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Railside trail is a dead horse

September 12, 2011
By Lee Keet , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

It's time for the Tri-Lakes area to reject failure and embrace success.Our newly formed citizen group, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, opposes current plans to build a recreational trail that parallels the Adirondack Scenic Railroad from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, a project that would incur endless costs on local taxpayers for maintaining this 5-mile trail through wetlands, essentially a "trail to nowhere." The town of North Elba will end up stuck with a trail built on fill and boardwalk, with the continuing cost burden on local taxpayers to maintain the trail. Everything considered, it is a terrible compromise.

We believe the ASR experiment should be terminated and the 34-mile corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake should revert to the originally planned recreational trail connecting the Tri-Lakes area in a way it's never been connected before.

Compared to the value of the tourist train, which has never achieved its goal, the recreational trail would provide enormous economic, health and safety benefits to visitors, residents and local communities. Based on the success of recreational trails that have replaced railroad lines elsewhere, and there are hundreds of success stories all around the country, this use of our RR bed for this purpose is an absolute no-brainer.

Article Photos

(Map by Nancy Bernstein)

We are requesting, therefore, that all grants currently in place for a rail with trail from Lake Placid to Ray Brook should be redirected to creating a world-class recreational trail joining Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake.

The ASR experiment has failed to meet any of the criteria that allowed it to be funded in the first place, as an alternative to a recreational path under the 1994 unit management plan. The scenic railroad experiment has gone on for 11 years - certainly a fair test of its viability. Ridership earlier topped out at 14,000 a year, and it now appears that the tourist train carries only a handful of passengers on most runs. But even at its peak ridership, according to a study released earlier this year by Camoin Associates, state subsidies for this 9-mile run amounted to more than $11 per rider, or more than half the ticket price. This year a grade crossing on Route 86 had to be replaced at a cost of nearly $200,000 so the train could continue to run. Such burdens on taxpayers cannot begin to be justified when the benefits to our local communities are so insignificant.

We are requesting of town officials and the state Department of Transportation that the ASR's lease be terminated, allowing the corridor to revert to the originally planned recreational trail. In this way a longtime liability can be turned into an extraordinary regional asset - a first-class biking, hiking, athletic training and snowmobile trail that will attract people from near and far. For example, bicycle riding is now the number-one outdoor recreational activity in America, and a 34-mile bike ride through some of this country's loveliest wilderness would be a major spring, summer and fall attraction. In addition, the Tupper Lake-to-Lake Placid track is the only east-west snowmobile connector, usable now only when snow depth reaches 2 feet. Without the rails, the snowmobiling season could be doubled from an average of 10 to 20 weeks year, providing much safer riding and significant revenue increases for local merchants along the line.

Why do we oppose the current parallel path plan?

It is, as noted, a trail to nowhere. Who is going to come to Lake Placid to ride a 5-mile trail to Ray Brook, where the best they can hope for is to turn around? For the same or less expense, we could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors who would delight in the 34-mile wilderness ride and return again and again to enjoy the trail, explore and savor our communities, and spend money here.

Using the $3.3 million of government grants to build this rail with trail is a waste of taxpayer money, especially when this funding could be used, in short order, to create a recreational trail all the way to Tupper Lake with those same funds.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad appears to be on its last legs. ASR had to borrow $95,000 over the last two years to stay operational. Ridership continues to fall, requiring endless subsidies. Why prolong the inevitable?

The $3.3 million in grant money is surely fungible. If North Elba, Harrietstown and Tupper Lake asked that the current grants be reissued for a full-blown recreational trail that connects the three villages, the politicos would listen and respond. Momentum and logic favor the trail. The facts concerning new jobs and direct economic benefits are now on the table, and to judge by the response we've received, the public favors a 34-mile recreational trail over a feeble, 5-mile compromise.

The idea of a dual path confuses people. They think that because the rail with a parallel trail can theoretically get from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, it could somehow be extended, at some vague future date, all the way to Tupper. Yet a rail with trail to Tupper is a complete impossibility due to wetlands, Forest Preserve, culvert logistics, narrow bridges, causeways, etc. - not to mention the astronomical costs even if this project were otherwise realistic, which it clearly isn't.

If a dual trail is built between Lake Placid and Ray Brook, it will institutionalize the failing tourist train and block any chance of a recreational trail to Saranac Lake and Tupper, as the tracks from Thendara to Lake Placid are required to bring the rolling stock up in the spring and out in the fall. They should be torn up and put to good use rather than wasting away unused except for a twice-a-year trip.

The time is right to seize the opportunity to build a multi-use trail that would unite our three villages, attract many more tourists to the region, enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors alike, improve snowmobiling in a much-needed and non-controversial manner, establish bicycling as a major recreational use of the Adirondacks (along with hiking, paddling and skiing), and add jobs and revenues to our local economies. Interested citizens can register at

So let's stop beating a dead horse and get on with it.


Lee Keet, a member of the ARTA steering committee, is an eighth-generation Adirondacker and businessman whose permanent residence is on Lake Colby in Saranac Lake.



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