for ARTA is that, unlike the railroad, it would not have a simple way to generate revenue. The tourism train generates more than $900,000 annually in ticket sales.
ARTA board member Tony Goodwin, however, said some 1,500 rail trails around the country have demonstrated their value to local economies. “We see no reason that that wouldn’t apply here,” he said.
Representatives of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the intense debate over the Adirondack corridor. A survey by the Explorer of rail-trail projects around the United States found that locally funded, grass-roots projects often proceed slowly, with trails completed in segments over a period of years or decades. In most cases, however, trails were eventually successful and self-sustaining.
ARTA’s leaders insist that resurfacing of the Lake Placid-to-Tupper Lake portion of the trail could be done quickly with or without state backing. They also argue that tearing up the tracks and making the corridor more readily available to hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers would bring an immediate benefit to the Adirondacks, even without investing in upgrades.
“I don’t believe one snowmobiler has been able to reach Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, or Lake Placid [from Old Forge] yet this year,” complained Rolf during an interview in late December. He noted that sledders are forced to avoid the corridor in thin-snow conditions because their machines snag on the metal rails. If the tracks are removed, he said, the sledding tourism season could be extended by three to four weeks—a boon to hotels, restaurants, and taverns that rely on snowmobiles in the winter months.
While questions remain about how a rail trail would be funded and operated, ARTA has convinced many local government officials and businesses that their vision would mean big economic benefits for the Park. More than four hundred business owners, including some of the Park’s largest hotels and tourism operators, have signed a petition urging the Cuomo administration to “bring about the rail-to-trail conversion of the Lake Placid to Old Forge rail corridor as soon as possible.”
Photos, from above: The tourist train passes through forest between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake (Susan Bibeau); Snowmobilers complain that tracks often prevent them from riding in the rail corridor (Nancie Battaglia); Lee Keet contends that replacing the tracks with a recreational trail would boost the economy (Photo by Susan Bibeau).
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.