Thursday, July 1, 2021

ARTA to NYS: Let’s speed up the rail trail construction

tearing up the tracks

“Use and misuse of the travel corridor through the Adirondacks.” That’s the subject of a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo from Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, the nonprofit that’s been working for many years to establish a 90-mile recreational trail through the Adirondack Park from Lake Placid to Old Forge. ARTA achieved partial success when the state announced its grand compromise back in 2015 — 34 miles of the old railroad line would be converted to a year-round recreational trail linking Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. The rest of the state-owned “travel corridor” would be devoted to creating the longest tourist train ride in the country.

On one side, the compromise meant connecting the Tri-Lakes with a multi-use trail that will add a new recreational dimension to the Adirondack Park. This was a clear win for residents and visitors, based on the comparable Virginia Creeper Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia.

The Creeper Trail is the same length as the Adirondack Rail Trail and runs through similar terrain. It enriches the local quality of life, encourages physical fitness and good health, and provides an economic boost for the “rail towns” along the way. Town officials estimate that the Creeper Trail attracts some 250,000 residents and visitors a year who account for an estimated $25 million in local spending. People of all ages and abilities use the trail, many on a daily basis. They ride bikes, jog, hike, stroll, watch birds, walk dogs, push baby buggies. All enjoying the fresh air in a natural setting of woods, waterways and mountains — on a trail well removed from the hassle and dangers of road traffic.

A problem of timing

This sounds like something we can expect from the Adirondack Rail Trail, which will connect the Tri-Lakes area as it’s never been connected before. The immediate problem, however, relates to timing. Yes, the Adirondack Rail Trail is coming, and that’s cause for celebration. But it is taking much too long. State officials announced last fall that the rail-to-trail conversion won’t be completed until the end of 2024. That’s four years to convert just one section of a railroad line through the Adirondacks that was completed in 1892 and constructed IN ITS ENTIRETY IN 18 MONTHS!

Bottom line: For every year the Adirondack Rail Trail is postponed, the quality-of-life benefits are postponed. Ditto with the economic benefits which, if the Creeper Trail is any indication, could exceed $20 million a year in tourism revenue. “This delay represents a lost economic and recreational opportunity and a disservice to Adirondack residents and visitors,” ARTA informed the governor.

The letter also questioned New York’s decision to extend a tourist train 45 miles north from Big Moose to Tupper Lake “at a cost of more than $30 million.” On the surface, this 2015 compromise — extended tourist train service here, a rail trail there — was intended to placate everyone. But closer scrutiny reveals what is shaping up as an embarrassing government boondoggle. While the rail trail will be win-win for the northern portion of the travel corridor, the extension of the little-used train service on the southern portion will likely be lose-lose.

Upside-down priorities

For starters, the state’s priorities are upside-down. The train extension is scheduled for completion this year, but the rail-to-trail conversion will take four years to complete. A more fundamental question relates to the demand for an extended tourist train. No serious financial analysis or ridership study has been undertaken on what will be the longest tourist train ride in the United States — 120 miles from Utica in central New York to Tupper Lake in the northern Adirondacks. At a regulated top speed of 30 mph, this will be a nine-hour round-trip.

“How much repeat business would this extended service attract?” ARTA asked Gov. Cuomo. “How many potential customers would take this long, slow trip even once, especially with children in tow?”

Then there’s the matter of who will operate the tourist train. The current licensee, Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, is functionally bankrupt and burdened with a long history of questionable results, including the train that operated sporadically between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for 15 years. The company’s liabilities exceeded assets in every year for which its tax filings are available, the last being 2017, and its tax returns have not been made available since then. Even the company’s auditors have questioned “the organization’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Governor urged to act

ARTA urged the governor to undertake the following actions:

1. Accelerate construction of the Adirondack Rail Trail … by earmarking the requisite funding and lining up a general contractor to complete the trail by the end of 2022.

2. Delay rail restoration north of Big Moose until an adequate economic and environmental analysis can be completed, including realistic projections of ridership.

3. Do not spend more taxpayer money (in the unlikely event of a favorable economic analysis) until a competent, financially stable operator has been selected.

4. Establish a management organization that can bring the relevant municipalities together to coordinate the operation and promotion of the Adirondack Rail Trail — an essential step for successful rail trails elsewhere.

Though it’s late in the game, there’s still time for the state to do this right.

Photo: Work is underway in the Saranac Lake area to remove the railroad tracks and replace them with a bike trail. Photo by Mike Lynch

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Dick Beamish

Dick Beamish was a staff member of the Adirondack Park Agency from 1972-78 and the founder of Adirondack Explorer. He now lives in Middlebury, VT; he was a founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA).




36 Responses

  1. Joan Grabe says:

    The fact that Dick Beamish even has to write a letter like this to the governor is ridiculous after all this time. The rail trail was and is a great idea – the train was always a joke – a subsidized joke. 9 hours from Utica to Tupper Lake ? In the relatively short time we have summered in the Adirondacks I have heard a lot of iffy ideas but this takes the proverbial cake.

  2. Joel says:

    “They ride bikes, jog, hike, stroll, watch birds, walk dogs, push baby buggies. All enjoying the fresh air in a natural setting of woods, waterways and mountains — on a trail well removed from the hassle and dangers of road traffic.”

    That’s fine, as long as their are no snomobiles with their noise and gas pollution.
    Unless they are battery-driven electrics!

    • Scott Thompson says:

      Snowmobiles are the biggest economic generators outside the immediate ORDA area and for most of the Adirondack Winter. Snowmobiles are over 4x as efficient as they were30 years ago and yes, electrics are being tested, saw three last winter. But, they are already using it corridor, the train is just added noise and pollution and much more than snowmobiles ( see youtube videos). On call transportation, taxis, busses, one way pick up cars are the least efficient transportation out there.

  3. upstater says:

    Anything that facilitates fewer automobiles in the Adirondacks is a good thing. Does the State of New York massively subsidize car travel in the Adirondacks? Of course! Has Mr. Beamish ever been to a place like Switzerland and see was car free travel in a mountain setting is like? Or perhaps he is an enthusiastic snowmobiler that needs a 120 mile sled run in a couple of hours?

    • Scott Thompson says:

      May be so, but the train weight demands there are over 100 passengers to equal the efficiency of private cars and then what about getting where you want to go?

    • Dana says:

      Great for Switzerland!! But then, they aren’t a country with the combination of nearly 300 million automobiles, many thousands of miles of roads, and cheap gas.

    • MICHAEL DUMAS says:

      Simple solution, move to Switzerland!…send us a postcard.

      • Daniel Bogdan says:

        A better solution for hikers and bikers, visit the Virginia Creeper trail instead. Then we don’t have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on the Tupper/LP trail. Don’t bother with the postcard.

  4. Tom B says:

    I have been in the area in Virginia many times hiking where the Creeper Trail is passes through, and the trail appears to be very popular with cyclists. One trip I stayed at a hostel in Damascus the day before starting a hike and the owner told me that most of their business year round is from cyclists from all over the country that come to ride the Creeper. As I was hiking the next day, the hiking trail went along the Creeper for quite a ways, and through the woods, I saw many groups of people pedaling along the trail. At one point there were outfitters lined up with bike trailers full, dropping people with their bikes to ride one way back to the start. I believe that a multi-use trail of 90+ miles would become extremely popular with cyclists, hikers, skiers and snow mobilers.

  5. Pete says:

    When the rail trail is complete, I will make a special trip to go ride it on my mountain bike. And I will probably ride my snowmobile as well. Maybe ll the way up if there is enough snow on the rails from OF up or maybe unloading at Tupper. Most likely stopping ant one or more local establishments. I’ve never ridden the tourist train and probably won’t, but I’ll probably be on the rail trail more than once.

  6. LeRoy Hogan says:

    May be they are having a hard time finding a nice place in the Catskills to dump all the rail road ties. Never any mention of rail road tie dumping.

    • wbb says:

      If you had read the Tupper Free Press this week you would have your answer. All the rail ties will be removed and sold outside of NYS per DEC regulaions.

  7. Larry Roth Larry Roth says:

    Go ahead and pull out all the tracks all the way back to Thendara. Then watch what happens next: war between the Forever Wild side and the Snowmobilers as the fight to create the Bob Marshall Wilderness and drive snowmobilers out of it explodes.

    The only reason Cuomo didn’t take all of the tracks is that the whole purpose of the ‘compromise’ was to turn the travel corridor into a snowmobile superhighway – and he needs the tracks between Tupper and Big Moose to keep the wilderness advocates at bay.

    Dick Beamish has wanted the railroad gone for decades – he won’t be happy until it is.

  8. Paul says:

    This is over. The ARTA people got what they wanted and there was a compromise made. Now they already want the state to consider reneging on the deal? It’s done, give it up. No more letters, no more stories, this is a dead horse!

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      Because ARTA did NOT get what they wanted, it won’t be over until the *** lady stops singing. And Albany still has receptive ears.

      In my opinion, before the argument goes further, NYS taxpayers need to revisit which, IF ANY, motor vehicles they want in the Forest Preserve and come up with a comprehensive constitutional amendment to specify whether, where, and how to implement same. If the taxpayers (not Albany) do not want ANY motorized vehicles in the backcountry of the FP, we need to ascertain this before throwing more money around on such projects.

  9. Paul says:

    Also, come to Saranac Lake and check out the construction of the trail. Why do we need an “acceleration”? It looks like they are making good progress. “Lining up a contractor”? Who is doing all this work now?

  10. \Joe Mercurio says:

    Why do we need an “acceleration” of the trail, Paul asks? Here’s why, Paul. The rail rehabilitation from Tupper Lake south to Big Moose is to be completed, we are told, by the end of 2021. Wow! The 34 mile long multi-use recreational Rail Trail from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid, on the other hand, is not expected to be completed until the end of 2024. Wow!

  11. Keith Gorgas says:

    Dick Beamish is a gifted writer and a pleasant man to be around. I always found him to be knowledgeable and honest in any business dealings I had with him. However, he spent time in his illustrious career as Minister of Miss-Information at the APA, and some of that continues to cling to him. There are numerous factual errors in what he has written here, along with distortions, obfuscations, partial truths, and red herrings.
    I hope that in the interest of truth, the Adirondack Almanack will solicit a response from those who support restored rail transportation to and from the Northern Adirondacks. ,

  12. Michael Fairhaff says:

    COMPROMISE; Get it? Everybody gets something. No wonder these are such volatile times. Another study? NYS DEC and DOT did the study. Same cost to construct the rail trail and restore the railroad. Economic impact of a rail trail from Thendara/Big Moose to Tupper Lake? Nothing can be built along the corridor there. The corridor does not access Long Lake village or Raquette Lake village. Cyclists and hikers (including families and those with disabilities) would travel many, many miles without services, subjected to quickly changing Adirondack weather. Of course, snowmobilers could zip along even faster. Removal of the rails might allow snowmobile travel for another two weeks. No access until after hunting season, and snow is sketchy by the end of March. If nothing else, RR service will provide the only access to those wilderness lands for disabled veterans and others with self-mobility issues.
    I’m familiar with the Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT). It’s a shining example of rail trail success finished in 1989, named by Congress a National Recreation Trail, and inducted into the National Rail Trail in 2014. It is distinctly different from the Adk RR corridor. It runs 17 miles through two main towns, Abingdon (three stops/trailheads) and Damascus (five stops/trailheads), and then another 17 miles to Whitetop Station, near the summit terminus of the VCT. Damascus bills itself as “Trail Town USA, where seven nationally known trails intersect within our borders”. It is a major trailhead of the Appalachian Trail. VCT is within two hours drive of two million people in the metro areas of Roanoke, Knoxville, Ashville and Winston-Salem NC, and within 3-4 hours of another million in Chattanooga, TN and Lexington, KY. According to the current Virginia.org website, “Over 150,000 people use the trail annually… The most popular activity on the trail is a pleasant, 17-mile bike ride from Whitetop Station to Damascus.” That segment is downhill, dropping 1,600 ft.
    There is a plan. Sorry if it’s not quick enough for some. VCT took 11 years to plan and build. Accept the compromise. It’s a win… it doesn’t have to be a slaughter.

    • Steve B. says:

      It’s a no brainer to speed up the trail conversion. It really should not take 3 more years to pull up rail and ties and lay down hard packed dirt and gravel. This could be done in a year if they change the contract. They built the 22 mile Maybrook Trail in Putnam/Duchess county, paved, in about a year and half. Maybrook and its northern extension – Duchess Rail Trail are just seeing a ton of users. Good for local business it seems.

  13. Todd Eastman says:

    Good letter Dick!

    Thanks for the continuing efforts…

  14. David Banks says:

    The tourist train from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake was somewhere between “disappointing” and “a dismal failure.” The line from Utica to Tupper Lake would be the longest in the nation, with no example elsewhere to demonstrate–or even suggest–its viability. The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society appears to be on the brink of failure—BEFORE they expand operations—but we can’t know because of their secrecy. They are seeking to raise capital to expand, but with little success, as they desperately solicit for volunteers to perform jobs that should be staffed with skilled, experienced workers.

    Would a competent state government “invest” tens of millions of dollars into such a costly enterprise with such an unsuitable partner when the excellent option of an expanded rail-trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge is available?
    https://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/opinion/guest-commentary/2021/06/gov-cuomo-pull-plug-on-rail-rehab-south-of-tupper-lake/

    • Boreas says:

      David,

      I just read your article in the ADE. Very thoughtful!

      I would like to add one possibility that has not been considered, to my knowledge. What about the STATE take over the train by a group such as the Throughway Authority or Canal Authority? If the taxpayers are going to be on the hook for an ongoing rail endeavor, why not have them run the RR as well? If the State’s resources can’t make it work within a few years, what chance will a private entity have? Perhaps BOTH entities could operate on the line providing complementary services. Otherwise, I don’t see the AR being any more successful than their past record indicates.

      • Steve B. says:

        State Government does not want to be in business for train rides. They want to scale back services whenever possible, get rid of state employees, not pay health care and pensions, etc…. they want private business to take on these kinds of activities, I’m certain that if they could get away with it, they would privatize the DEC campgrounds. They are certainly not taking on a tourist train that they are aware is a losing proposition.

  15. David Banks says:

    Good government is not about “compromise” that consists of little more than splitting the difference–with little regard for the objective merits of competing proposals. Instead, leadership involves objective quantitative and qualitative assessment of alternatives, and demonstrating the courage to do the right thing.

    Would any competent assessment of extending the rail line to Tupper Lake justify spending taxpayer funds on such a project, particularly when ARPS has been shrouded in financial warnings, secrecy, and indignation for so many years?

    The best way to protect ARPS from bankruptcy would likely be to limit them to the section of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor south from Thendara.

  16. Boreas says:

    MEANWHILE, Tupper Lake is in left in limbo – no rail and no trail. No benefit from work being held up on either end. How does TL spend its limited money in preparation for a something that “may” happen. TL needs to be able to plan for something concrete – not a “2024” bike trail and a “possible” rail venture to the south. What infrastructure should it put in place? I feel sorry for the task of their planning board.

  17. No motor/No money says:

    After you have received support from the Snowmobile community you now want to cut them out. The article mentions $25 million in estimated local spending. West Virginia’s Hatfield & McCoy ATV trails generate $22 million in local spending and employ 250 year round people. Do you really think that the hikers and bikers can generate more tourism dollars than the Hatfield & McCoy trails can?

  18. JohnL says:

    I’m only away for a week and I come back to the 300th ‘article’ on rails and trails and lions and tigers and bears…oh my!
    BTW. Happy 4th of July everyone. Whether it’s rails or trails or whatever, be thankful we live in the greatest country in the world.

  19. Gary Sawyer says:

    I live in CT and for the past few years I have traveled several times to the Adirondacks. I am a supporter of rail trails and would welcome the opportunity to bike on an Adirondacks trail.

    I agree with the action steps outlined in this article and look forward to your success.

  20. ben says:

    16 trips Utica – Thendara, with last trip Oct 16th. 16 polar express trips, Utica to Holland Patent. 37 trips, Old Forge – Otter Lake. NOTHING – Old Forge to Big Moose!

    This is the best they can do. $60.00 bucks for a family of the to ride a train from Thendara to Otter Lake & back, when you can drive the distance in less than 30 minutes!

    They are responsible for the entire corridor & this is what the state gets. How much money was spent rehabbing the rails line between Thendara & Big Moose for what NO Trains using it! Supposedly they are replacing 84,000 rail ties for what a train that will be out of business before they ever run a train to Tupper Lake. They’ve only raised 38K according to their donation page. When will the state wake up & put them out of their misery!

    • - says:

      The railbikes are occupying the track between Thendara and Big Moose. That is a separate company under the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. Bikes are hard to get and are sold out for weeks into the future.

      Stop leaving out important information to grow your point and make sure your facts are right too.

  21. Alb says:

    jogging, walking…..biking trail….. take a trip for yourselves and you will see how this will play out. Dirtbikes and quads have already taken over.

    “well, it will be patrolled”
    Ha
    ….yeah….

  22. A local says:

    I have seen nothing about parking and lodging. Once the trail is opened and NYS advertises the heck out of it, where will the thousands park their vehicles and where will they stay? Haven’t we learned from the horrendous situation at the trailheads? And will this mean even more air b&b lodging, which translates to even less housing for locals?

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