A study released in January makes one thing wonderfully clear: We need to face reality about the best use of the railroad line that runs thirty-four miles from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, and another fifty-four miles from Tupper to Old Forge. The study, undertaken by Camoin Associates, should put an end to the nostalgic dream of restoring rail service through the Adirondacks. It should also open the way for a more appropriate and beneficial use of the old railroad bed—the creation of a world-class recreation trail through some of the loveliest,wildest, lake-studded backcountry in the eastern United States.
For a dozen years, a tourist train has been operating on the ten miles of track between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The train runs from May to October, and it looks mostly empty most of the time as it toots merrily by at road crossings. The anticipated benefits from this enterprise—the business it was supposed to generate for restaurants, shops, art galleries, lodging places, etc.—have not materialized. Yet the heavily subsidized, nonprofit company that operates the train has been pushing for more government assistance to continue its service another twenty-four miles to Tupper Lake.
The Camoin study found that it would cost taxpayers $12.5 million to do what the train operators have in mind, while the expanded service would produce $758,000 a year in new tourist spending. To some critics, the spending figures seem wildly optimistic. But aside from that, one nagging question remains: Where will the money come from to upgrade and extend the line? The state and federal troughs are nearly empty, and our local officials aren’t about to saddle us with a multi-million debt just to gamble on something that has already proved to be an economic boondoggle.
The second option presented in the study calls for converting the rail bed into a multi-use recreational trail that includes bicycling in the warmer months and, with the rails removed, a longer, safer season for snowmobiling. The study assumes that a recreationway linking Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake would produce $1.2 million in year-round tourist spending from cyclists and snowmobilers. As a downside, it also projects a cost of $17.1 million to convert the rail into a trail, using state-of-the-art construction and surfacing.
So where does that leave us? Do we bemoan the lack of money, shelve the study, and spend another forty years dithering? Fortunately, there’s a far better option not considered in the study, though it jumps out at us from all the data. The cost of removing the rails and ties on the thirty-four miles of line between Placid and Tupper is estimated at $2.1 million. The salvage value, however, is $2.7 million. This puts us $600,000 ahead. At the same rate of return after costs, the sale of rails and ties from the next fifty-four miles between Tupper Lake and Old Forge would net $952,938—for a grand total of more than $1.5 million that could be used for trail work. With abundant assistance from volunteers, the entire eighty-eight miles of rail bed could be graded and rolled, after ruts and holes are filled in, at minimal expense.
Voila! We now have a mountain-biking trail, along with a greatly improved snowmobile trail, traversing much of the Adirondack Park. Over time and with more volunteer aid, the surface could be upgraded, section by section, for use by hybrid and road bikes. Based on experience elsewhere, this Great Adirondack Recreationway would attract visitors—and repeat business—from all over. It would be another compelling reason for people to visit the Adirondacks, year after year, and it would establish bicycling as a major recreational activity right up there with hiking and paddling.
The trail would attract recreationists of all ages and abilities, including solo cyclists, couples, families, outing clubs, school groups, nature lovers, fisherfolk, campers, you name it. And those who ride on the bikeway won’t be limited to the former rail corridor; they can exit the trail at various points along the way to explore the scenic, peaceful country roads and welcoming hamlets thoughout the Park.
Some argue that we should combine the tourist train and recreation trail, let them exist side-by-side and make everyone happy. At first glance a rail-with-trail seems the ideal solution, but at second glance it appears totally impractical. This option was not even considered in the Camoin study due to the astronomical costs of doubling the width of the railroad bed to accommodate both train and trail, and because of the major environmental disturbance it would cause due to filling in wetlands and other construction impacts.
Thanks to the new study, the way is clear and the price is right. It’s time to move beyond nostalgia and wishful thinking and put one of our greatest regional assets to work.
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You can download the Camoin study at www.adkaction.org/Rail-Corridor-Study
Dick Beamish, Chairman