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$512 subsidy per passenger?

June 5, 2012
By Lee Keet , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

The recently released Stone Consulting study, sponsored by the North Country Chamber of Commerce and Adirondack North Country Association, reaches some very interesting conclusions, none of them good for rail advocates.

First, Stone projects just 7,000 additional visitors to the Adirondacks each year if rail service is restored from Utica to Lake Placid. This is at a one-time cost (presumably to the taxpayer) of $16,533,915 and an annual operating expense thereafter of $1,933,988. Over 10 years, that is $35,873,795. Even if we had $36 million to spend, a key question for those of us who must pay the bill is, can we find better ways to attract more than 7,000 visitors at lower costs?

Consider The Wild Center, aka the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, in Tupper Lake. It was built with roughly $8 million of taxpayer aid and attracts well north of 50,000 visitors every year (nearly 100,000 in its honeymoon year). Over a 10-year period, this works out to less than a $16-per-visitor annual subsidy.

Now let's do the same math for restoring train service. Over 10 years, restoration and operations cost a total of $35,873,795, or $512 per year in subsidies for each new visitor. A Wild Center subsidy of $16 per visitor over 10 years seems like a reasonable use of funds to help the local economy, but the railroad per-traveler subsidy drops from $512 to $276 (in 2012 dollars) after the fixed cost of restoration is amortized and then lasts forever. And note that restored train service will still be seasonal, so there is nothing in those subsidies for our winter economy.

The cost could be even higher. The 2011 Camoin study's detailed engineering estimates projected $311,764 per mile to restore the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake to Class III (average 30 mph) service. At this rate, the full 91 miles from Lake Placid to Old Forge would cost $28,370,588. The Camoin number is closer to, but still way under, the New York State Department of Transportation 2008 Capital Needs for line restoration estimate of $43 million. Using this number, the subsidy goes to $891 per visitor per year. There has to be a better way.

Even if we had the money, would we rebuild a railroad to carry an additional 7,000 people during a small part of the year on a six-hour trek from Utica to Lake Placid? How much would we have to spend to increase tourism through other means, perhaps by doing promotions to bring more people to The Wild Center, the Adirondack Museum, Great Camp Sagamore, etc.? And if we are going to build, what is a new attraction that we could build for less to attract more?

One answer is a recreation trail right on that same rail corridor. In just a few more weeks, the Rails to Trails Conservancy is going to deliver its report on what we can expect if we convert that mostly unused rail bed to a biking, hiking, handicapped-access, ski and snowmobile trail. The results will surely mimic other such conversions - for example, the Down East Sunrise Trail in Maine. This 84-mile-long, single-track corridor looks a lot like ours. Their rails and ties were removed so the trail could be built on the rail bed, just as is proposed here. Construction cost was offset by rail and tie salvage recovery - i.e., salvage paid the entire construction bill.

The 60-mile Pine Creek rail trail in Pennsylvania has 138,000 annual visitors. The 21-mile Heritage trail (close to the Saranac Lake-to-Tupper Lake distance) brings 350,000 visitors to the York, Pa., area each year. We will know soon what a corridor conversion will mean here, but it will surely be more than 7,000 new visitors at way less than $36 million over 10 years.

And Stone's economic analysis of local benefits from rail restoration looks like a shell game: Most of what the local economy would gain is our own money, that same $36 million recycling 1.8 times as it passes through our communities. Yet the direct new spending from visitors for investing $36 million is projected at just $648,836.

About snowmobiling: Stone says there is "a relatively narrow time when snowpack does not yet adequately cover the ties and rail." The facts are that, on average, at least half of the potential five-month sledding season is lost due to exposed tracks. Snowmobiling is now the number-one winter economic driver for Old Forge and could be for points north and east, notably Tupper Lake, if the rails were removed.

About bicycling: Stone contends that there are many bike trails already, implying that we do not need more. I challenge Stone or anyone else to plot a bike path in just the Tri-Lakes area that avoids highways - and, even if on the highways, to find a safe course for kids, handicapped people and novice riders. The recent public outcry over bike-able shoulders between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid illustrates the problem. With a 5-foot shoulder restored, I might once again ride to Lake Placid, but I sure as certain would not take my grandkids on that route. Good bike paths simply do not exist for road bikes, and mountain biking trails are generally dead-end loops (Mount Van Hoevenberg, Dewey Mountain, etc.).

And finally, some facts to ponder as we make our decision on what will serve our community best:

-Approximately one-quarter of U.S. adults use a biking, walking or hiking trail at least once per week. (Librett, J., et al., 2006)

-More Americans ride bicycles than all those who ski, golf and play tennis combined. (National Sporting Goods Association, 2007)

-Seventy-one percent of Americans would like to bicycle more than they do now. (Royal, D., and D. Miller-Steiger, 2008)

-During the summer of 2002, an estimated 2.5 billion bicycling trips were made by people 16 and older in the U.S. (Royal, D., and D. Miller-Steiger, 2008)

Let's let the facts dictate where we go from here.


Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of the board of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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