Moving the Adirondack economy forward with the rail trail

New York state has decided to open the unit management plan governing the rail corridor from Remsen to Lake Placid for review. This is great news for the Adirondacks.

But not everyone is thrilled. Although a large and growing number of people are for the rail trail, there are those who strongly oppose it. In this opposition lies a big contradiction.

Here’s the part that is not contradictory: Some opposition comes from those who love the scenic train. With these people I have no quarrel. I like the scenic train, too, but I simply point out that the welfare of communities along the corridor is more important.

Now here’s the contradictory part: Much of the opposition comes from people and organizations whose stated goals are to bolster the economy of the Adirondack Park. Everyone knows that we face a hard, economic reality: a park losing population and jobs that provide a living wage to residents. There is no such thing as a sure deal in economics, but the rail trail proposal is as close as you get. It is favored by every relevant economic trend you can measure, it requires a relatively small investment with relatively little risk, and it is a perfect fit with a strategy for the Adirondacks with which all parties seem to agree: a park anchored by a green, sustainable economy.

So why do some of the very people who support economic development oppose it? Honestly, I don’t know.

But I can speculate. I think one reason is that a number of these folks backed the train long ago as an economic benefit and don’t want to give up on it. Adirondackers are nothing if not a stubborn lot, and having taken one side they are unlikely to switch. Even today they will tell you the train is the better economic choice. Any reasonable examination of the facts will show they are simply wrong.

First let us take their promises of great economic benefit. We’ve heard these promises before. This rail corridor saw its last regular passenger service in 1965 and its last freight use in 1972, as the service was no longer profitable. Two decades later, train supporters saw the opportunity for a tourist train. Here are excerpts from an article in the July/August 1990 issue of Adirondack Life magazine. Keep in mind the current claims by train supporters as you read words written 23 years ago:

“The Adirondack Railroad may chug once again across the backcountry, says the feasibility study just completed by Northwest Engineering, of Tidoute, Pennsylvania. The railroad consulting firm was hired by the Adirondack North Country Association to conduct a two-part examination of the railroad’s potential business and rehabilitation costs.

“The first phase of the study found that a significant market exists for rail service between Utica and Lake Placid, justifying the estimated $12 (million) to $17 million cost of revitalizing the route. Through a combination of passenger and freight service, the authority could begin to realize a profit in its third year of operation.”

By any standard, this rosy outlook has not come close to being achieved. The tracks have not been rehabilitated, and freight service was never restored. There are arguments over whether the Adirondack Scenic Railroad ever turns a profit, but a balance sheet comparing investment to return on the entire project since the Adirondack Life article was written would show scant returns on a multi-million-dollar investment. Yet ANCA still supports the train, including promises of future service that look remarkably similar to the promises made in 1990. Having commissioned the original feasibility study, they ought to be singing a different tune by now, shouldn’t they?

On the other hand, precedent after precedent shows significant economic benefits to recreational trails. Take one I know well: the Elroy-Sparta trail, 32 miles through the Wisconsin countryside. In 1970 you could not find anyone outside the area who knew where Sparta and Elroy were. There are no huge tourist draws in the area, and the population is rural and sparse. Then the trail went in. Now hotels along the route book solid a year in advance. There are a score of new businesses in these towns. The annual economic benefit has been well over a million dollars per year since the mid 1980s.

Tupper Lake, are you reading this?

The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates trail could easily eclipse this performance, having, as it would, no peer in the recreational trail world, thanks to the uniqueness and beauty of the Adirondacks. Several studies, one commissioned by ARTA from the respected Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, all show a significant economic return on investment. These reports are available on the ARTA website.

Yet the naysayers claim these studies are speculative and overstate the benefits. In doing so, they engage in a time-honored game of ignoring basic mathematics. Suppose you won a contest and had a choice between two prizes: grabbing a handful of money from a grab bag filled with $10 bills or from a bag filled with $100 bills. True, the outcome in either case is uncertain. But would you listen to the naysayers when they told you that the estimated potential from reaching into the bag with the hundreds was overinflated? Of course not. Common sense makes the choice a no-brainer. Check the numbers yourself, and you’ll see that the choice here is equally obvious.

Here’s an example. The Rails-to-Trials study examined the potential economic benefits of the rail trail and offered a range from high to low using a common methodology, comparables from other trails. If you take half of their lowest estimate, it comes to $1,758,631 per year. And that number doesn’t factor in the increased snowmobile use.

Saranac Lake, are you reading this?

Fortunately, the state of New York seems to have gotten the message that the potential benefits to our local economy is tremendous. Hard questions should be asked to those who stand for economic growth but, for whatever arcane reason, oppose a project that makes perfect sense.

Pete Nelson is an ARTA member who lives in Madison, Wis., and has a second home in the Adirondacks.