DOT should seek truth on rail corridor

Passionate debate at times leads to emotion that can become the story and overshadow the important points and counterpoints that need to be considered. The rail-trail debate ongoing in the Adirondack region has brought out the best and the worst of these characteristics. The New York State Department of Transportation will have the difficult task to plow through and separate fact from fiction, set aside the emotion and seek the truth for consideration by government agencies that may review the unit management plan for this transportation corridor.

In previous commentary, I presented financial data on the cost of maintaining trails similar to that proposed by the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, and actual economic data for some example trail communities to illustrate that the projected revenues for existing rail trails seem to be out of reach for a majority of the affected population. These are clear examples to contradict the possible understatements and exaggerations by ARTA commentary authors, who envision low-cost or free trail conversion and huge region-wide revenue speculation.

Special-interest trail advocates frequently blast the Adirondack Scenic Railroad for receiving taxpayer funds as reimbursement for maintenance services performed on the rail corridor; yet no mention is made of taxpayer funds disbursed to snowmobile clubs for grooming trails, reported in December to have been in excess of $1.3 million. This should be considered by readers and the NYSDOT in the context of the debate.

ARTA and the Rails to Trails Conservancy, both beneficiaries of ARTA director Lee Keet’s family foundation, teamed up to produce a questionable economic impact analysis that violates key principles methodology as defined by Texas A&M Professor John L. Crompton in his article “Economic Impact Studies: Instruments for Political Shenanigans?” While text is used to make statements that omit local trail users in the ARTA proposal, all the numeric values presented in a chart of example trails clearly adds local user dollars to total sales revenue. Whether by accident or other intent, this can mislead the reader and key government representatives with exaggerated economic impact results.

There are other statements in ARTA documents I have found to be questionable. As an example, the Ghost Town Trail, well known by this author, is incorrectly noted in the ARTA detailed proposal as beginning in Ebensburg, Pa., more than 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. This trail is referenced to illustrate existing trails that do not have an urban connection, in conjunction with projected economic impact statements. Omitted is the distance from Pittsburgh to the closest trail access point for the Ghost Town Trail. Using Ebensburg as a reference point, the trail heads WEST to Black Lick, Pa., actually located 46 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh. The midpoint of the trail is Dilltown, Pa., 52 miles east of Pittsburgh. Other possible urban connections that may have been the intended reference point are Altoona (25.57 miles) and Johnstown (22.98 miles); however, these do not fit the context. A MapQuest search for driving directions between Pittsburgh and towns noted above can clear up this inaccuracy.

An item not appearing in the detailed submittals by ARTA, nor addressed by the multitude of editorial commentary on both sides of the debate, is the lack of cellphone service to large areas of the subject railroad corridor, especially north of Big Moose. To this author, the omission of contingency proposals to provide for trail user safety is an unusual oversight when related parties know of this situation. The following is a position statement by the Adirondack Council from 2005, an organization that includes at least one director in common with ARTA: “While wireless coverage is important in population centers and along road corridors, the Council does not believe that wireless coverage in Forest Preserve areas is necessary, and therefore construction of new towers on those constitutionally protected lands would be inappropriate.”

This should be of great concern to NYSDOT and other responsible agencies: how to safely manage thousands of trail users, invited by those who envision a world-class rail trail, and allow them to venture mile after mile into remote wilderness areas with no modern means of calling for help in the case of a mishap. Is this not also the area where several environmental and wildlife groups have called for reintroducing wolves and cougars? If sections of the rail corridor revert to the Bob Marshall Great Wilderness once the tracks are removed, how would rescue personnel learn of an emergency? Would motorized rescue vehicles be permitted to respond?

The existing rail corridor crosses numerous bridges and culverts, navigates along high embankments and along the water’s edge for many miles on a narrow right of way. This is fine for the guidance of a steel-flanged wheel on a rail but not good at all for bikers, walkers and snowmobilers that certainly will get into trouble. A subject of controversy, there are newspaper accounts of accidents in similar areas of the Adirondack Park that resulted in deaths in recent years because rescue attempts were delayed, partially due to the inability for the victims to call for help. For those who propose to attract a multitude of genuine visitors to a remote recreational trail, the visitor perception of personal safety while passing through the Park is very important.

The time is drawing near for a decision on the fate of this rail corridor. Society in the modern age of media reporting is subject to complex spin and the tactic of repeating an ideal frequently enough to conceal truth. Responsible New York government agencies need to investigate each point, seek accuracy and inject common sense. Consider also the thousands of petition signatures and local business support that have been attained for trail support and determine if the methods were reputable. The NYSDOT should not make a decision on an existing transportation asset until confident of the truth.

James Falcsik lives in Irwin, Pa.