A rail trail — by popular demand

Perhaps the oddest criticism yet directed at those who want to create a recreational trail on the old Adirondack railroad line from Lake Placid to Old Forge came from Bill Branson in his Sept. 24 commentary entitled “Elitists skew truth about railroad.” Mr. Branson, who is president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, describes those who favor a recreational trail as “the elite few (who) really seek to exclude the general public from this asset that is the travel corridor.”

A great public asset it surely is, and my recent experience with other rail-to-trail conversions shows how this asset can best be utilized. But “popular” seems a more appropriate word than “elitist” to describe these year-round, multi-use rail trails. My dictionary defines popular as “widely liked or appreciated” and as “suited to or within the means of ordinary people.” Elitist, on the other hand, connotes privilege and a sense of superiority.

My wife and I recently returned from a two-week vacation. Our objective was to ride our bikes on rail trails with similarities to our proposed Adirondack Rail Trail, which would run 90 miles from the Tri-Lakes to Old Forge. The trails we rode on included the former trolley line connecting Glens Falls and Lake George, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail between the Hudson River and the Shawangunk Mountains, the York County (Pennsylvania) Heritage Trail from the city of York to the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Torrey Brown Trail that continues from the Pennsylvania border to Hunt Valley in Maryland.

While riding these trails, we encountered people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Our shared purpose was to enjoy fresh air and pleasant exercise in a safe, serene setting.

Yes, we did see some athletic-looking cyclists and runners zipping along. But many were more leisurely, retirement-age bicycle riders like us. There were mothers pushing strollers containing happy infants. There were little kids on little bikes (some with training wheels) and even smaller kids riding behind a mother or father in a bike seat. Along the way, people were resting on benches or eating at picnic tables. Some were taking a short walk during lunch hour. Others were out before or after work: jogging, cycling, walking their dogs. On many trails, wheelchair use, either self-propelled or powered by an electric motor, was also an option.

Young and old, fast and slow, fat and skinny, all delighting in the outdoors in their own way and at their own pace on trails that never exceeded a grade of 2 percent.

We stopped often to read interpretive signs explaining the history of the places we were passing through. We lingered in the restored railroad stations that served as coffee shops and mini-museums, showing how the railroads of an earlier era had shaped the character of the region. It struck us that the converted rail beds, now used for public recreation, were serving the same function the railroads once did: enriching lives, shaping communities, boosting local economies.

Another reason that rail trails are so popular is that they are free of charge. It doesn’t cost anything to use them. Compare this to the cost of taking the tourist train from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake – and the much greater cost for passengers if rail service is restored on the entire line, as Mr. Branson and his colleagues propose. And then there’s their dream of restoring high-end Pullman service from New York City to Lake Placid by way of Albany and Utica! This overnight service, they tell us, would be used by upscale customers eager to shell out big bucks to travel 12 to 15 hours to Lake Placid (mostly in the dark) and then reverse the process in a day or two.

In describing rail-trail advocates as “elitists,” Mr. Branson claims that “they view the public as unwashed and undesirable, and in actuality would be happier if the corridor reverted to a wild state.” It is hard to know where Mr. Branson gets his information. The board of directors of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates consists of an assortment of business people, snowmobilers, bikers, hikers, trail blazers, environmentalists, history buffs, a law enforcement officer and a retired schoolteacher. The organization is backed by 12,000 petition signers who are walkers, cyclists, runners, strollers, snowmobilers, nature lovers, parents, grandparents, dog owners, etc. In addition, ARTA is supported by more than 400 businesses that see the Adirondack Rail Trail as a potential tourist destination that will attract a great many visitors who will patronize inns, motels, B&Bs, restaurants, bike shops, outdoor outfitters, book stores, health food stores, art galleries, museums – you name it.

Like so many other rail trails throughout the country, the Adirondack Rail Trail will be enjoyed not just once but over and over again by residents and visitors of diverse interests and physical abilities. And we are talking now about hundreds of thousands of trail users annually! As a result, our local economy will be strengthened, new businesses added, new jobs created.

What could be more “popular” and less “elitist” than that?

Dick Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake and a board member of ARTA.