Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Getting off the track

What must be done to create a world-class bike path in the Adirondacks.

By ALAN WECHSLER

Someday, the Adirondacks could boast of a tourist attraction not found anywhere else in the East: a long-distance rail-trail that would enable bicyclists to take multiday trips through protected wild lands.

The route could be used by others as well: trail runners, hikers, and, in winter,

snowmobilers.

The rail-trail could extend as many as eighty miles, starting in Thendara, near Old Forge, and ending in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, or Lake Placid. Along the way it would traverse remote tracts of the forever-wild Forest Preserve and pass by hamlets that could see a boost in tourism.

OK, don’t get excited: this remains theoretical. But those familiar with rail-trail projects say it could happen—if state and local leaders back the idea, if Adirondack residents push for it, and if sufficient public and private funds can be obtained.

Backers of such a project would have to contend with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs a sightseeing train from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake and hopes to extend the trip to Tupper Lake. The railroad uses the rest of the track twice a year to reach its garage in Utica and hopes to one day bring rail traffic to the entire line.

A lot to consider. But rail-trail success stories around the nation show two things:

First, rail-trails are an economic boon. A multiday trail such as the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania or the 225-mile Katy Trail in Missouri can attract tens of thousands of users each season. And, even on smaller routes, businesses follow: bed and breakfasts, bike-rental and repair shops, restaurants, museums, art galleries, shuttle services, etc.

Second, building rail-trails can take time. The Great Allegheny Passage took thirty years from conception to completion. But once a groundswell of support begins to grow, it’s hard to stop.

In the Adirondacks, a short rail-trail already exists connecting Lake George to Glens Falls, but the ten-mile route is primarily a local attraction (the route is also badly advertised to visitors, and the entrances at either end are hard to find).

Farther north, a grass-roots effort is under way to promote a rail-trail from North Creek to Tahawus. The Friends of the Upper Hudson Rail-Trail, which recently held its first meeting, is talking with railroad owner NL Industries about taking over the property. But at twenty-nine miles, the route would be a bit short to be on the national radar. Also, its northern terminus lies in the wilderness, far from ammenities.

In contrast, train corridor between Thendara and Lake Placid offers the opportunity to create a world-class rail-trail. The whole line hasn’t been used commercially since the 1970s, when the state took it over from New York Central. Today, Adirondack Scenic operates two trains: one out of Thendara along the Moose River, which takes in about three-fourths of the nonprofit company’s revenue, and one between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, which has proved less popular. (It also runs short trips north of Thendara.)

The line is maintained mostly by the railroad, but New York State reimburses the company for the work, a cost that runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Despite the state’s fiscal climate, state Department of Transportation officials say no one is considering discontinuing maintenance of the track.

In between the two train routes are about seventy miles of wilderness rail, passing by lakes, wetlands, and forests. If the stretch from Thendara, just south of Old Forge, to Saranac Lake were converted to a trail, the Adirondacks could lay claim to one of the longest wilderness bike paths in the nation. And if it reached Lake Placid—which some local officials would like to see—the trail would be eighty miles long and start and end in two of the most-visited tourist towns in the Park.

Is it worth it? Around the nation, backers of other rail-trails say it is.

Take the 150-mile Great Allegheny Path (see sidebar). Between Cumberland, Maryland, and Pittsburgh was an abandoned rail line. There were more than a dozen huge trestles that required decking and the three-thousand-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel, which had water pouring down from the ceiling in numerous places. “We called it the ‘car wash,’” said Linda Boxx of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, which began promoting a rail-trail more than thirty years ago.

It took three decades, but volunteers eventually raised $65 million to acquire various sections of rail and rehab the tunnel and trestles. Once finished, trails were handed over to local governments to maintain.

“We went after lots of grants, state and federal opportunities, private foundations, broad appeals to the general public,” she said. “It’s a continual job to raise the money.”

Today, the Allegheny Passage is one of the most well-known rail-trails in the country. Last year, the path brought in about $40 million from cycling tourists, mostly from lodging and food purchases, said Boxx.

The Katy Trail, named after the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, which was often referred to as the K-T, is a 225-mile route that will eventually link St. Louis with Kansas City, extending across all of Missouri. The trail attracts about three hundred thousand users annually, including more than ten major group tours.

“There’s definitely an economic impact,” said Judd Slivka, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “If you go to Rocheport [a popular trailhead] on a summer day, you’ll see the trail has hundreds of people on it. The trailside café is always packed.”

Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek rail-trail, which is sixty-two miles in length, earns $3 million to $5 million per year for the local economy, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national advocacy group. Other rail trails around the country also have proved to have economic benefit.

Closer to home, the Erie Canal Towpath is not a rail-trail per se, but it is a cycling route from Buffalo to Albany, most of which is on a path. Hundreds of cyclists use parts of the route every day. Each July, five hundred people cycle the trail west to east as part of a group tour. Some towns send out staffers to greet the riders and make suggestions for lunch stops.

Such is the impact of a group of folks on two wheels. Bicycling, after all, generates quite an appetite.

So what would it take to turn the Adirondacks’ longest section of (mostly) unused railroad track into a bike trail?

First step: build support. The state Department of Transportation, which owns the rail, expects to begin updating the master plan for the corridor in the next year or two. (It was first written in 1996.) As the plan is developed, rail-trail advocates will have their chance to be heard—by writing letters, speaking at public hearings, and otherwise arguing that a rail-trail is better for the region than a railroad.

Officials in Lake Placid already have called for replacing the tracks between their village and Saranac Lake with a bike path. Snowmobilers also support getting rid of the tracks, which prohibit sled use when snow is low. They say removal of the tracks would lead to a big boost in snowmobile tourism. Presumably, bicyclists and other recreational users also would get behind the idea.

Of course, there would be opponents. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has visions of revitalizing the entire line. And Tupper Lake has rebuilt its depot with the idea of expanding the Lake Placid tourist train.

The next step: permits. The Adirondack Park Agency already issued permits four years ago to create a bike path that would run parallel to the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake tracks. Building a new path beside the tracks proved too costly, but the APA’s approval of the project suggests the agency is not averse to creating bike paths that run through the Forest Preserve.

A long-distance trail from Thendara to Lake Placid would require new permits from the APA, along with public hearings. In addition, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and possibly the Army Corps of Engineers would need to be involved (the latter because of wetlands and stream crossings).

Actually, the federal government would have primary jurisdiction over a rail-trail project due to a 1983 law that allows for “railbanking.” The purpose of the law is to preserve right-of-ways for future use by railroads. “It’s a unique, and somewhat complex, mix of federal and state law,” said DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino.

Third step: get rid of the tracks. This is not as expensive as it might seem. In fact, it would likely cost taxpayers nothing. The state might even realize a small profit: the value of the steel rails is high enough that salvage companies would bid for the right to remove them, even though steel prices are not as high as they once were.

“Once the owner decided to sell, we can cut a check within a couple of days and start working within two weeks,” said Jason Feagans, railroad division manager at National Salvage & Service Corp. The Indiana company has undertaken a number of rail-salvage jobs around the country. Barring unforeseen problems, Feagans estimates that his crews could clear the Adirondack line in under two years.

National Salvage uses a variety of heavy machines, including excavators, boom trucks, skid loaders, and bulldozers. It has wood chippers to chop up the ties if they are too rotten for reuse. The machinery could be brought in over the rail line (or the bed, once the rails are removed), leaving the adjacent forest unmolested. In fact, heavy machinery already is brought in yearly to do maintenance on the line.

Fourth step: construct the trail. After the salvage operation, the rail bed will be left as a smooth dirt path. Many modern long-distance bike trails are covered with stone dust, a finely ground stone sand laid down by a machine and packed by a small steamroller. Once tamped, it’s as hard-packed as a dirt road—but it won’t turn into mud after a rainstorm. While not ideal for racing bikes, a stone-dust trail is great for mountain bikes and hybrid bikes and creates a rustic feel in a way that asphalt does not.

Covering a trail with stone dust costs around $150,000 per mile (as opposed to $250,000 per mile for asphalt), according to the Upper Hudson group. For an eighty-mile trail, that works out to $12 million. Granted, that’s not exactly pocket change, especially given the sorry state of New York’s finances. But with fund raising, corporate donations, grants, and the help of local governments, it’s doable. Keep in mind that the Allegheny folks raised $65 million. In New York, we already own the property and we have no expensive tunnels or giant trestles to rehabilitate.

Once the trail is built, who would maintain it? The Great Allegheny Passage is kept up by the counties who benefit from the sales-tax revenue. The Katy Trail, however, is maintained by the state of Missouri. Perhaps the Adirondack trail could be maintained through a partnership of New York State and local counties. Volunteers also could chip in, picking up litter and conducting safety patrols. They might even perform bike repairs on busy weekends (which would be sure to generate positive word-of-mouth).

While cyclists might salivate at the possibilities, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has different plans. Chairman Bill Branson said the railroad had a good season last year in spite of a bad economy. This summer, the company expects to accommodate its millionth customer.

Branson doubts that rail-trail advocates will get their way. “It’s a historic corridor,” he said. “No one’s going to be in a hurry to rip it up. I just don’t think it’s a practical question.”

The railroad hopes to expand its southern tourist route north to Big Moose and the northern route to Tupper Lake sometime in the future. In the longer term, it would like to rehabilitate the entire line and perhaps lure freight and passenger trains back to the Adirondacks.

Branson said engineers estimate that it would cost $32 million to restore the line between Thendara and Tupper Lake and $6 million to restore the section between Tupper and Saranac Lake. The railroad hopes to for state and federal aid to help pay for the work. “There’s more potential in developing it than not,” he said.

Branson has a point in that most rail-trails are built on abandoned rail beds, not ones still in use (even if that use is seasonal). Nevertheless, in a region dependent on tourists, a rail-trail north of the successful Old Forge line offers tantalizing potential.

In early June, the North Elba Town Board agreed to hire a consulting firm to investigate the comparative benefits of a rail-trail versus the train. “I’m going to be amazed if the findings don’t indicate that the railroad’s a boondoggle,” said Supervisor Roby Politi.

If Politi is right, the study could persuade more people, including perhaps the decision-makers in Albany, to get behind a bikeway proposal

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