Elitists skew truth about railroad

Much water has passed under the bridge in the rail/trail debate, with decidedly polar opinions and perspectives on the hoped-for outcome: rail only, trail only, rail and trail, neither rail or trail. The last possibility is the sleeper, too, with some having written in the past about their real wish that the corridor be returned to the wild. (Richard Beamish, “Getting the Word Out in the Fight to Save the Earth,” 1995: Johns Hopkins University Press)

One of the not-nearly truths that has been promoted is that the notion of both rail and trail is something new. Not so! The 1996 unit management plan called for development of both and clearly set out a to-do list for all the parties: Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation, among others. We have embraced the dual concept from the start and continue to believe in its merit.

Some criticism, understandably, has been leveled at the railroad for not finishing what it had started – namely, the improvements to the corridor. The folks in Tupper Lake, while not alone, have been clear in their frustration, again understandably, but the elephant in the room is the fact that ARPS doesn’t own the corridor. The ARPS operates a successful rail business OVER the corridor, but New York state is the owner on behalf of the taxpayers, so it has been up to the state to finish the job that we have been so roundly taken to task for not doing. We, the operators of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, have had a good relationship with the state, and it has improved over the years as we became better at running the business and seeing change come to the organization. We expect that to continue.

It has been advanced that we receive what amounts to a gift of funds every year for operations – another not-nearly-the-truth comment from those who wish for the demise of the rails. What funds we get from the government, any government, are in repayment for work performed and only after we submit for reimbursement for a job, having received prior approval. Someone has to clear fallen trees, brush and remediate damage from flooding, etc., and the work we have done for two decades benefits everyone who uses the corridor. In the absence of the railroad, who is going to do this in the future? We have been successful at obtaining grants over the years, and the majority of those funds wind up in the ground – in other words, going back to the state, thus saving it money. Our business plan is clear about about such things as maintenance, grants and many other pertinent issues. We have been asked about dealing with emergencies, and those interested should know that we have numerous contingency plans and that our rail operation is held to the same requirements as any other railroad – Amtrak, for example.

Another topic where we have taken numerous hits is the cost to rehab the out-of-service track. Estimates for this work were compiled by a combination of rail consulting firms and engineers familiar with this specific real estate and were developed over a period of many months. Not surprisingly, the dollar estimate is reflective of the cost to complete the portion of track from Carter Station to Big Moose, which we did last year. Since that was in very poor condition, as are the debated sections between Big Moose and Saranac Lake, and since the work was only just completed, we are confident that the numbers are good. Why our opposition continues to claim that the cost would be nearly three times that amount is astounding.

On to the question of our supporters. A recent letter from Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates declares that virtually every community along the route is against us. That is simply flat-out wrong. There is opposition, and we recognize that, but we have written support letters from more than 130 organizations such as Regional Economic Development Councils, industrial developmnent agencies, economic development administrations, visitor and tourist bureaus, banks, merchants, legislatures, town and village boards, and the list goes on. To say that we are without friends is incredulous and a grievous misstatement of the truth.

Much foot stamping can be heard around Saranac Lake, what with the sudden notion that the review process has been unfair and that the DEC and DOT have somehow been less than honest. Somehow, they say, democracy has been derailed! Really? What better form of democracy than to ask the people what they are thinking. And by the way, ARTA thought that the UMP had been reopened! So now the angst begins in earnest to discredit the agencies charged with the review. We believe that the process has been overly fair, and remember, we are the ones least happy about any of this as we would like to continue to grow our operation and help support more commerce.

The owner of a prominent Lake Placid resort hotel displayed great bravery recently in endorsing the proposed repair to the corridor. He realizes that continuous service from New York City, Boston or points west could mean many new feet on the sidewalks of his town and the others in the Tri-Lakes area. We are working with him to price rail-resort packages and learn what that would look like in Lake Placid and other communities. Fears that fewer tourists would spend because the train would take money away from town are unfounded and contrary to the experience of similar rail operations elsewhere.

Sadly, one of the major themes is that the elite few really seek to exclude the general public from this asset that is the travel corridor. They view the public as unwashed and undesirable, and in actuality would be happier if the corridor reverted to a wild state. We know that access to this area by train is not only safe but can be controlled to prevent overuse. We also know that, in spite of notions to the contrary, this is a very remote region and only the very heartiest would venture into much of the corridor without viable emergency plans, and unless you have experienced this terrain, you can’t appreciate that in many places there literally is nowhere to go for help.

Lastly is the economic impact of the proposed rail enhancement. This is a project that is shovel ready and needs no further permitting. Consultants estimate that first-year job creation would approximate 563, with about half remaining as a result of increased tourism demand. That’s just the first year. Total dollar impact stands at about $39 million coming into the region as new spending that first year. These are not insignificant figures in a part of New York state that is both rural and declining. While we aren’t kidding ourselves into thinking that rail service can save a fairly impoverished demographic, we do believe, as many others do, that we can have a decidedly positive influence. This can be easily proven in looking at the spending habits of the nearly 75,000 riders that we carried last year. Ask the merchants on the southern end of the corridor about the effect we have on their businesses. These visitors need hotel rooms, meals, entertainment and exposure to the Adirondacks that they can’t get anywhere else.

We continue to support rails and trails, and recognize that a trail-only proposal is not a solution and pleases the fewest number of people. Alternative 6 (of the 1996 UMP) was then and is now the correct answer.

Bill Branson is president of the ARPS board and is a retired securities industry executive. He lives in Skaneateles.