State must now listen to local governments

Now is the moment for taking advantage of one of the greatest opportunities for economic advancement we’ve had in my lifetime. I’m talking about the opportunity to convert 90 miles of old, obsolete railroad line between Lake Placid and Old Forge into a major driver of tourism development in the Adirondack Park.

This Adirondack Rail Trail will be an economic game changer, injecting millions of dollars in tourist spending throughout the region. It will connect hamlets along the corridor in desperate need of the tourist revenues that such a trail will generate. Rail trails elsewhere have been runaway success stories, and there’s no reason to believe why the same thing cannot happen here. The future of this publicly owned travel corridor now depends on the state’s review of its management plan for the corridor and whether it decides to approve the recreational trail option.

I am somewhat concerned, however, that the departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, in an effort to “keep everybody happy,” may decide to leave the tracks and ties in place between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid so the tourist train can continue to operate four months of the year. This would be a retrograde move on the part of the state in the face of strong public support for the trail, including the unanimous call this week by the North Elba town board to remove the tracks and replace them with a safe, easy trail for biking, hiking, running, walking, bird-watching, wheelchair use, etc.

North Elba’s resolution declares that the town is no longer in the business of pursuing a costly, environmentally questionable parallel trail along the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake rail line. To quote: “It has now become evident that the dual use of the transportation corridor is not financially feasible. The North Elba Town Council now fully endorses a conversion of the Lake Placid to Saranac Lake portion of the NYS travel corridor from its current use as a railroad corridor to a more appropriate use as a recreational trail … and respectfully requests that Governor Cuomo, DEC Commissioner Martens, and DOT Commissioner McDonald … allow for the removal of the in-place rails so that a recreational trail can be built in its place.”

In light of the town’s 5-0 vote to abandon plans for a side-by-side trail, a decision by the state to disregard local sentiment and leave the tracks and ties in place would be the worst possible outcome. It would effectively cut Lake Placid off from Saranac Lake, and vice versa. It would deny use of that portion of the corridor for upwards of 200,000 assorted bikers and other recreational users every year. And to what purpose? So that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s tourist train can continue to transport under 11,000 passengers back and forth between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake with no discernible economic benefit to either community. (ASR reports it had more than 21,000 passengers last year. Since 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration allows railroad operators to count their round-trip customers each time they disembark from the train and then return as new passengers, thus doubling their ridership. In this case, actual riders, in true numbers, means less than 11,000 passengers used the train in the 2012 year).

Very few people, if any, come to this region for the sole purpose of riding the Scenic Railroad. They ride it usually as a one-time experience, as something to do while they are here, and the money they spend on a train ticket goes right back into the coffers of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, not to the local communities. Nearly all of their “employees” are volunteers, which, while greatly appreciated, does not help our economy. The rail trail, on the other hand, would be something that would bring thousands of folks here every year, creating real jobs for the people who support them. And these visitors will come back repeatedly for this experience.

It makes sense to keep the tracks and ties in place at the southern end of the corridor, where there is economic benefit from the tourist train that runs between Utica and Old Forge. But let’s convert the Old Forge-Lake Placid portion of the corridor to a recreational trail so that communities north of Old Forge can also experience economic benefits – including major tourism benefits to struggling communities like Piercefield and Tupper Lake.

This is why more than 300 regional businesses have signed a resolution during the last few weeks that reads, in part, “The current use of the corridor has not produced the promised economic benefits. On the other hand, a safe, easy, scenic recreational trail will become a major tourist destination through the year, creating jobs and expanding economic opportunities across the region. For the good of our economy, we ask that DEC Commissioner Martens, DOT Commissioner McDonald and Governor Cuomo bring about the rail-to-trail conversion of the Lake Placid-to-Old Forge rail corridor as soon as possible.”

If Governor Cuomo is serious about wanting to promote tourism and economic growth in the North Country, he should pay close attention to the towns, villages, and these businesses along the corridor.

The vast majority of North Country residents feel that the status quo for the rail corridor, including the 9-mile section connecting Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, is no longer acceptable. They feel that the best choice, indeed the ONLY choice, for the environment, the health and safety of our citizens, and the well-being of local economies is the construction of the Adirondack Rail Trail now.

Joe Mercurio lives in Saranac Lake and is the president of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.