When it comes to the best use of the 90-mile rail corridor connecting Lake Placid and Old Forge, it's time to declare a moratorium on malarkey. Two of the latest examples of the nonsense that's clouding the debate appeared recently on this opinion page.
From a Canadian contingent of railroad aficionados comes a plea (April 13) to resume passenger and freight service through the wilds of the Adirondacks from Utica to Montreal. Why? Because gas will become too expensive for us to drive our cars. How? By finding U.S. taxpayer money to resuscitate hundreds of miles of rail line through sparsely populated backcountry, including the "60-mile missing link" from Lake Clear to Canada. This without an iota of evidence that there will ever be any customer demand for this service.
Yes, our country desperately needs high-speed rail service. But we need it between and through our population centers. One wonders why our Canadian correspondents, so eager to have rail service to Montreal, have ignored the very real need to streamline Amtrak's New York-to-Montreal line. This beautiful route follows the Hudson River and Lake Champlain up the eastern edge of the Adirondack Park. It connects the largest city in the U.S. with the second largest city in Canada. Yet the trip takes forever, and the service is totally unreliable. With proper funding, a high-speed rail could be instituted that cuts the travel time in half. With modern, high-speed service, the popular section between Albany and New York City could be reduced from 165 minutes to half that. Same with trains connecting Boston and Washington, San Diego and Seattle, and so on. That's where our investment in high-speed transit is needed, not in reviving an obsolete line through the Adirondack wilderness.
The Canadians assure us that when gasoline reaches $10 a gallon we will need trains to transport goods and people. Who can disagree? But even if gas prices were to double, putting us on par with northern Europe today, people will continue to drive their cars to the Adirondacks as a matter of convenience and economy. The big difference is that future cars will be far more fuel-efficient, getting 100 miles to the gallon. In fact, a new Toyota Prius plug-in is currently delivering 96 mpg to a friend of ours who lives in Lake Placid. That's our future, that and greatly improved public transportation where people need it.
Another infusion of malarkey came recently from Macon, Ga. The letter writer claims that once the rails are removed to make way for a recreation trail, "it's likely they'll never be replaced due to the unique environmental circumstances of the Adirondacks." True, it's not likely the rails would ever be restored, but this has nothing to do with "environmental circumstances." It's unlikely the rails will be replaced for the simple reason that it's unlikely there will ever be a demand for passenger or freight service on this line. If I'm wrong about that and someday there IS a pressing public need to restore train service in the Utica-Lake Placid corridor, the rail bed will be there, in Grade-A condition, for that purpose. This is the principle called "rail banking." After the bed has been converted to a year-round, multi-use trail, it's still there to be used for whatever public purpose makes sense in the future.
The writer from Macon declares that "high-speed rail use is the future." Again, who can disagree? But he's piling on the malarkey when he adds, "The rails are worth preserving here." No, they're not worth preserving. The rails and ties are in terrible shape. If high-speed service is ever called for on this line, the tracks would need to be replaced and modernized anyway. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by removing the antiquated infrastructure and converting the rail bed to a world-class recreation trail.
Then there's the malarkey from the tourist-train boosters that "once the tracks are gone, the travel corridor will revert to the forever-wild Forest Preserve and nobody but hikers will be able to use it." Wrong again! The corridor is separate from the Preserve. It is state land managed by the Department of Transportation. Whether the tracks are there or not doesn't matter. The corridor must be managed according to what the people of New York state, who own the corridor, consider to be its best use.
The state's unit management plan envisions a recreational trail as an alternative to train service. The Adirondack Council, the Park's preeminent preservation group, has pledged to honor the integrity of the corridor. The claim that we will lose the corridor once the tracks are removed is simply a scare tactic concocted by the tourist-train boosters to discourage full recreational use of the corridor-a use that would bring enormous economic and quality-of-life benefits to the Adirondacks.
To quote a email from friend in the newspaper business who has followed this issue closely over many years:
"While I think the Utica-to-Thendara tourist train is a good thing, I agree that it would be crazy to restore the line all the way to Lake Placid. Too expensive to build and maintain. I seriously doubt there would ever be a return on such an investment. Once you ride the train, then what? You've done it. I have ridden from Utica to Thendara, and while it was enjoyable, I doubt I'd do it again. It's not that it's bad, it's just, well, long. The image of beautiful vistas, lakes and ponds is a nice one, but in reality, you see mostly trees.
"A recreation trail, on the other hand, would be something hikers and bikers and snowmobilers would use over and over and over again. It would provide opportunities for backpacking, camping, fishing, etc. And it could be used by novice and experienced folks alike. I'm not a snowmobile guy, but I can appreciate their importance to the North Country economy. This could be yet another lure for snowmobilers, and if kept under control, could be a good thing, too."
Let's cut the malarkey, embrace reality, and capitalize on one of our most promising economic and recreational assets.
Dick Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake, founder of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine and a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.