If you’ve been following the debate over the Old Forge-to-Lake Placid rail corridor (and who hasn’t?), you probably have seen the widely disparate estimates on how much it would cost to restore rail service over the entire line.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad says reconstructing the unused portion of the tracks—some sixty-eight miles—would cost about $15 million. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), which is pushing the state to replace the tracks with a multi-use trail, puts that figure at around $44 million.
Which figure is correct?
They both are.
In 2008, the state Department of Transportation published a report that contained a wish list of rail improvements all over the state. It included nine projects for the Adirondack rail corridor, totaling $45.7 million. Two of these projects—the construction of a repair shop in Utica and the purchase of two rail cars—have nothing to do with track upgrades. Thus, ARTA subtracted the cost of these projects, about $2 million, to arrive at its estimate of $44 million, give or take.
Of the remaining seven projects, the most expensive is track reconstruction, estimated at $15 million. This is what DOT thought it would cost to rehab the unused portion of the corridor to the Class II rail standard. This is the standard of tracks in Old Forge and Lake Placid, where Adirondack Scenic Railroad operates seasonal tourist trains.
The other six projects, totaling $28.7 million, are work that would be required if the corridor were upgraded further to Class III. This would include, for example, the installation of signals at highway crossings and safety improvements to accommodate faster trains.
ARTA includes the Class III upgrades in its estimate, but the Adirondack Scenic Railroad does not.
Tony Goodwin, one of ARTA’s board members, contends it would make little sense to upgrade the line just to Class II standards. In that case, a passenger train would be allowed to travel only 30 miles an hour at most. A Class III train, in contrast, can travel up to 60 miles an hour. Goodwin doubts that many people would want to ride the slower train from Utica to Lake Placid since the trip would take six hours–about twice as long as by car.
“If they can go only half the speed of a vehicle, it’s still just a tourist train,” Goodwin said.
But a tourist train seems to be all that Adirondack Scenic Railroad has in mind, at least for the near future.
“This is supposed to be a scenic adventure. Nobody is going to be speeding through the woods,” said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the railroad.
The railway society hired Stone Consulting to revisit the DOT estimate. Last year, the firm came up with a figure of $15.2 million to restore the tracks to Class II standards. Thus, despite the passage of five years (and, presumably, inflation), Stone Consulting’s estimate is almost identical to DOT’s. However, six miles of track leading to Big Moose had been fixed up in the interim.
Which is the fairer figure to use, ARTA’s or the railroad’s, will depend on your point of view.
ARTA contends that a wide, smooth trail that could be used by bicyclists and hikers in spring, summer, and fall and by snowmobilers in winter would attract far more visitors than the tourist train and do far more for the region’s economy.
If that’s the case, spending $15 million to upgrade the tracks (on top of annual maintenance costs) might seem like a bad deal.
“If it’s just a recreational train, they’re selfishly tying up the corridor when it could be used for other purposes all year-round,” Goodwin said.
Yet the Adirondack Scenic Railroad argues that ARTA is exaggerating the economic benefits of a trail and that the train has a proven record as a tourist attraction. Furthermore, it says it will do more for the region if allowed to operate over the full line.
The state, which owns the rail corridor, has proposed removing the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake (34 miles) and upgrading the tracks south of Tupper Lake. If this proposal is adopted, Adirondack Scenic Railroad will have to shut down the train that runs between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, but the Old Forge train could continue to operate and, perhaps, eventually run all the way to Tupper Lake.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Transportation say they will reopen the corridor’s management plan and hold meetings later this year to gather public input.
Beau Duffy, a DOT spokesman, cautioned that the cost figures in the 2008 report were rough estimates made without engineering analyses. As part of the forthcoming review, he said, the department will prepare a more detailed analysis of the cost of refurbishing the line.