SARANAC LAKE - Instead of bemoaning the existence of a tourist train, a local advocacy group is trying to highlight the economic benefits of a year-round, multi-use recreational trail between Lake Placid and Old Forge.
The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates hosted a well-attended meeting at the Harrietstown Town Hall Wednesday evening to unveil a new study on the potential economic impact of the group's proposed Adirondack Recreational Trail. More than 100 people attended the presentation, which focused on the first stage of the would-be trail: the 34-mile span between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.
This new study was conducted by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy following weeks of detailed analysis by Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for the RTC's Northeast office. It showed that a trail could be constructed between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake at no cost, assuming rails and ties between Saranac Lake and Old Forge can be salvaged and sold for $65,000 per mile.
More than 100 people attended a presentation on the costs and benefits of the proposed Adirondack Recreational Trail at the Harrietstown Town Hall on Wednesday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Knoch said stage one could attract more than 240,000 visitors and generate nearly $20 million in annual spending.
The study worked on the assumption that the town of North Elba will move forward with and complete a parallel recreational trail.
Knoch said the highest estimated cost to construct a trail from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake would be about $5.36 million. That's approximately $760,000 more than what a recently released Stone Consulting report estimated for upgrading the rail line between the two communities.
Knoch said that stretch between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake is currently in poor condition.
"There are places where, literally, the ties are hanging with no ground underneath them, rotted ties - five, six, seven ties in a row are rotted out," he said.
Knoch's report broke down the first stage of the trail into five segments, each with its own estimated cost per mile:
Segment one, 4.5 miles from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, $666,666 to $888,889 per mile
Segment two, 3.7 miles from Ray Brook to Brandy Brook Avenue in Saranac Lake, $405,405 to $540,541 per mile
Segment three, 1 mile from Brandy Brook Avenue, Saranac Lake, to Saranac Lake train station, $3,000 per mile
Segment four, 6.2 miles, Saranac Lake to Lake Clear, $75,000 to $100,000 per mile
Segment five, Lake Clear to Tupper Lake, $50,000 to $75,000 per mile.
Knoch said the costs to put down a recreational trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are significantly less if the railroad is removed. He noted that to build a recreational trail from Saranac Lake to Old Forge, the state would need to revise the unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Rail Corridor.
The RTC study is the third examination of the rail corridor in less than two years. Earlier this year, several organizations that support enhanced railroad service in the region with a recreational trail alongside it teamed up to sponsor a study by Stone Consulting on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's economic impact. It found that current railway operations have a $3 million economic impact on the region in direct spending and could bring $5.5 million in tourist spending annually if the railroad is rehabilitated from Utica to Lake Placid.
In 2011, a Camoin Associates study showed that either expanding railroad operations or replacing the railroad with a recreational trail would have a larger economic impact than doing nothing.
ARTA member Lee Keet of Saranac Lake said both prior studies lacked "essential information," and the Camoin study used "fairly suspect" methodology. He said the Camoin study only counted new cyclists who would come to the region to use the trail, not other users like snowmobilers and hikers.
Notably absent from Wednesday's meeting, which was heavily-advertised by ARTA and previewed by several regional media outlets including the Enterprise, were vocal supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. During a public comment period following the presentation, every speaker expressed support for the trail and lauded ARTA's efforts.
Pete Nelson, who has visited the Adirondack Park for most of his life, said a recreational trail would have a huge impact on the region's economy. He said the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in his home state of Wisconsin has put small, rural communities on the map.
"In the Atwood neighborhood on the outskirts of Madison where I live, there's a rail corridor that was abandoned for a long time and went through one of the seedier neighborhoods in the city," Nelson said. "Now it's filled with restaurants and businesses. Everybody in Wisconsin knows that recreational trails are an irreplaceable part of our economy. This is not a matter of a little bit better this way or a little bit better that way. This is a game-changer."
Before the meeting, Matt Scollin of Saranac Lake told the Enterprise he hasn't followed the rail corridor debate too closely over the last couple of years. He said he went to the meeting to get a better sense of what was at stake.
Speaking at the Blue Moon Cafe shortly after the meeting concluded, Scollin said he still didn't have a solid opinion about whether the railway should be upgraded or removed in favor of a trail.
"What I can claim to know is that I walked along the corridor one day," he said. "I went out and I walked from Kinney Drugs to McCauley Pond. I just kept going because it was beautiful. That's under-utilized; there's no two ways about it. Even with the scenic railroad, it's not the same benefit that you get from wondering what's around the next bend and walking up around that next bend and seeing it."
Scollin said he's had a lot of conversations with people about the so-called aging of Adirondack communities. He said a recreational trail would help attract younger people to the area.
"Everyone says Saranac Lake is graying and it's getting older and there's people that grow up here and then leave," Scollin said. "I was one of them that felt stuck when I was here, and then I left and came back and realized it's pretty special.
"There's this younger community of people that want to live up here. They want to spend their lives here and raise kids here, and I think anything that we can do to encourage that can help. And I think that having a railroad that runs three months out of the year for a nice scenic trip - I've ridden the railroad. It's nice. But it's not the same. You wouldn't get the repeat people that come up here again and again and again."
Scollin said ARTA makes a good argument for a recreational trail, but he plans to listen to both sides before he commits. Keet said people like Scollin - the ones who haven't made a decision - are the ones his organization needs to convince.