Lessons from the Erie Canalway Trail

As the state considers the best use of our Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor, there are lessons to be learned from a new economic impact study of the Erie Canalway Trail, which runs across the state from Albany to Buffalo. The ECT is more than 75 percent complete, with 277 miles now open as an off-road, multi-use trail for people of all ages who want to enjoy fresh air and good exercise while soaking up history and engaging with the natural world. (The report is available at www.ptny.org.)

There are interesting comparisons between the Erie Canalway Trail and what we could have in the Adirondack Park. As envisioned by its many boosters, the Adirondack Rail Trail would extend 90 miles on the old New York Central rail corridor from Lake Placid to Old Forge. The state, meanwhile, has recommended that the 34-mile section connecting Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake be converted to a recreation trail, while the 56 miles of track south of Tupper Lake be renovated for use by a tourist train that currently operates between Utica and, occasionally, up to Big Moose.

In contrast to the typical rail trail, the Erie Canalway Trail makes use of the towpath where mules once pulled the canal boats. Most of the canal trail is 10 feet wide, same as the proposed Adirondack Rail Trail, and most of it is firmly surfaced with crushed stone and stone dust.

The study, prepared for Parks & Trails New York by the Survey / Research Center at SUNY Geneseo, kicks off with the following description: “The Erie Canalway Trail offers a myriad of outdoor recreational opportunities and health, economic and quality of life benefits.” Trail uses include “walking, jogging, bicycling, bird watching, pet walking, cross-country skiing and, in some locations, snowmobiling and rollerblading.”

As for economic impact, the study finds that “Overall (including direct and secondary effects), ECT visitor spending generates approximately $253 million in sales, 3,440 jobs, $78 million in labor income, and $28.5 million in taxes in the Upstate economy each year.

“Study results were based on trail counts using observational and electronic techniques” and from user surveys “conducted at multiple locations along the trail between June and September 2012.”

So how many people make use of the canal trail? The researchers estimated trail traffic at almost 1.6 million visits per year.

“Not surprisingly,” they report, “the segments of trail closest to the large urban population centers of Buffalo, Rochester and Albany were estimated to have the highest number of visits – more than 200,000 per year.”

How much usage can we expect on the Adirondack Rail Trail? While we don’t have large urban centers in the Adirondack Park, we do have something like 10 million tourists a year, according to state estimates. This includes a total of more than 160,000 camper nights a year (most of the campers having bicycles) at the state’s Fish Creek and Rollins Pond campgrounds. With the construction of a short connector trail, these campers will have direct access to the rail trail.

There are also many residents right here in the Tri-Lakes area who would use the trail for exercising regularly, communing with nature, commuting to work and enjoying family togetherness in a safe, scenic setting, well away from automobile and truck traffic. And all of these benefits come at no charge whatever, proving once again that many of the best things in life are free.

The ECT study is partly based on a survey of 562 canal trail users. Of these, 59 percent are bicyclists, 56 percent use the trail for health, exercise and fitness, 79 percent are interested in Erie Canal history, 50 percent live less than 5 miles from the trail, and 99 percent feel the trail has a positive effect on them. Some 22 percent of those surveyed indicated they were vacationing, and 96 percent of these folks said they were influenced by the trail in choosing their “vacation destination.” (The proportion of vacationers using the Adirondack Rail Trail would likely be higher.)

Three-quarters of the vacationers chose the canal trail for biking and natural scenery, 71 percent stayed at least three nights, 44 percent stayed at a hotel or motel, and each of them spent an average of $939 during their visit.

The study’s conclusion: “The ECT is clearly an important resource for the local and regional economies of Upstate New York and should continue to be promoted and enhanced.”

As 97 percent of the visits to the canal trail are undertaken by persons living within the 35 counties surrounding the trail, the study confirms that the ECT is also “a valued resource and an important contributor to the quality of life in the more than 200 communities along its length. The small number of visitors from outside the region illustrates a major opportunity to market the (canal trail) as a premier bicycling destination to a national and international audience. Other long-distance trails with considerably less name recognition, such as the Katy Trail in Missouri and Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, attract a greater percentage of nonlocal visitors than the ECT.”

The Adirondack Park has been a magnet for vacationers for the last 150 years, and the Adirondack Rail Trail has the potential to become a major tourist destination in itself. After years of experimenting and debate, the time has come for the state to complete the corridor-review process so we can make the best use of this splendid but sadly underutilized resource.

Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is a board member and co-founder of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.