Trail advocates, stop the distortions

How unfortunate that once again, trail advocates resort to distortions to make their case. David Banks posted some questionable statements in another publication and was challenged. For that, we are accused of “attacking” Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and its supporters. Mr. Banks’ Guest Commentary is more of the same, filled with half-truths and attempts to twist the truth.

Consider the lead paragraph: “Trail advocates are not seeking use of the corridor south of Old Forge, so the Adirondack Scenic Railroad will likely be allowed to continue its rail operations from Utica to Old Forge. They’ll still be ‘winners,’ even if they no longer control the corridor north of Old Forge. They and their supporters should graciously accept that opportunity, and the state support that will likely go with it. They should stop attacking well-intentioned advocates offering evidence in support of an inexpensive Adirondack Rail Trail from Old Forge to Lake Placid, and its valuable benefits to the region.”

ARTA is anything but well intentioned. Its goal is to unilaterally impose its will on the railroad. So the railroad should “graciously” accept its fate? Meanwhile, the railroad and most of its supporters have consistently called for both sides to work for an equitable rail and trail solution, which ARTA steadfastly refuses to embrace.

As for attacks: A look at the ARTA Adirondack Rail Trail Facebook page is instructive, with commentary deriding “blue-haired rail fans” gracing their page. ARTA followers have also posted on the Next Stop For Tupper Lake Facebook page with the same air of condescension. Some have called rail supporters “idiots,” among other things, for having the temerity to stand up for what they believe in. Yet, at least for a while, ARTA blocked dissent on its own page.

Mr. Banks also sets himself up as the final arbiter on the subject by posing the following: “Why should New York taxpayers spend many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to restore and subsidize operations of a train that would carry no more people than a small bus or no more freight than a small truck?”

Has he ever ridden an Adirondack Scenic Railroad train? If he did, he would have seen for himself the hundreds who ride. I have ridden and can tell anyone that this is an egregiously misleading statement. He claims the railroad would cost taxpayers “many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars,” while blithely ignoring the fact that no study has ever said that the railroad would cost that much.

One study by a rail consultant says it cost $15 million to restore, and the state said the cost would be $45 million. That’s a long way from “hundreds of millions of dollars.” On top of that, the railroad covers its own costs of operation from the farebox, not by taxpayer support, so people are riding. Obviously, if the railroad was reopened all the way, even more would ride. The problem for ARTA is that as the railroad expands, it becomes stronger and has better financial performance. This is not an outcome ARTA members desire, since they want to junk the railroad.

In fact, ARTA is standing in the way of the railroad’s well-being by demanding that the unit management plan be reopened as a means to destroy it. It does this even as it carps about the railroad’s financial performance. A decision by the railroad to apply for financing to build a new maintenance facility is on hold because of uncertainty concerning the UMP. It’s difficult for the railroad to do long-term projects, some of which could bring in needed revenue, because it does not know if it will be allowed to operate.

But wait, there’s more: “Even if we set aside the overwhelming evidence of the physical unfeasibility of a parallel trail, it simply makes no sense to spend so much money north of Old Forge … along this 90-mile, dead-end corridor.”

Nonsense. Trails paralleling rail lines have been built the world over, some under very trying circumstances and geography. It can be done. ARTA just doesn’t want to do it. And since when is Lake Placid a dead end? It’s a major tourist destination and that is what would make the railroad an even bigger success, pumping tourist dollars into the local economy.

Still more: “Train advocates also posted comments that other forms of transportation receive government subsidies, so the state should be willing to subsidize the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. However, an expanded ASR would be much more dependent on public support than any airline, trucking company or bus line, particularly north of Old Forge.”

Yet again Mr. Banks makes a statement without any basis in fact. Where is the documentation to back up this claim? Airlines get an Essential Air Services subsidy to serve Lake Clear, and road users benefit from vast public spending that created the roads that they use. I could go on, but it’s just a fact that users do not pay all the costs associated with whatever mode they use. For Banks to suggest that the railroad would cost more than support for other modes is ludicrous.

More from Mr. Banks: “The ASR has refused to release its proposal to the public and has stiff-armed the press, while train advocates have personally attacked the press. These attacks should also stop.”

I can’t speak for others, but I questioned the circumstances under which a reporter came into possession of an unreleased Adirondack Scenic Railroad planning document. All I wanted was the truth. That’s not a “personal attack.” People in media will ask “tough questions” when they wade into a topic as controversial as this. They should expect questions in response.

The railroad feels it has not gotten a fair shake from the press, and judging by the editorials I’ve read, they have a point. They could have been written by ARTA. Did these same editorial staffs ask the railroad for input before arriving at their stance?

This is a complex issue, and it will not be solved by the bogus arguments presented by Mr. Banks. Honesty is refreshing. He should try it sometime.

Bill Hutchison lives in Largo, Fla., is in New York each summer and spends time in the Adirondacks.