Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Unanswered Rail-Trail Questions

Adirondack Tourist Train (Susan Bibeau)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.

Adirondack Railroad in Winter (Nancie Battaglia)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.”

Vermont’s Experience

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.

Lee Keet - Adirondack Rail Trail (Susan Bibeau)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.

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Originally from Alaska, Brian Mann moved to the Adirondacks in 1999 and helped launch the news bureau at North Country Public Radio.

In addition to his work at NCPR, Brian is also a frequent contributor to NPR and writes regularly for regional magazines, including Adirondack Life and the Adirondack Explorer.

27 Responses

  1. Lake Champlain says:

    I’ve listened to many stories on NCPR by Brian Mann and have considerable respect for his attempts to present objective analysis. I must disagree however with the tone of this article in that it seems intent to analyze ARTA’s arguments with a fine-tooth comb but doesn’t seem to balance that with a similar cost-analysis of the railroad proponents.
    I won’t attempt to re-hash all the many, many points made by advocates on both sides of the issue that have been posted here and elsewhere. But I will suggest two arguments. First, the cost of maintenance and operation of this railroad simply cannot be defended. There is no way the revenues this road produces will ever come remotely close to balancing the costs of running the railroad in a harsh environment that has little, either passengers or freight, to ship on the road that will generate revenue.
    Secondly, just one angle on how the R to T would benefit the area. Tourism is the economic engine of this region. I would suggest that most tourists thinking about a vacation in our area are active people that take into consideration what there is to do over the usual week to two week family vacation. Hiking, check. Visit the area attractions, check. Swim in area lakes & rivers, check. Biking. Hmmm? Fact is, especially if you have a family, biking on area roads in our area is often hazardous and challenging(read hilly). But if there was an off-highway trail that families with a range of abilities could use safely, I think it would be a major enticement for young to middle age people to decide to visit the Adirondacks. And businesses will tell you that these groups tend to have what tourists businesses love to hear–disposable income.
    And I won’t go into how this proposed trail would be suck a wonderful addition to an active life style for the thousands of bikers eager for a moderate, relaxed bike trip that was always there for their use. Money spent in building and maintaining the trail, I would argue, would benefit the people and businesses of our region far, far more than the railroad does or will.

    • Bob Van Slyke says:

      There are currently over 2,000, miles of hiking and over 1,800 miles of snowmobile trails in “The Park” . Why do we need more and more importantly who will pay to construct and maintain the additional 90 miles?

  2. Scott Willis says:

    Nice to finally read a more balanced article on the proposed trail. $ 180K per year is a ridiculously low estimate to maintain such a long and remote corridor.If the trail is built, how would it be policed? ATV’s would run the cyclists off the trail. No motorized vehicles is not enforceable.

    Who will haul out the trash? “Carry it in, carry it out” ain’t going to work here folks. Who will pay for and provide emergency response?

    Perhaps the ASR should be replaced as the operator of the rails north of Thendara. Look at what the Saratoga and North Creek has accomplished since they took over from the Upper Hudson River RR.

    Hundreds of miles of rail have been removed from the North Country. Most of it economicly justified. However, I believe that removing the last rail corridor into the heart of the ADK Park is short sighted. Once the rails are removed, even if “rail banked”, they will never be put back.

    The trail might be a boost to the economy of Tupper and Saranac Lake, but I doubt it would have much significant impact anywhere else. The Lake Placid visitors want t-shirts and designer clothes.

    Too many unanswered questions and unrealistic projections still remain.

    The rails should stay.

    skw – SL NY

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Lake Champlain – I don’t remember if the Adirondack Almanack published my article raising questions about the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s business plan, but if you can’t find it in these pages, it’s available at the Adirondack Explorer’s website through this link. –Brian Mann, NCPR

    • Lake Champlain says:

      Brian, I heard the reports you had on the issue on NCPR and they were fair and balanced. There are financial arguments on both sides of the issue; I just felt this part posted on the A…almanack from the Adirondack Explorer emphasized the rail/trail costs. I still believe maintaining the railroad is a money pit. As for your reporting, keep up the excellent work.

  4. Running George says:

    Good God, snowmobile trails do not have to be everywhere… enough is never enough it seems. Keep the train.

  5. Bill Pisarello says:

    Thoughtful article. You raise several issues that no one else has given any consideration. It seems as though the practicalities of constructing and maintaining a trail have been lost in the vitriole of this fight between ARTA and the Train advocates. I continue to favor a trail over the train but I must concede that it is not as simple as ARTA would have us all believe.

  6. Paul says:

    Why is it certain that any money raised from scrapping the rails would go to a trail project?

    The DOT will probably use it for something like buying road salt!

    • Paul says:

      Funny I missed that before that comment:

      “But the group that lobbied for creation of the rail trail found that revenue from rail salvage was diverted into other projects.”

      But this would never happen in NYS.

    • Hope says:

      It is not certain but it was proposed by the State in the current Unit Management Plan that governs the corridor as one of the options to be considered. So, it is an option on the table along with others.

  7. Paul says:

    Whatever they decide it seems like some arrangement where you have a rail on part of the corridor and a trail on another part seems like a bad idea.

    It is a little like the Civil War. As Lincoln would say “It will become all one thing or all the other”.

  8. Rex says:

    I still don’t buy the premise that the railroad and a recreation trail are mutually exclusive. When the North Country was devastated by the hurricane several years ago, government at all levels and the private sector cut the red tape and worked collaboratively to put the roads and infrastructure back together. Let’s cut out the “either/or” nonsense and figure out a way to maintain the historic legacy of railroads in the Adirondacks while putting in a recreation trail along the right-of-way. If all the parties and stakeholders had put the organization, energy and creativity into pursuing a multi-use corridor, including and improving track maintenance, and promoting the railroad as well as other recreational uses, this probably would have been a done deal!

    • John Warren says:


      Thank you for your comment. The Almanack will be publishing an essay on this aspect of the issue next week. Please stay tuned.

      John Warren

      • Paul says:

        It will be interesting to see. I was under the impression that it is logistically impossible. At least within any reasonable budget. I support a “imaginary” hiker and paddler (along with tourist) train running along the whole line. That would also take some gargantuan efforts and funds. And some pretty sharp guys here (Tony Goodwin for example) have advised me that it probably doesn’t make any sense. Given what he knows when it comes to trails in the Adirondacks I almost have to defer to him. But I will continue to dream.

        Once the rails are removed any hope for something like that is certainly gone.

        I watch them lay down new rails in some places with these new automated machines. I wonder if this has been factored into the costs. Also the idea of changing the gauge to something smaller and using a smaller train might cost considerably less. This is never going to be a freight line anyway.

  9. Curt Austin says:

    Mr. Mann has pulled the curtain back on the expenses of a truly “world class” rail trail, such as those you see in brochures, and on the Trail of the Month page of the Rails to Trails Conservancy website.

    Those trail projects take a long time to reach that point, for various reasons, especially the arrival of funding opportunities. But they all started like the ARTA. There’s nothing wrong here.

    While ARTA may not be completely forthcoming about the long term nature of their project, railroad advocates have been disingenuous about the long term nature of their project since the 1970’s, and still are. That’s the big difference. Railroad advocates have believed for 50 years that a transportation system megatrend will soon reverse itself, that there will be a re-industrialization and that cars will become less popular. Trail advocates do not have to assert anything so unlikely – rail trails represent a trend in progress, likely to continue.

  10. Darrell Dammen says:

    Rigging Busses to travel this Rail way would be the most efficient and safest way for tourists to see this side of nature. Unlike a 150 ton Train engines and 60 ton rail cars. Busses only weigh about 20 tons so no rail work would be needed to start corridor tours ! Sign Me up for a Rail Trail Bus tour.

  11. Terry McLaughlin says:

    I don’t understand why hikers and paddlers are mentioned in order to justify a project. I paddle and camp in the primitive areas where it is free to camp. I bring my own supplies and don’t buy gasoline until my return trip on the Thru-way. Where is the profit for the businesses in the ADK from hikers and paddlers?

    • Paul says:

      Not everybody brown bags it like you. Some hikers choose to stay in a tent others choose a hotel in Lake Placid. It is only part of the economy but it is a part.

  12. What to do this weekend: 3/28/14 says:

    […] There’s an ongoing debate in the Adirondacks centered on the question of what’s a better tourist attraction: a rail trail or a working railroad. Adirondack Explorer has the details. […]

  13. […] There’s a debate brewing as to whether an old railroad in the Adirondacks should be converted to 60 miles of rail-to-trail, or retained as a tourist railroad. […]

  14. Tom says:

    Some trails in the Adirondacks are great for hiking, some for biking, some for snowmobiling and some for all. Some are good for driving (what’s a road, after all) and a few are good for a train.
    In the past 100 years we have gone from incredible resources of oil to maybe having enough 100 years in the future to lubricate the wheels of our grandchildren’s fusion cars.
    In the meantime, let’s keep a resource which could allow for efficient, more environmentally friendly (than auto) travel. Trails are great – but once the rails are torn out, they won’t be back. Roads cost far more money to maintain than any subsidy to this railroad.
    Let’s spend energy helping the railroad succeed rather than question its existence.

  15. Paul says:

    This idea that someone had above of putting some type of “railed vehicle” other than a big old train on the tracks is a pretty interesting idea.

    You could have a unique “green” way of transporting hikers and paddlers into some remote areas and still allow folks who just want to ride the thing as a tourist ride. Imagine some type of an electric vehicle that basically doesn’t make a sound cruising down the rails.

    This would a one-of-a-kind trip.

    Sure I know some will keep saying that you can drive to trail-heads or put-ins and access some of these areas but the idea here is an experience you can find nowhere else.

    • TiSentinel65 says:

      That’s a good point. Other scenic railways allow bikes to be brought on the train. The passengers then get off at a certain destination and then bike on. I am sure that would be a possibility to be explored.

      • NY Taxpayer says:

        The Adirondack Scenic Railroad already does this on the south end of the corridor from Thendara south for both canoe and bicycles. And the plan has always been the same once operations began between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake as well….

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