Snowmobilers getting fewer

As a strong railroad enthusiast who has been following this debate at a distance, I have to admit to being discouraged at some of the statements from the trail people that have been, at least in my opinion, a bit misleading. These include comments that the railroad is a failure (despite increasing ridership and reduced long-term debt) and that the proposed trail can be built for less cost than rehabilitating the railroad (ironically, something their own commissioned study, by Camoin Associates, will confirm for track expenses).

There is also the whole notion that the trail is worthy of public money and support for maintenance, but the railroad is not. This is a double standard that every railroad of any type – freight, intercity passenger (Amtrak), rapid transit or commuter, and yes, heritage, seems to have to face. One wishes we could get a fair shake on that, but that seems to be something we’ll never see.

One thing that does stand out is that railroad patronage apparently has been increasing, suggesting we might want to keep this option open. This is in a rather startling contrast to snowmobile registration patterns of the last 10 years or so.

I was quite surprised to find that the number of snowmobiles registered in New York has gone down by an amazing 32 percent since the 2002-03 season. Prior to that year, snowmobile registrations increased steadily, from 49,436 in 1991-92 (earliest year numbers are available) to peak at 172,164 in 2002-03. After that they declined steadily until 2006-07, going up and down between 130,502 in that season and 132,442 in 2010-11. There was a big drop in 2011-12, with only 90,433 machines registered in that season; this partially rebounded to 116,725 in 2012-13, the last year for which figures are available.

What is most interesting is that you can draw a line on the graph of this that just about aligns with the years of decline – in other words, a trend line. Of course, it doesn’t always match – it undercuts some of the steady state years between 2008 and 2011, and it overshoots an apparently abnormally low year in 2011-12 – but the trend is quite visible otherwise.

This makes me question where the increased snowmobile patronage is supposed to come from. How can there be an increase in patronage when the base of the patronage is down by very nearly a third? How many of those snowmobile riders will even show up in the Adirondacks? A bit more than 116,000 units is not a huge number for a state the size of New York.

I don’t blame Camoin Associates for what may be errors in judgment (its study was done before the big drop in 2011-12), but the current members of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates should know about this decline, and I suspect they do. It would surprise me if they didn’t.

It would be interesting to speculate on the cause of this; among other things, it doesn’t seem to be due to the economic difficulties of recent years. The decline started a good four years before the collapse of 2007, and registrations actually were fairly steady during most of the recession that followed.

Railroad patronage increasing as snowmobile registrations are decreasing? That suggests it might be worthwhile to hold off on tearing out that railroad, at least for a while. It just might be headed for a more useful role than its critics give it credit for.

David P. Lubic lives in Inwood, W.Va.

Reference:

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Snowmobile Unit’s 2012-2013 Season Report – see pages 12-13 for snowmobile registration information:

nysparks.com/recreation/snowmobiles/documents/SnowmobileSeasonReport.pdf