Beware of ARTA’s numbers
As a resident of western Pennsylvania, I offer comments to my northern neighbors based on the unique position of having owned a retail business 100 feet from a trail, and having lived and raised a family in the shadow of the Great Allegheny Passage.
I take issue with three items the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates put forth in their argument for removing the tracks that are misleading or disturbing:
1. ARTA believes rail-trail conversion and maintenance is at substantially lower cost than railroad support from the public sector.
2. ARTA commissioned economic impact analysis to support their position that thousands of trail users will add revenue dollars to the region.
3. ARTA has shunned the environmentally friendly railroad industry in favor of thousands of personal internal combustion recreational vehicles.
Rail-trail organizations are publicly funded. They are organized as 501(c)3 tax-exempt entities, soliciting public grants and private donations; they are required to file federal Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, as did ARTA, EIN 45-4752327. Maintenance and improvement costs are usually spread out over sub-chapters organized in the trail towns. Determining the actual cost of yearly trail maintenance, repairs, mowing, administration, fundraising, etc., can be difficult unless all sub-chapter organizations are identified and financial data acquired. Websites like “http://www.guidestar.org”>www.guidestar.org are helpful to find this public information. Because rail trails are considered linear parks, counties may include budgeted funds in their parks and recreation departments for maintenance, etc.
To illustrate my point, here in Westmoreland County, Pa., the mother-ship trail organization is the Regional Trail Corporation, formed in 1991 and headquartered in West Newton, Pa. The RTC is responsible for maintaining 43 miles of trail, known locally as the Youghiogheny River Trail, which is part of the GAP. The RTC also has responsibility for four smaller rail trails in the area, and its most recent Form 990 filing lists the following information:
-EIN # 25-1660116
-2011 RTC total income: $2,324,817, total grants $1,994,413
-2011 expenses: $347,095
-2011 government grants: $1,171,377
-2007 through 2011 total public support: $15,386,880
-2011 public support: 97.94 percent.
An active railroad will generate income by providing a service to the private sector. Most passenger rail operations in the U.S. are subsidized. Freight, a moot point for now on this corridor, can generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient. By removing the railroad asset and creating a recreational trail, continued public funding in perpetuity could be expensive and considered “redistribution” as each trail chapter seeks local funding or government grants.
Economic studies cited by ARTA should be viewed with a wary eye by government officials and the public, especially when making economic decisions that affect the general population.
In order to legitimize their position, ARTA commissioned the national Rail Trail Conservancy to perform an economic impact analysis of the rail corridor for $25,000. ARTA discounts a study conducted by Camoin Associates, which reported much lower visitor numbers and revenues. Regarding economic impact studies, Texas A&M Professor John L. Crompton, Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Sciences, writes, “The motives of a study’s sponsor invariably dictate the study’s outcome.” Additional cautions from Crompton include the following:
-There is temptation to adopt inappropriate procedures and assumptions to generate high impact numbers.
-Sometimes errors are committed deliberately to mislead stakeholders.
-Mischievous manipulation involves abusing one of four principles: exclusion of local residents, exclusion of time-switchers and casuals, use of personal income rather than sales output for economic impact, and careful interpretation of employment data.
Local residents and “time-switchers” should not be included in economic impact studies because they do not inject new funds into the region. The Camoin study removed all local visitors from their summary. In the ARTA submittal, the economic impact table for six existing trails relies on local users in some examples for up to 63 percent of annual expenditure projections.
Personal income data, rarely used by tourism advocates because results are several times lower than sales figures, is the most meaningful information that should be considered by elected officials and the residents participating in this debate. After all, citizens of the region affected will be interested to know how tourism and economic development will affect their financial well-being.
As an example, portions of the Great Allegheny Passage trail have been in use for more than 27 years. Comparing U.S. census data from 2000 and 2010 in several prominent trail towns, although not a scientific survey, one may find answers about the economic impact of the trail. Between West Newton, Pa., and Cumberland, Md., of six towns reviewed, five of six experienced population loss, and four of six experienced median per-capita income growth lower than the state average. The worst performer was Connellsville: population loss 17.1 percent and 12 percent slower income growth. West Newton, home of the Regional Trail Corporation, experienced population loss of 14.6 percent and 3 percent slower income growth.
Railroads are a green industry. Moving passengers by rail, or freight in the future, is efficient and cost-effective. A train of only 10 freight cars will carry the same freight that would require 40 long-haul tractor-trailers. Some commentary writers ask, “How many of the engines burning this diesel fuel would be low-emission, EPA-regulated diesel engines?” Well, perhaps two, or three on a good day. Once the tracks are gone, so goes the enormous potential for economic development with a proven, environmentally friendly, volume-based transportation system. Directors of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates include a professional environmentalist and others committed to conservancy issues. It is very ironic they would form a coalition with, as some would describe, “reckless, carbon-footprint-spewing, internal-combustion snowmobilers.” This unusual marriage of ideology and departure from the roots of environmentalism is cause for questioning the motive.
James Falcsik lives in Irwin, Pa.
Crompton, Texas A&M: agrilife.org/cromptonrpts/files/2011/06/3_5_8.pdf
Crompton: “Economic Impact Studies: Instruments for Political Shenanigans?” agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/cromptonrpts/files/2011/06/3_9_3.pdf