Facts yes, name-calling no

In his Sept. 24 commentary, Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, refers to recreational-trail advocates as “elitists” who “view the public as unwashed and undesirable.”

How unfortunate that ARPS has once again resorted to name-calling instead of furnishing hard data to support their case for restoring rail service through the Adirondacks. We now face an important public policy decision, and state officials must decide how best to utilize the publicly owned transportation corridor connecting Old Forge and Lake Placid. They need evidence, not name-calling, as the basis for their review.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has provided extensive information at www.thearta.org/news/news.htm about the costs and benefits of a recreational trail on this 90-mile stretch of underutilized corridor. Rail advocates should do the same, and they can start by answering the following questions:

Exactly what kind of rail operations do you intend to undertake? Extending your tourist train? Providing freight, passenger, Pullman, excursion or other services? With what frequency? Fee structure? Loading and unloading points? Months of operation?

How much would it cost to bring rail infrastructure from Big Moose to Saranac Lake up to adequate standards? Your organization has claimed that complete rehabilitation of the dilapidated line would cost $15 million. Why should we not rely on the estimate by the state Department of Transportation, which five years ago put the cost at $43 million?

Would your estimate include the costs of improving crossings and other related expenses? What would be the speed and load limitations for the rail line you envision?

How much would it cost per year to actively maintain such a rail line?

What is the cost of acquiring the updated and additional rolling stock needed for regular rail service along this corridor? The cost of maintaining this rolling stock? Of building and equipping maintenance facilities?

You are currently encountering serious staffing problems. How much would you need to pay in wages and fringe benefits to hire and retain the skilled professionals needed to run the railroad you envision? How many such employees would be needed?

How many thousands of gallons of diesel fuel would you consume each year? How many of the engines burning this diesel fuel would be low-emission, EPA-regulated diesel engines? Would you have fuel storage facilities? If so, what measures would you employ to mitigate the environmental consequences of a fuel leak or spill?

What would you do if you have a derailment in a remote backcountry area involving a spill of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel?

How much would rail operations cost in terms of utilities, insurance, ticketing, employee training, health insurance, workman’s compensation, regulatory compliance, snow removal, disposal of used lubricants, financial controls, chemical herbicides and other operational expenses?

You have failed to generate significant revenue from your rail operations over the past 17 years. What market research data or other evidence can you provide regarding future revenue from the rail activities you envision? How many customers are anticipated, and what is your evidence?

You have failed to attract any investors to finance rail operations along the 120-mile Remsen-Lake Placid corridor. What is your evidence of future investor willingness to invest the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars needed to restore and operate rail services?

In the absence of investors, what would be your justification for massive state funding for your rail operations? What other state budgetary priorities should be cut to realize your nostalgic dream of restoring rail service through the Adirondacks? Should state funding for this project trump funding for law enforcement? Public health? Critical transportation needs? Education? Environmental protection? Food programs for poor children?

What are the lost-opportunity costs incurred by keeping and extending the rail line, thereby precluding other uses of the corridor such as biking, walking, running, strolling, bird-watching, enjoying fresh air and exercise in a superb natural setting? To what extent would your activities interfere with snowmobiling along this corridor? What is the economic loss incurred by failing to capitalize on one of our greatest North Country assets – a 90-mile stretch of largely abandoned rail bed that could quickly and easily, at relatively little cost, be converted into a year-round recreational trail enjoyed by large numbers of visitors and residents? What about the ongoing loss of many millions of tourist dollars every year that a popular recreational trail could pump into our struggling economy, creating new jobs and business opportunities?

Right now, as the state considers the fate of the corridor, we need fact-based answers to these and other questions to determine the best use of an extraordinary public resource. We don’t need any more name-calling or wishful thinking.

David Banks is a member of the ARTA board of directors and a resident of Lake Clear.