Let’s fish or cut bait on the rail trail

As a Tri-Lakes business owner and an advocate for the Adirondack Rail Trail, I continue to be amazed by those who advocate for train restoration while insisting that we can have both a train and a trail on the single-track corridor connecting Lake Placid and Old Forge. The lake and stream crossings, the miles of wetlands on each side, the need for endless rock cuts and fills make a side-by-side trail environmentally problematic, to put it mildly.

Now the Adirondack Scenic Railroad boosters appear to be acknowledging the impossibility of a rail-with-trail. Instead, they have shifted their position to something equally fanciful. They are vaguely calling for a rail-and-trail. By this, they seem to mean that hiking and biking trails could connect with the restored railroad, leading off through the woods into mountainous terrain. Then everybody would be happy. The only problem is, what they are proposing is not a “rail trail.”

A rail trail is flat, straight, wide and easy to navigate, and it connects communities. It is for young and old – bikers, walkers, runners, birders – from age 4 to 104. It is ideal for family outings, safe from the danger and noise of road traffic. It is also a perfect route for those bicyclists and snowmobilers who cover longer distances.

What is truly baffling about their latest push for “rail and trails” is why anyone would want to restore an obsolete railroad and then somehow create spur trails leading out from it. We already have thousands of miles of hiking trails in the Adirondacks – but we don’t have a single, long-distance rail trail linking our communities.

So far, we taxpayers have spent $35 million on rail restoration on portions of the Remsen-Lake Placid line. How many jobs were created by this enormous public investment, aside from a few paid positions taken by the railroad staff? ZERO.

The railroad ticket sales tell another sad story. The latest Adirondack Railway Preservation Society tax returns (for 2011) show revenues from ticket sales at $813,027. The “Polar Express” south of Old Forge accounted for $432,000 of those ticket sales – yet this train ride is not even on the rail corridor in question. This leaves $381,000 of ticket sales on the Adirondack corridor – the combined total revenue for the Old Forge and Lake Placid ends. Taxpayers have spent more on track repair per year than ASR’s tickets sales have produced. Not a great deal for taxpayers, or for the region’s economy.

The recent attempt by Adirondack North Country Association to extract another $15 million from the state Department of Transportation is truly disturbing. Their goal is to move trains from one end of the corridor to the other, at a maximum speed of 30 mph. But who wants to go that slow, sitting there and peering out a train window (or trying to entertain the kids) hour after hour after hour? Earlier, a study by Stone Consulting, commissioned by the railroad boosters, showed that restoring the line to 60 mph capabilities, at a much greater expense (DOT put it at $43 million), would bring an additional 7,000 visitors to the region. It follows that a 30 mph train will bring far fewer.

ANCA, in cahoots with the North Country Regional Economic Development Council and its train-obsessed co-chairman, Garry Douglas, has decided to support this lost cause no matter the cost – at a time when Adirondack Health is struggling with its nursing homes and the Tupper Lake Central School is on the verge of insolvency! Believe it or not, they want to spend millions of dollars on an unneeded, outdated tourist train that would attract well under 10,000 riders annually, while studies show that the 90-mile Adirondack Rail Trail would attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.

I wish more people would experience the Island Line Rail Trail in Vermont. Or the Petit Tren du rail trail between Montreal and the Laurentians. Or the Virginia Creeper Trail in western Virginia, which traverses wild and beautiful country comparable to our own. The lack of firsthand knowledge of other rail trails allows misconceptions to flourish about the relative benefits of train restoration vs. converting the corridor to a popular rail trail.

It’s time to ask the hard questions: Can both rail and trail exist together in this corridor? The honest answer is no. Should we spend scarce public funds on an amusement ride that can’t stand on its own? Of course not. Should we convert the obsolete rail line through the Adirondacks into a world-class recreation trail that will stimulate our economy and greatly improve our quality of life?

You decide.

Jim McCulley lives in Lake Placid and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.