I would like to address a common refrain in the ongoing debate over rails vs. trail. It concerns the importance to the Tupper Lake community of their restored train station, made possible through dedicated volunteer work and a generous donation from a seasonal resident.
The refrain goes something like this: Because Tupper Lakers have put considerable resources behind their dream of rail restoration, it would be a pity not to extend the railroad from Saranac Lake to Tupper, and subsequently all the way to Utica. With the historic station house restored, all they need now is train service to go with it.
Rewarding Tupper Lake's volunteerism is a commendable sentiment. But it should not have to be to the tune of from $29 million to $43 million in taxpayer money. These are the range of estimates for restoring rail service between Utica and Lake Placid, depending upon which of the following sources you draw upon: the Camoin study sponsored by AdkAction.org, the Stone Consulting study commissioned by Adirondack Scenic Railroad, or the state Department of Transportation's cost projections.
First off, that's money that no one has. The state surely doesn't have it, nor has anyone from the private sector stepped forward to restore the line, for the simple reason that there's no demand for passenger or freight service, and there hasn't been for more than 40 years.
Second, it would take a lot more than the occasional tourist train coming through town with a handful of passengers to revitalize Tupper's economy.
Third, the state already has sunk more than $35 million into the ASR over the past 12 years, with continuing annual subsidies, in violation of the agreement in the state's unit management plan for the corridor. It was originally agreed that ASR would pay its own way. Some argue that, having invested so much in the train so far, it would be foolhardy to stop now and lose the investment.
Just give us more time and more money, and we'll get the job done, ASR's Alan Heywood tells us (Albany Times Union, Jan. 29).
But does "throwing good money after bad," as a recent letter to the editor on these pages suggested, really make any sense? Rather than succumbing to nostalgia for a long-gone era, wouldn't Tupper Lake be far better compensated in a way that paid tangible, long-term dividends to the community?
In contrast to the high cost of rail restoration, there would be little or no cost involved in converting the rail bed connecting Lake Placid and Tupper Lake to a 34-mile recreation trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has determined that the salvage value of the tracks between Saranac Lake and Old Forge would more than cover the costs of converting the corridor to a recreation trail between Saranac and Tupper. (It now seems that a side-by-side trail will be constructed next to the rail line over the 9-mile stretch between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.)
According to the recent RTC study, a rail trail connecting Lake Placid and Tupper Lake ALONE would produce $19.8 million in tourist spending as a direct result of many thousands of bicyclists riding the rail trail from May through October. And that projection does not include the additional winter benefit of the trail once it extends to Old Forge - the snowmobile capital of the Adirondacks. With the impediment of the tracks removed, legions of snowmobilers could ride from Old Forge to Tupper Lake and beyond during a greatly extended snowmobile season.
With the tracks removed and the bed properly surfaced, the corridor would become a year-round recreational trail of national and international significance. The resources put into restoring the train station would pay year-round dividends to the Tupper Lake community as a cafe, information center, gift shop, historical museum, bike-snowmobile-ski shop, or a combination of these or other creative uses. In this way, the community's volunteer spirit would be amply rewarded.
Based on its study of other Northeast rail trails, RTC estimates that 244,260 new visitors will be attracted to our trail, not including snowmobilers in the winter, or a goodly proportion of the 200,000 or so campers from Fish Creek and Rollins Pond in the warmer months. (The rail trail will link up with those two major campgrounds.) In contrast, an ASR-sponsored study estimates that restoring train service from Utica to Lake Placid will bring only 7,000 new visitors.
The Adirondack Rail Trail, which will pass through some of the loveliest terrain in the eastern United States, is an economic game-changer just waiting to happen. When it is finally completed - and I firmly believe it will be completed - we'll be looking back and asking ourselves, "Why didn't we do this 20 years ago? What took us so long?"
It's time to make "Next Stop Tupper Lake" exactly that - a major stop on what could be one of the most popular rail trails in the United States.
Joe Mercurio is a resident of Saranac Lake and a board member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.