Contentious impasse on rail vs. trail

Thank you, Jim McCulley of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, for revealing important information about the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and their operations on the 120-mile, state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. We’ve long been assured that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is healthy, financially independent and ready to expand to the full length of the 141-mile corridor from Utica to Lake Placid – they just needed the state of New York to pay for some new railroad ties.

As a result of Jim’s research of publicly available tax records and requests to state agencies via the Freedom of Information Law, we now have a substantial basis to question whether the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is healthy, financially independent, prepared for expansion or even assured of survival. Their own accounting firm pointed to their debt and expressed “uncertainty about the Organization’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Wayne Tucker’s response on behalf of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society failed to address the essence of McCulley’s revelations: While the ASR proposes to more than double its operations, is it capable of operating what it already has? Would the state be wise to commit even more taxpayer money to a company that had failed to perform as promised and whose viability is questioned by its own auditors?

This is not to suggest that the southern portion of the ASR’s operation should not continue. While the tourist train connecting Lake Placid and Saranac Lake struggles, having failed to deliver economic benefits to the Tri-Lakes area and being a drain on the ASR operation overall, the picture is less bleak at the other end of the line. The tourist train that operates between Utica and Old Forge has experienced a degree of success that merits some continued government support.

This seems a reasonable compromise: a 51-mile tourist train running between Utica and Old Forge, and conversion of the mostly unused 90 miles of corridor north of Old Forge to Lake Placid into the Adirondack Rail Trail. This instant tourist destination would attract much larger numbers of visitors every year, generating up to $20 million annually in summertime tourist spending, and more in the winter as the corridor becomes more friendly to snowmobiles when the deteriorating tracks are removed.

Next steps

Significant questions and concerns persist regarding the ASR’s ability to survive, let alone expand. Those concerns must be meaningfully addressed.

If the ASR relinquishes its operations north of Old Forge, its remaining operations would still be longer than nearly any U.S. scenic railroad. It may have a limited window of opportunity to save that viable ASR segment.

It is now abundantly clear that a state review of the management plan for the corridor is necessary and should proceed immediately. The state review should include a serious and transparent public examination of the ASR’s finances, its and ARTA’s proposals for the corridor, and which plan would best serve the economic needs of the region.

State Sen. Betty Little, North Country Regional Economic Development Council Co-Chairman Garry Douglas and Adirondack North Country Association Executive Director Kate Fish imperil their effectiveness as advocates for economic development of the region if they do not join with the many villages, towns, businesses, organizations and citizens who actively support the state review of the management plan for the transportation corridor that was specified to occur more than a decade ago.

The state review must proceed. There’s no other way to resolve this debate, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.

David Banks lives in Lake Clear and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.