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Rails vs. trail: Reuse rather than recycle

September 10, 2012
By Keith Gorgas

I'll come right out and say it: I think the notion of ripping up an existing set of train tracks that connects the Tri-Lakes area with the outside world and the Amtrak network is as stupid as it is shortsighted. Now that I've ticked off a bunch of people who I'd like to think of as friends, I'll backtrack and say that I also believe that a bike trail through the Adirondacks is a great idea that will yield a good economic return. Even if it cost more than it returned in dollars and cents, it's a great idea.

There are numerous reasons not to tear up the rails. First and foremost is that there many hundreds of miles to bike in the Park, and only one place left for a train to run. In the early years of settlement, the Adirondacks were one big network of railroads. Logs, lumber, minerals, even ice was transported out of the area and passengers brought in via railroads. Prior to the advent of the gasoline-guzzling, air-polluting automobile, a person could reach almost anywhere in the North Country by taking a train and then a stagecoach. Almost all of those railroads have been extinguished, leaving abandoned beds suitable for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Some are in use; some aren't that could be.

Secondly, it isn't really fair to judge the tourist-drawing potential of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad by how a small, isolated section does, any more than it would be to judge the potential of a small, unconnected bike trail. Having spent close to 20 years involved in the group tour business, I have seen firsthand the appeal of scenic railroads over and over. I have brought many groups to ride such trains in Essex, Connecticut and Lancaster, Pa. One of my favorite tours included a day spent on the Agawa Canyon Line up around Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Superior. I've had groups ride the Old Kentucky Dinner Train. It would take up too much space to mention all the different tourist trains I've brought groups to. Some traveled just to ride railroads; others included train rides as part of larger tours. Motor coach group travel brings an average of $5,000 to $10,000 per bus per day to a destination. (More on this later.) That number comes from studies done by the National Tour Association. Both the scenic and the historical qualities of rail tourism have strong drawing powers, not just for large groups but also for families and individuals.

I've traveled by train throughout Europe, where people are not bound by the American need for our independent, environmentally unfriendly automobiles. When I lived in Switzerland, some villages could only be reached by rail, but they were full of tourists. Getting there was part of the adventure. Foreigners are mystified by how far behind even Third World countries we lag when it comes to mass transit. And this brings me to the short-sightedness I mentioned in the beginning.

Without controversy, rail transportation is the "greenest" means of moving people and goods over land, unless of course some would like to get back to the horse-and-buggy means of our early settlers. Living here on "Spaceship Earth," where our sources of energy are limited by how many oil wells we want to drill and how many shale deposits we want to frack, anyone who considers himself a genuine environmentalist should be working and lobbying toward more, not fewer, railroads. That's not just for other people in other areas. True environmentalism, like true religion, starts at home. If we aren't willing to practice it in our own backyards, we have no right to ask our neighbors to. Right now, one of the only alternatives to driving a car to and from the Adirondacks is to take the Trailways bus, which takes forever and runs on a very inconvenient schedule. A completed rail line to Utica would present a wonderful alternative and should be expanded to include freight, removing many trucks from our roadways. Rising fuel prices and endless wars, coupled with inevitable environmental degradation, will one day force us to catch up with the rest of the world, when once we were the pioneers of rail transit.

I believe the most prudent path to follow (pun not intended) would be to work together to restore the entire railroad track, with an accompanying recreational trail for bikes, snowmobiles, cross-country skiers and maybe even horseback riders. Not everyone needs to have the time or the inclination to complete the entire trail in one trip. The accompanying railroad would provide a means to tackle the path in increments. Working together, the railroad could carry folks to various drop-off points along the route. Even canoeists could use the train as a means to get in to some remote areas.

A previous opinion piece suggested that the state could never come up with the $21 million to $49 million need to refurbish the tracks. Seems like the governor recently committed the same $49 million to buy up the former Finch, Pruyn land, forever removing it from the region's economy. An equal amount dedicated to something that would create jobs and commerce should be tucked away in some back room somewhere in Albany, especially if it is dispersed over a several-year period. There is also federal money allocated toward upgrading railroads. (One less fighter jet would fund a whole railroad and recreational trail.) Seasonal recreation passes could be sold to help with the costs of upgrading and maintaining a multi-use rail-trail. Investments, sponsorship and partnerships with industries that would eventually profit from the project could be sought.

Many city dwellers don't even own a car and would jump at the idea of flying in from Boston for a weekend, spending an hour or two on a scenic train to a remote location to ski, camp or bike, and being able to return a couple of days later. Hotels, rental companies, restaurants and outfitters would all profit.

Ripping up the tracks to make a recreational path may seem like a no-brainer at first blush but instead would turn into, as my grandmother used to say, "stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime." It may take longer to complete and obviously a lot more money in the short run, but I believe having both the rails and the trails together will cultivate far greater long-term rewards for both residents and tourists. It would be a national and international tourist attraction, and set an enduring environmental model for other unspoiled and remote places.


Keith Gorgas lives in Goldsmith, near Loon Lake.



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