Who’s holding the region hostage?

Ms. Joan McDonald, commissioner

New York State Department of Transportation

50 Wolf Road

Albany, NY 12232

Dear Commissioner McDonald:

I am writing in concern for a letter that was sent to your office from Ms. Hope Frenette of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates concerning the Strategic Transportation Enhancements Program grant application from the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. This letter contains several statements that are, at best, misleading, and I would like to ensure that accurate information is presented.

The first concern is the 11,000-plus people who have signed a petition that has been presented by the ARTA for an extended period of time. The wording of this petition has been called into question by many people, including some of the people who have signed it, concerning the accuracy of the use of the travel corridor at this time.

The second concern is the presentation of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad is far more than a “small group of train buffs who have only their own hobby at heart and are doing whatever necessary to hold our communities hostage by insisting on keeping this tourist train limping through the Adirondacks on the backs of New York state taxpayers with no discernible economic benefit,” as Ms. Frenette wrote.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad is supported by a large number of people, both inside and outside of the region, and is operated by a large and dedicated group of people from the region and all walks of life who are working toward the improvement of the regional economy. The volunteers include people who are just as passionate about trains as Ms. Frenette is about trails, and other people who have only a passing interest in railroads. More than 13,850 volunteer hours were logged last season with 70,777 total boardings in the 2012 operating season. Of the total boardings, 22,787 were for the Lake-Placid-to-Saranac-Lake section of the rail line. This compares with 56,326 total boardings in 2012 and 66,844 total boardings in 2011. The railroad also directly employs 21 people during operating season, (May to December) with a smaller staff during the winter. Numbers for actual economic impact from riders of the train are not available at this time. A non-scientific interview/study program was conducted among business operators in Saranac Lake and Thendara/Old Forge in the summer of 2012. All of the operators interviewed indicated an increase in business with the arrival of the train.

If any group is holding our communities hostage, it is the ARTA.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad and their supporters have from the beginning always supported a shared-use corridor with the construction of a year-round, mulit-use recreational trail alongside of the right of way. ARTA has been invited to participate and assist in this endeavor but has refused to even discuss the issue with the railroad. Instead ARTA has directed a great deal of its efforts to prevent any further rehabilitation of the rail line. This effort includes attacking and ridiculing people who show support for the rail line, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Mr. Dick Beamish, one of the directors of the ARTA, submitted an opinion piece which was published in 2012 and attacked the North Country Regional Economic Council and its director solely on the basis of support for rail rehabilitation. Mr. Beamish went so far as to suggest that the director was unqualified for his position, based solely on rail support.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad operation is not taxpayer supported.

ARTA is not a trail advocacy organization and has no serious interest in building any trails other than the trail in question. ARTA has done nothing to work with other trails or made attempts to encourage development of existing former rail beds that do not have tracks on them to improve the condition of these trails or extend their reach. Two potential rail trails with no tracks on them, the former D&H line to Plattsburgh and the New York Central line from Lake Clear to Malone, could be upgraded and provide two new and additional access points for people to enter the Adirondacks. ARTA has either made no mention of these potential trails and indicated that they are not practical. The actual New York state-owned corridor does not reach Utica but connects with a private rail line just north of Remsen. Shared-use trail users would have to use route 12 and 28 to access the trail. And there is no guarantee that this trail will see the usage projected. I have biked the Canalway Trail many times in the central New York region. The trail sees heavy use within perhaps 1 or 2 miles of large communities such as Syracuse. After that, I rarely saw more than a few dozen people along the trail at any given time. I have not seen any information as to how a trail would be maintained, and the suggestion that salvage alone could cover the cost of a conversion is probably stretching things a bit.

There is no reason why a shared-use corridor cannot provide as much if not more of the benefits that ARTA suggests that only a trail can provide. More visitors to the region will be a welcome addition to the regional economy. Neither a trail nor a rail line by itself will be the economic savior for the region. The support infrastructure necessary for all of these additional visitors is still in need of improvement. A trail alone would require a vast majority of visitors to drive into the region by personal auto, or perhaps tour bus. Road conditions in many sections are in need of improvement, and parking is already a problem.

The STEP grant application is nothing more than the railroad attempting to provide better service to the people that it serves. As stated earlier, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is fully in support of a shared-use corridor and the construction of a multi-use trail alongside of the rail line. Construction of this trail is an engineering issue, no matter how much ARTA wants people to think otherwise.

A unit management plan review is not an endorsement of a trail. If a UMP review can be conducted, it will give all interested parties – and it is not just ARTA and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad that have an interest in this issue – a chance to present information and ideas as to how to proceed.

I thank you for your time.

Michael McNulty lives in Saranac Lake.