Friday, October 31, 2014

Would Rail Trail Cost Taxpayers $20M Or Nothing?

Adirondack Tourist Train (Susan Bibeau)The state Department of Transportation estimates that it would cost about $20 million to convert 70 miles of rail corridor between Big Moose and Lake Placid to a recreational trail.

Joe Hattrup says he can do it for free.

Hattrup asserts that the sale of the rails and other steel hardware would cover the costs of removing the tracks and creating a trail that could be used by snowmobilers in winter and cyclists in other seasons. The trail would have a stone-dust surface suitable for road bikes.

Hattrup is the president of the Iron Horse Preservation Society, a nonprofit group that specializes in converting rail lines into recreational trails. He says he has overseen 15 such projects since 2005.

“These things can pay for themselves. It’s not pie in the sky; the numbers don’t lie,” Hattrup told Adirondack Almanack.

The numbers, however, are very different from those presented by DOT at public meetings in Utica and Old Forge this week.

Iron Horse has provided a written cost estimate for the project to Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a nonprofit that favors removing the rails between Big Moose and Lake Placid. In this document, Hattrup estimates that selling rails and salvaging steel would bring in $5.7 million in revenue, whereas the removal of the rails and ties would cost $4.2 million.

That leaves $1.5 million to construct the trail. Hattrup puts this cost at $1.3 million, leaving about $200,000 for contingencies.

In contrast, DOT estimates that building a trail will cost $200,000 to $220,000 a mile, according to Ray Hessinger, director of the department’s Bureau of Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau.

Hessinger told crowds at this week’s meetings that the revenue from selling steel would not even cover the cost of removing and disposing the rails and ties. The shortfall would add $2.8 million to the expense of creating a trail.

DOT’s estimate assumes the ties would be taken to a landfill. Hattrup says he would take the ties to a facility that would shred them into wood chips for biomass fuel—a less-expensive method of disposal.

In any case, DOT reckons that it will cost $19.2 million to remove the tracks and build a trail. In addition, Hessinger said the state may be required to reimburse the federal government $2 million for grants that were used to upgrade sections of the corridor. Thus, the final cost could be as much as $21.2 million.

Jim McCulley, who sits on ARTA’s board, accused DOT of inflating the cost of the trail because the department favors the train. “I think DOT is obviously attempting to keep the railroad for unknown reasons. … They’re obviously attempting to deceive,” said McCulley, who also is president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Association.

At the Old Forge meeting, Hessinger said he was “confident of the numbers we put forward,” but he said DOT would look at the estimates of Iron Horse and others.

DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said today that “there is no truth” to the accusation that the department is cooking the numbers in favor of the railroad.

Adirondack Scenic Railroad operates tourist trains on the line near Old Forge and Lake Placid. It wants the state to rehabilitate the tracks between these two areas. DOT estimates this would cost $20.8 million.

ARTA contends that replacing the tracks between Big Moose (which is near Old Forge) and Lake Placid would create a world-class recreational trail that would benefit the regional economy. Under ARTA’s proposal, the railroad could continue to operate its Old Forge train, which has proven more popular than its Lake Placid train.

DOT and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have staked out a middle ground, proposing to replace the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake with a recreational trail and rehabilitate the tracks south of Tupper Lake.

Two more meetings on the proposal will be held next week: at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, from 6-8 p.m. November 6, and at the Olympic Regional Development Authority office in Lake Placid, from 1-3 p.m. November 7. Public comments also can be emailed through December 15 to

Photo by Susan Bibeau: Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s train approaches Saranac Lake.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

29 Responses

  1. James Falcsik says:

    If the state owns the the property, then I believe the Prevailing Wage laws of New York would apply to any contractor or sub contractor who was under contract to perform the demolition of the corridor. This would be considered a public works project.

    How does Mr. Hattrup’s labor rates line up with the state wage determinations? A comparative job for a private railroad would not be required to follow the prevailing wage laws. Could this be part of the difference in the two proposals?

  2. Phil Brown says:

    I am hoping to get an explanation from DOT after they have had time to review the proposal, but the wage laws and other state regulations might have a lot to do with it.

    • James Falcsik says:

      From the Bureau of Public Works:

      Question: What is Public Works?

      Answer: A three-prong test is applied to determine whether a particular project is public work and subject to the prevailing wage requirements of Labor Law § 220 and article I, § 17 of the State Constitution. First, a public agency must be a party to a contract involving the employment of laborers, workmen, or mechanics. Second, the contract must concern a project that primarily involves construction-like labor and is paid for by public funds. Third, the primary objective or function of the work product must be the use or other benefit of the general public.

      If the DOT does the work required to upgrade the corridor to Class II track work, I would expect the same to apply.

  3. Jim McCulley says:

    ARTA has said they will take over management of the trail and the construction. Just as ASR does not have to follow prevailing wage as a lease holder. The same should apply to ARTA.

    • James Falcsik says:

      There are no prevailing wage laws associated with the ASR operation; you are talking apples & oranges here Jim.

      The Heavy Highway classification for Construction work, or Demolition, may apply here, and I would think the New York State Dept. of Labor would have the answers.

      As long as the state owns the corridor, to manage or otherwise, ARTA could be a subcontractor and/or hire a subcontractor for demo and construction work. ARTA would likely have to file certified payrolls for all work involved. If the DOT sells the corridor to ARTA, or another non-public entity, what happens to all the travel corridor protections?

  4. common sense says:

    rail ties of this vintage contain creosote which is a carcinogen. It cannot be used as “biomass fuel” as the one guy suggests. That being said there may still be a market for them if they get pulled out intact. Of course it would be best for the state to keep the some rails and ties to support other State Land infrastructure. I know in our DEC region we use ties and rails for X-C ski bridges, bog bridges, foot bridges, and retaining walls.

    • Matt says:

      I just googled “biomass creosote railroad ties” and there were a bunch of results that convinced me that you can use them for biomass. It there something special about these that make you believe that are an exception?

      I also wonder why the state couldn’t develop a similar arrangement with a non-profit to lease the trail portion of the corridor to which can construct and maintain a trail, like they have with ASR. If prevailing wage doesn’t apply to ASR, it wouldn’t apply to this hypthetical non-profit. Would it?

      • James Falcsik says:

        Prevailing wage laws are based on the Davis/Bacon Act of 1935; it is a federal law brought about by unions to create a “fair playing field” when bidding construction projects that belong to government agencies. All the state have their own variations of the law, including New York. Wage determinations for each labor classification are based by region, and use the local union rates as a guideline. The bottom line is if the state owns the land, lease or not, any construction work to benefit the general public will be challenged to prevailing wage compliant.

        ASR is totally exempt, as are all third-party railroad operators that are contracted to operate a government owned railroad because they are not construction companies doing construction work. The prevailing wage laws primarily protect union construction workers. Any public works project, owned by the state, or even local municipalities, school districts, etc. will have to comply with the wage determinations and file certified payrolls for each labor classification. These laws have strict enforcement and steep penalties for scofflaws.

        If the DOT would make the decision to remove any rail in any section of the corridor, and if the project is “put out for bid like any other state project” it is very likely it will require all the prevailing wage regulations of the NY Bureau of Public Works and Dept. of Labor.

        If the DOT were to transfer ownership of any piece of the corridor, how may other agencies and environmental groups will get involved with that transaction?

        • Hope says:

          hopefully ASR paid prevailing wage to the contractors who replaced over 100 ties this summer between Lake Placid and Ray Brook after the derailment issues it had. There was definitely heavy construction going on there.

          • James Falcsik says:

            There are “maintenance” items that would be excepted, right in the guidelines, and the dollar values of the work have an impact on project qualifications. 100 ties on a repair job is not anywhere close to a state-sponsored project that requires miles of railroad demolition and trail construction. You are talking apples and oranges like other ARTA directors.

          • Hope says:

            And the total rebuild with Federal money between Carter Station and Big Moose. ASR paid for that also since the money flowed into their treasury and then to contractors.

  5. Hope says:

    ARTA has considered all of these issues and many others that have not been brought up. We have spoken with experts in this field and have been approached by other contractors interested in this project. A biomass fuel company has indicated they will take the ties. I don’t think that would be offered if it was not permitted. In any event most of the ties are almost dirt anyway.

    • James Falcsik says:

      Hope, you respond like ARTA owns the railroad corridor and will be making the decisions for the DOT. Has Ray Hessinger guaranteed ARTA they can have all title to the railroad salvage, if they even decide to pull up any part of the corridor? How do you know if you have even one tie to burn or one stick of rail to sell? Are all the contractors you have been in contact with pre-qualified to be able to bid to the State of New York, including the bio-mass fuel company? Do you have a written specification from the DOT to even present to a contractor interested in bidding on a state project? Without a written spec that includes wage determinations, your cost estimates are not trustworthy.

      • Hope says:

        We are well aware of who owns the corridor and so are our consultants. I think it is ASR who seem to forget the the corridor belongs to the taxpayer. We are doing our due diligence in researching construction costs and the use of salvage is listed as a possibility for trail financing in the 1996 UMP. Ultimately it will be up to NYS as to how they will proceed with the project. They have asked for our input and we are giving it. All you do is try to throw little red herrings into to mix instead of providing any substantive solutions to your dilemma of keeping the rails intact. Is that because you have none?

        • James Falcsik says:

          I have suggested solutions.

          First and foremost, do not remove economic assets that can’t be replaced once they are gone. Develop what you have to benefit the future of your community. There are plenty of existing trails to develop in the AP, according to some of your respected residents. Don’t limit your business community by removing one of their most important assets.

          I have no red herrings to present, only facts I can document to show ARTA’s plan is not built on solid ground. Don’t tell your community the trail will be free; trail development costs communities millions and for years to come. Economic prosperity does not follow all trail projects equally. I live in an area with plenty of legitimate rail-trail conversions, decades old, and economically distressed communities still exist along the trail. That is fact, not something I have made up. Overnight visitor projections are a smaller percentage of trail users; fact not fiction. I guess you regard ARTA founder Dick Beamish putting in print in two newspapers exaggerated overnight visitor numbers as a red herring? Wow.

          State projects require prevailing wages; I have example trail projects with their wage determinations; check out the Atlanta Beltway Trail and their requirements. You want to build a trail? Build one that fits the average user for about an hour a week, 6-7 miles in length. Don’t make up stories to destroy the ASR to gain traction for your plan. These are not red herrings, but an effort to fill in the part your organization refuses to address or present in order to have their support.

  6. Bruce says:

    Here’s an excerpt about the use of “stone dust,” quoted exactly as presented on the Erie Canalway Trail website.

    “The off-road segments of the Erie CanalwayTrail route have different surfaces. Most of the trail is surfaced in stone dust, although there are significant paved sections and a few “natural” segments. The stone dust surface is comprised of crushed limestone, which, when compacted and dry, is hard like pavement and is universally accessible. However, when newly installed or wet, it can ‘grab’ the narrow wheels of touring and racing bicycles and wheelchairs. Wheeled users should use caution under the above conditions. The asphalt surfacing is similar to most paved roads.

    Because stone dust is the most common surface type, wide tires are preferable for all types of bicycles and the use of a hybrid or mountain bike with non-knobby tires is recommended.”

    So, one of the big “draws” being touted for the Rail Trail is road bike use. Only when it’s dry, folks. And sections under the canopy in the deep forest may never dry out. Warning signs would need to be posted at each access point. When it’s warm, people like to get out shortly after a rain has passed, when the air feels clean and often more comfortable.

    • Matt says:

      I’ve ridden the Erie Canal trail on a road bike while it was wet with no problem. But my road bike has tires that are wider than racing tires. I can’t imagine anyone with racing tires wanting to leave pavement.

      I think the stone dust trails are good for mountain, hybrid, cyclocross and other road bikes with wider tires; basically all of the bikes you wouldn’t see on the side of route 3.

      • Bruce says:

        One big feature of the Erie Canal Trail is it is readily accessible by road along most of its length, and actually useable by most everyone.

        Because of the accessibility in many places, I believe there’s nothing wrong with an all-weather trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. On the other hand, I looked at the rail line between Old Forge and Tupper Lake on Google Earth, updated last year with better photos than a few years ago. There is a distinct lack of accessibility, making it far more suitable for rail use than as a trail. This fits in with the state’s proposal and reasoning, of having part rail, part trail, a little something for everyone.

        As far as snowmobile use goes, do riders want to spend hours in areas where a serious breakdown might mean a long, cold walk out, and to where? Looking at this year’s snowmobile map, there are existing trails going from practically anywhere, to anywhere else, with good access to civilization, restaurants and bars.

        One thing we have to remember about usage and economic growth projections, they are only predictions, and seldom live up to the hype.

        • Hope says:

          There are a total of 17 access points or turn arounds along the route from Big Moose To Tupper Lake ( a 44 mile section) including the 2 end points. Of those, 7 are public access points. The others are private access and/or snowmobile access points on either State of Private easements which may be utilized in certain situations. There is less access along the 44 mile canoe trip from Long Lake to Tupper Lake. Not to mention other outdoor trips such as trips into the High Peaks or hiking the Northville-Placid trail. Access is another red herring.

          • Paul says:

            This is a good long distance snowmobile trail not a family bike trail as advertised?

            • Hope says:

              Paul, don’t kid yourself. We have heard from many families who are chomping at the bit for a long distance bike ride with their kids along either on their own bikes or ones that are attached to their parents. There are plenty of parents and grandparents who are looking forward to it. This is the type of activity that should be encouraged by providing these types of venues. There is a plethora of bicycles, trailers, attachments and other bicycling equipment available for this type of excursion. We were riding our bikes, with my toddler in a bike seat, into Low’s Upper Dam back in the day. He’s 28 now and a very good outdoorsman to boot.

        • Hope says:

          Actually, when it is rideable hundreds of snowmobilers do in fact ride it. Counters placed by DOT on the corridor show that over 500 riders per day rode the corridor during a weekend when the was enough snow to cover the rails. The counters also showed that virtually no riders were on the corridor in low snow conditions.

  7. Paul says:

    ” Hattrup says he would take the ties to a facility that would shred them into wood chips for biomass fuel—a less-expensive method of disposal.”

    I thought these things are soaked in creosote? Can you really burn them w/o it being a nasty mess?

    “fuel-a less-expensive”???

  8. Hope says:

    Creosote burns really well. The reality is that the ties are pretty well shot and dried out. What you can’t burn as biomass are pressure treated ties. Those have to go to a landfill or be recycled.

  9. Scott says:

    At some point they need to disclose that impact of the tons of broadcast herbicide they apply to the width of the rail bed over the length of the corridor, not even caring about the economic cost but the environmental cost of spreading this much herbicide over such a large area every year. Why is nobody discussiong this ?