The Adirondack Scenic Railroad recently released their study of the potential economic impact that would result from expanding service from Utica to Lake Placid. The study purports that $16.5 million of state and federal funding will restore the line, generate $5.5 million in economic impact and create 133 full-time jobs.
"Nice work if you can get it," as they say, but we've heard all this before without any of the predictions coming true.
For instance, a 1994 study sponsored by the Adirondack North Country Association and endorsed by the railroad predicted that $11 million would be required to rehabilitate the entire line. To date, 25 million taxpayer dollars have been spent on rehabilitation,* with railroad officials admitting the project is only one-third complete.** The 1994 study also predicted that restoring Lake Placid-Saranac Lake excursion service would create 75 jobs. More pure fantasy, and I challenge local businesses to identify even one job created in the 12 years that service has been in operation.
In 2008, the New York State Department of Transportation surveyed all railroads in the state regarding their capital improvement needs. The results are posted on DOT's website. The ASR reported needing $43 million for track, bridge and signal work to restore service to Lake Placid. This figure seems more realistic to actually restore 30-40 mph passenger operation from Thendara to Lake Placid - the same track standard currently existing from Utica to Thendara. Full restoration is predicted to generate 7,000 new riders annually.
Spreading the $43 million cost out over 10 years (or 70,000 riders) still means that each rider will have cost the state more than $600. The current study tries to justify such an expenditure by totaling up the railroad's annual operating budget and listing the 275 vendors from whom it purchases goods and services. I'm sure these vendors appreciate the business, but of the many letters and commentaries generated by this ongoing debate, I am not aware that any vendor has written in support of continued or expanded rail operations.
Furthermore, there is good reason to question whether even the predicted 7,000 would choose to annually take this ride. The current timetable shows it takes two hours and 15 minutes to go the 52 miles from Utica to Thendara. With the rest of the route restored to the same condition, the 140-mile trip would take around six hours. That's the same time as a trans-Atlantic flight and definitely a long time for children to be confined in a railroad car.
As predicted in the current study, this trip would generate an overnight stay, a well-earned rest before the six-hour return trip the next day. And based on the 2012, $37.50 round-trip fare from Utica to Thendara, the Utica-Lake Placid round-trip would cost just over $100 per adult. For a family of four, the transportation costs for the weekend would be significant, and the travel time involved would preclude most other activities.
In addition to touting the benefits of expanded rail operations, the current study questions why the corridor should be converted to a recreational trail. Mercifully, the study does not continue the fiction that there could be a parallel trail, but its suggestion that the Adirondacks already have enough trails misses the point entirely. Most of the 2,000 miles of existing trail cited in the study are rough hiking trails, not suited (or in many cases not legal) even for mountain bikes. Converting this corridor north of Thendara to full recreational use would create a totally unique opportunity for off-road recreation that would nicely complement the existing trail system. Yes, as the study notes, there are a few existing bike paths in the Adirondacks, but neither the loop around Fish Pond Campground or the Bloomingdale Bog have the attraction a longer ride through the wilderness would have.
The study also proposes that trains could take mountain bikers into remote areas they couldn't otherwise easily reach, as is done in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, other than a few miles near Lake Lila and Beaver River, there isn't any terrain that is both legal and desirable for mountain bikes. Furthermore, if this service were to be part of the ride from Utica to Lake Placid, the six-hour ride would stretch out even further.
Finally, the study lists other rail-trail alternatives and comes up with a seemingly impressive 423.69 miles of possibilities. The longest of these opportunities, listed at 54 miles and rated as "undeveloped," is the former New York and Ottawa rail bed from Tupper Lake to Moira. Unfortunately, this route (abandoned in 1937) has long since lapsed into private ownership, including the Bay Pond Preserve. The 22-mile Grasse River Railroad opportunity does not appear to even exist, based on the information contained in "Where Did the Tracks Go" by Michael Kudish. Other listed opportunities tend to be on the periphery of the Park and/or also on long-abandoned rail beds with numerous private takeovers of the right of way.
The only realistic route listed is the 41-mile former New York Central route from Lake Clear Junction to Malone. This has always been a popular snowmobile route. (This past winter with little snow demonstrated just how many more days of snowmobiling were possible on a rail bed without the rails.) Improved for bicycling, this route could be popular, although the aesthetics of pedaling along under a high-voltage electric transmission line are not the best.
Since the study doesn't really provide anything new, I doubt that it will change anyone's mind about the best use for the corridor. I would just ask that any decision to improve and expand rail service is taken with the $43 million figure posted on the DOT website rather than the $16.5 million figure contained in the study. Compared to the higher cost, the predicted economic benefits do not in any way justify such an expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
Tony Goodwin lives in Keene and is a leading member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.
*The author estimates $25 million based on past news releases and a May 7, 2007, letter to Scott Thompson from DOT Regional Director Mark Silo, saying the state had spent $32 million on the rail corridor between 1974 and 2007.
**Source: Jan. 29, 2012, Albany Times Union article on the rail corridor: "Railway Society Vice President J. Alan Heywood said such thinking (tearing up the rails) is shortsighted. 'We have had limited success, but it is not fair to be judged on a track that is a third done.'"