ARTA seeks a true compromise

James Pierson’s commentary of Oct. 9 seeks common ground between those who advocate extending rail service and those who want a recreational trail through the Adirondacks along the Old Forge-Lake Placid transportation corridor. Despite his good intentions, Mr. Pierson’s proposal, entitled “A way to keep rails, develop trails,” is based on a set of faulty assumptions.

Yes, the tourist train south of Old Forge appears to be a sufficiently viable operation and should therefore be continued. Therein lies the compromise. But the tourist train that operates sporadically between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, at the other end of the corridor, is anything but viable. It would be far more beneficial to adapt this section of the rail bed as a multi-use recreational trail that could be enjoyed by countless visitors and residents year-round.

Mr. Pierson makes the following, highly questionable assertions:

1. “The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has operated with a short-term lease, eliminating its ability to attract investors to fund track restoration. With the certainty of a (long-term) lease, the railroad operator should be able to obtain private funding.”

The 1996 management plan for the corridor allowed the Adirondack Scenic Railroad a five-year opportunity to develop rail services. Instead, after 16 years, the ASR has very little to show for the millions of dollars spent by the state on this endeavor. There are no investors because few customers would use any type of rail services along this corridor. Freight could compete for only a small fraction of the miniscule amount of freight that flows between the Tri-Lakes and Utica, the source of the line. Similarly, passenger traffic between these points would be negligible because it is much quicker and cheaper to drive.

2. “(Excursion services) for hikers and canoeists could generate additional escrow monies for trail development.”

Excursion services along this corridor would, in all likelihood, fail to generate enough revenue even to pay the wages of the engineer and the fuel burned by a locomotive. It would not pay any significant share of the out-of-sight costs of restoring the corridor for regular rail service. There would certainly be no residual revenue for funding trail development, which is totally unnecessary anyway. Fact is, hikers and paddlers don’t need to ride a train, at considerable cost and inconvenience, to get where they want to go. Almost every trail and waterway along this transportation corridor can be accessed by automobile.

3. “The trail advocates should embrace the need for (trail) bypasses in that they provide recreational diversity (resulting in) a better recreational experience.”

The conversion of obsolete rails to recreational trails across the U.S. is attractive to so many people because these rail trails are relatively flat and hospitable to a diverse set of users, including children on small, single-speed bikes, retirees taking a scenic stroll, cyclists out for some fresh air and exercise, along with long-distance bikers and endurance athletes in training. Developing a trail that significantly diverges from the transportation corridor and does not involve frequent steep inclines would be a costly and unnecessary undertaking.

4. “With this proposal, everybody wins, requiring only the investment of additional time.”

Rather than the ideal outcome envisioned by Mr. Pierson, his proposal would require massive state spending to restore and operate the rail line. Nor should it be referred to as an “investment,” since use of that term reflects an expectation of significant revenue. In this case, rather than a thriving enterprise providing a return on investment, we would see “ghost trains” operating at public expense and serving very few customers.

While it seems admirable to seek a compromise that would satisfy all parties, this matter should be decided on the basis of the costs and benefits, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates’ proposal is available at This should be carefully compared with ASR’s business plan, which unfortunately ASR refuses to make public. ASR’s record in developing rail services along this corridor should also be seriously considered.

It is indeed possible to achieve an outcome where, as Mr. Pierson suggests, everybody wins. ARTA is not contesting ASR’s continued operation of the scenic railroad between Utica and Old Forge. The state should allow that operation to continue, thus favoring train enthusiasts on that part of the line. If, as we hope, a recreational trail gets the official green light from Old Forge north to Lake Placid, then outdoor enthusiasts and businesses along this portion of the corridor will also win. Snowmobilers can use the corridor without fear of snagging a switch buried in the snow, and a growing number of summer users, including bicyclists attracted to this tourist destination, will also bring their dollars to the region.

The Adirondack Rail Trail will be a boon to the towns and villages along the way that now gain essentially nothing from the current use (or non-use) of the corridor. The time has come to put this state land to work to benefit businesses, residents and visitors.

Jim McCulley is a resident of Lake Placid and a board member of ARTA.