It is certainly unfortunate that the debate concerning the Adirondack Railroad has continued for as long as it has. One would surely think that adults, objective in their analyses and wishing for the greatest good as an outcome, could have solved this long ago but, no. There is even a renewed attack from the trail advocates.
We had hoped that after the resounding success in the courts and the unambiguous decision of State Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Main, that we could begin talks to successfully implement the 1996 Unit Management Plan and not continue the bickering. So let’s take another look. Several economic studies have been undertaken over the past years using data from Essex County and NYS publications. Assessed by outside, independent consultancies, the conclusions are clear.
Improving and completing the line and allowing rail access to the north would create as much as a $30-35 million impact along the corridor, largely at the north end. In contrast, converting the line to a trail, and quoting the Camoin study commissioned by the predecessor to Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) and used by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as well, there would likely be no economic gain from THIS trail. In addition, NYS Parks and Recreation, in an earlier study of a diverse number of similar New York trails, concluded that such trails generally provide little if any economic gain to the communities in which they reside (review exhibits A pg. 20 and J pg. 53, Adirondack Railway Preservation Society vs. NYS APA, DEC, DOT etc., April 2016).
The corridor, located as it is, passes through a number of counties, mostly depressed and languishing with few opportunities and a questionable future excepting those at the highest levels of economic and social position. The Stone Consulting report states, among other things, that rehabilitation of the railroad would create 563 jobs, 225 of which would remain permanent as a result of increased tourism demand. Merchants in Saranac Lake have been quick to support reintroduction of the rail bike business but also to ask when the train would be coming back. This from the local Chamber as well! What part of this is hard to understand?
The notion of historic preservation is important to this as well, and although it is a long and philosophical discussion, it is no doubt worth remembering that numerous regional and state organizations have loudly supported the continued rail service anticipated by the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. Similarly, rail transportation is accepted as environmentally friendly. We routinely carry 1500-2000 passengers each week from Utica to Old Forge/Thendara to shop, dine, and otherwise vacation. And guess what? No cars, trucks, pollution, noise, or parking!
The recent commentaries in local media by Tony Goodwin and Jim McCulley beg correction. Of particular note are the postings that have been sent to me regarding payments from NYS for vehicles which we operate. It seems that somewhere along the line our critics failed to notice that most if not all of the vehicles used to maintain and clean the corridor are owned by NYS. So, of course we submit for reimbursement whatever we spend. Likewise for the workers who perform the work. They are employed by us, but in any instance where the work is done to state-owned property, their hours are submitted under a contractual agreement with DOT. Stated any other way would be very misleading to an uninformed reader who would probably draw the wrong conclusions.
Additionally, I am not really sure why NYS grants, from which we have benefited from time to time, are an ugly topic. Didn’t Saranac Lake just receive $10,000,000 to tidy up the village? That really doesn’t cause additional tourism, unlike the Railroad which actively brings people to the streets. It had been pointed out that the Adirondack couldn’t possibly run an actual passenger service and coordinate with AMTRAK. That is simply untrue. We have many passengers now who arrive by train to Utica’s Union Station who are thrilled with what our critics contend is a boring and too lengthy ride. Oh really?
It would seem to me that all of us have better things to do than continue this tortuous back and forth. There are answers to all of this of course, but a recent article concerning the APA and the Governor’s vice-like grip is more than telling. That grip extends to every agency in the state and suffocates the initiative and common sense of the many good, honest state employees at all levels from making sound business decisions. There is no mistake about this and it is reflected in the successful legal action against the state agencies whose leaders and employees were compromised by a dictate that only makes sense in a political context. Read the Judge’s decision, or better yet, if you have time to kill, read the entire legal submission. Judge Main got it right. The state could not defend its actions or appeal the ruling. The Governor’s position is now and was then specious. The consequence is that the punishment being meted out to the North Country and its residents and visitors is startling at a time when economic re-invigoration must be the order of the day. Witness the recent developments near Lake George. The railroad already exists. It has a 25-year record of success and would be a model for the nation if only politics and egos would get out of the way.
And then there is Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and its wrongheaded attempt to redefine a travel corridor. When the first lawsuit was brought, it was thought to be a success because the state was clearly attempting something that was in fact found to be unlawful. Now, whether it was following orders or in fact a product of unclear, bureaucratic thinking at DEC, a new run at the law might materialize to yet again test the concepts of arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion. Calling a red car blue because I want only blue cars really doesn’t work by pronouncing that henceforth red will be known as blue. Similarly, as the saying goes, teaching pigs to fly is doomed to fail and will only result in aggravated pigs. Of significance was the APA comment period when sixty percent of the written comments favored the railroad proposal and the 1996 UMP. In spite of that, reference continues to be made to the 2016 UMP which was annulled and vacated by the courts. There is no such thing as a 2016 UMP.
The Adirondack Railroad is operated largely by volunteers and is a not-for-profit organization. We don’t have the time, money, personnel, or interest in being a punching bag for a few well-funded self-interests. Ignoring the potential good that can come from building it to its potential is not only short-sighted, but wrong. The ingredients for success are clearly staring squarely in the face of anyone who cares to look. Isn’t it time to move on and execute on the 1996 Management Plan?
Speaking directly to this topic, and after a meeting with a high level DEC official a few months ago, I believed that progress was near. Both sides explained what it would take to create a viable product and plans were made for a soon-to-follow meeting. And then silence! Perhaps the state has good intentions, but if so, they aren’t apparent. And as a reminder, the Governor promised to rehabilitate the track and fund that project in April of 2016. What happened?
Photo provided by Adirondack Scenic Railroad.