Let reason prevail in rail vs. trail

In earlier commentaries, I discussed the massive freight-hauling capacity of modern railroads and the inability of the Tri-Lakes region to ship or receive rail freight in quantities sufficient to sustain efficient or economically viable freight rail service. I also warned of the serious health risks of emissions from off-road diesels, especially older diesel locomotives.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, “Ultrafine particles are found in fresh diesel exhaust and linger nearby, generally within 100 meters (or 300 feet) of a diesel source like a roadway,” increasing health risks involving the heart, lungs, cancer, hypertension, neurotoxicity and perinatal health. Again, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation has resulted in dramatic reductions in emissions from on-road diesel engines, while off-road diesel engines have only been regulated by EPA since 2005. Large diesel engines in old locomotives are among the worst sources of diesel pollution.

If railroad service was ever restored between Lake Placid and Old Forge/Thendara, potential “hot spot” locations for diesel locomotive health risks along this corridor would include near the train station in Lake Placid, the Saranac Lake Golf Club, both Ray Brook correctional facilities and nearby homes, Saranac Village at Will Rogers, North Country Community College, and numerous homes and businesses near the tracks in Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake. Obviously, a recreational trail built next to an active rail corridor would be one continuous “hot spot” for health risks. (Newer, EPA-regulated diesel locomotives would be prohibitively expensive, costing more than a million dollars each.)

So the question remains: how best to use the corridor from Lake Placid to Old Forge to serve our region’s needs?

As for passenger rail service, the most efficient route from New York City to Lake Placid definitely does not pass near Old Forge. Instead, if one draws a straight line from Saranac Lake or Lake Clear to Old Forge, it aims towards a sparsely populated region with Utica (population 62,235) and Syracuse (population 145,151) as the closest population centers. Amtrak does not provide service to Scranton, Wilkes-Barre or Binghamton, which means that passengers riding a train past Old Forge would all be traveling significantly out of their way to reach the Tri-Lakes region by rail. This is not the basis for an efficient transportation plan for the region.

Doesn’t it make much more sense to take advantage of potential passenger rail opportunities from the heavily populated eastern seaboard? After all, this is where a very large proportion of our visitors and second-home owners come from. We should be expanding use of Amtrak’s existing, state-subsidized Adirondack passenger rail service to Westport by reducing delays in that service and adding another train. We should also provide comfortable, efficient motor-coach service from Westport to the Tri-Lakes region. And Amtrak needs to make its trains more bicycle friendly.

As for wasted resources and lost opportunities, New York state has estimated the cost of restoring the rail infrastructure at $43 million. But merely restoring the infrastructure would not ensure efficient rail service within this corridor. Once in place, the infrastructure would need to be actively maintained by a dedicated team using heavy equipment and supplies. Intensive (and expensive!) maintenance is required if the tracks and rail bed are to withstand the weight of 286,000-pound rail cars on an ongoing basis.

Another cost would involve unused resources. There are compelling reasons to doubt the viability of passenger or freight rail service along the Lake Placid-Old Forge corridor. If taxpayers at the state and federal level are socked to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars to restore and subsidize rail service here for the next 20 years, we will likely see “ghost trains” carrying little freight and few passengers. In time, the railroad ties will rot again. In the unlikely event that rail service actually is needed in our region in 50 or 100 years, taxpayers will again need to replace the deteriorated and obsolete infrastructure. By then, the emerging standard of 315,000-pound rail cars will likely have been adopted, and perhaps superceded by even heavier rail cars, necessitating a complete re-engineering of the rail bed.

By restoring rail service, we would gain nothing while squandering resources that could be put to far better use now.

Another significant cost of restoring rail service to the Tri-Lakes is the lost-opportunity cost of foregoing a recreational trail along that corridor. Three recent studies (one by the rail promoters) have shown that a recreational trail will provide significantly greater economic benefits than restored rail service. In a misguided attempt to revive rail service along this corridor, we would forfeit the extraordinary economic and quality-of-life benefits of a world-class recreational trail.

The debate over rail or trail has at times strayed from reason. There is a mechanism at our disposal to resolve this in a rational manner, which most local governments along the corridor have heartily endorsed. The review of the state’s unit management plan for the rail corridor is long overdue. The state can make this a well-documented, orderly process where all interested parties will be heard. Gov. Cuomo, who sees intelligent tourist development as a key to economic advancement here, should logically support the UMP review.

After the UMP review is completed, we must work together to implement that plan to best serve our region’s needs. It’s the way to forge new bonds of cooperation to meet the very real needs of the people who live here.

David Banks lives in Lake Clear and is a member of the board of directors of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.