ARTA has no guarantees that the state would pay for or manage proposed recreational trail.
By Brian Mann
FOR MORE THAN TWO years, rail-trail activists have been pushing state officials to end decades of financial support for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and convert a ninety-mile rail corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid into a year-round multi-use recreational trail.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) has argued that the tourism train has been a financial failure, requiring too much taxpayer support, and claimed that a rail trail would provide a bigger tourism draw.
Since incorporating in February 2012, ARTA has barraged the media with opinion pieces and engaged in high-level talks with Cuomo administration and state lawmakers. Its campaign played a role in the decision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) to hold a series of public meetings on the rail corridor’s future last year.
ARTA’s preliminary goal is to get the departments to reopen the management plan for the state-owned rail corridor. Created in 1995, the plan identifies the railroad as the corridor’s primary use. As of mid-February, the state had yet to decide whether to revisit the plan.
In a proposal released last year, ARTA projected that the transformation of the corridor could be accomplished quickly, with sections converted to a high-quality trail within two years. According to the proposal, the work could be done “without demands on New York taxpayers for additional financial investment.”
In 2012, Carl Knoch of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy presented findings that the first phase of the project—stretching from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake—would attract roughly a quarter-million visitors a year, generating around $20 million in spending.
That works out to 685 visitors a day. Even some trail supporters admit the figure may be overly optimistic, but they insist that a trail would attract many more tourists and do much more for the economy than the train does.
The claim that a high-quality trail could be built in stages without significant delay or additional expense to New York State has been made repeatedly by trail boosters. Last October, for example, ARTA co-founder Lee Keet wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: “Best of all, it will cost us very little to create one of the finest recreational trails in the United States.” Keet described the trail as “the single biggest job creator we can seize today.”
But an examination of ARTA’s proposal by the Adirondack Explorer, in partnership with North Country Public Radio, found that questions remain about how much the trail would cost, how it would be funded and constructed, and who would undertake the project. Even if the state agrees to remove the tracks and ties, significant political, financial, and regulatory hurdles would remain.
Experts interviewed for this story say similar challenges have often meant years and even decades of delay for other rail-trail projects around the nation. ARTA officials, meanwhile, acknowledge that their organization has so far made no effort to build the kind of staff or fund-raising capacity that might be needed to create and manage the proposed trail, instead suggesting that New York State would undertake those efforts.
Who would manage the trail?
During lengthy interviews, Keet and fellow ARTA board members Tony Goodwin and Jim Rolf suggested that the work of actually creating the rail trail should be shouldered in large part by state agencies.
“The state could decide, for example, that it would be logical for the Olympic Regional Development Authority [ORDA] to be responsible for this,” Keet said. Alternatively, he added, it could fall under the purview of DEC or DOT. ARTA and other railroad critics have been critical of Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s reliance on state funding, but Keet argued that the state’s investment in the rail-trail effort would be smaller and produce larger returns. However, he also expressed hope that state agencies would find funding to restore historical train stations, including the depot at Lake Lila, to serve as attractions along the route.
In their 2012 report, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimated that the first phase of the project—converting and upgrading the trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake—would cost $2.1 million. The group asserted that the expense could be recouped by selling the steel tracks for scrap. It says the entire ninety-mile stretch could fetch about $5 million.
Once the trail is built, Keet estimates it would cost state taxpayers roughly $180,000 a year to maintain—which he said is far lower than DOT’s annual payments to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. In 2012, the Transportation Department gave ASR a total of $1.1 million.
But there is no guarantee that the state would play a key role in implementing ARTA’s rail-trail vision or that revenue from salvaging the rails would be used to fund the project.
Indeed, ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin downplayed the notion that his organization would have the expertise or resources to operate a rail trail. “At this time there’s no indication that we would do this, and it’s out of our jurisdiction,” Lundin said.
“When we’re gone, whoever the next group is is going to have to take care of it; the state doesn’t want the responsibility,” said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the tourist train and maintains the rail corridor.
The state’s 1995 management plan did discuss possible alternatives for the corridor, including scenarios where DEC might develop and operate a trail like the one envisioned by ARTA. The plan suggested that the state would need to hire additional law-enforcement staff to patrol the corridor as well as “a full-time year-round DEC trail crew” of four workers to handle brush clearing and other maintenance.
Thus, as outlined in the management plan, the rail trail would likely need much more funding than ARTA projects. Also, the plan—including possible alternatives—was written before the state entered a period of austerity and labor-force reductions. DEC and the state parks department, the two agencies that manage trail systems in New York, have lost nearly a thousand employees since 2007.
The management plan also raised the possibility of using millions of dollars in salvage revenue to fund the trail. However, state officials say the fact that the plan discussed this idea does not mean it will be adopted if the plan is reopened.
ARTA acknowledges it has no promises that the state will manage the rail trail or commit the salvage revenue to the trail. Yet Keet said “if Governor Cuomo was convinced that this was something that New York State would benefit from greatly and the North Country would benefit from greatly, this could go very fast and not be the heavy lift that it might otherwise be.”
So far, Cuomo seems to be keeping his distance. “I haven’t taken a position in the debate,” the governor told the Enterprise in November. “I think it’s appropriate the region has the conversation, and then, if it’s appropriate, we’ll take a look at it.”
The Explorer found that a similar trail project in Vermont that hoped to rely on state funding for its creation has struggled. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail—on a ninety-three-mile state-owned corridor near St. Johnsbury, VT—was approved by that state’s legislature in 2003. But the group that lobbied for creation of the rail trail found that revenue from rail salvage was diverted into other projects.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get legislative support to put the salvage fund into the trail project. It went into the state general fund, which was really unfair,” said Ted Chase, chairman of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail committee. He noted that his group was able to begin construction only last year—a decade after getting the green light. He said ARTA would be wise to get commitments from New York if it plans to rely on state funding and salvage revenue for start-up capital or operations.
Chase also noted that fund-raising for the Lamoille trail has yet to produce significant revenue. A professional fund-raiser was hired last year, but the group has so far been forced to rely on a $5 million federal grant for initial work, which is now underway. “It’s sort of a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy and attitude on our part, knowing this is how rails-to-trails projects have happened around the country,” Chase added.
ARTA’s leaders say they have offered to handle fund-raising, trail building, marketing, and coordination if the state balks at assuming responsibility for the corridor. But Keet acknowledged that the organization has taken no steps to prepare for that responsibility.
“No, obviously not yet,” he said. “We would have to ramp up to do that. I think we have the ability to build that capacity, but we are just a board. We’re not an operating organization, we have no employees.”
ARTA’s board does, however, include members with long experience with nonprofit fund-raising and with track records developing and operating trails systems. Rolf, who is also an active member of the New York State Snowmobile Association board—which has endorsed the rail-trail vision—noted that sledding clubs already handle much of the corridor’s maintenance and care during the winter under a long-standing agreement with DOT.
Rolf said that if ARTA assumed responsibility for the corridor, managing it as a four-season trail, it would expect to be compensated by DOT much as Adirondack Scenic Railroad is now. “We [would] go in and do with volunteer help what needs to be done and they can continue to reimburse, just as they do now,” he said, adding that local groups, towns, and counties might also manage segments of the route.
One additional complication for ARTA is that, unlike the railroad, it would not have a simple way to generate revenue. The tourism train generates more than $900,000 annually in ticket sales.
ARTA board member Tony Goodwin, however, said some 1,500 rail trails around the country have demonstrated their value to local economies. “We see no reason that that wouldn’t apply here,” he said.
Representatives of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the intense debate over the Adirondack corridor. A survey by the Explorer of rail-trail projects around the United States found that locally funded, grass-roots projects often proceed slowly, with trails completed in segments over a period of years or decades. In most cases, however, trails were eventually successful and self-sustaining.
ARTA’s leaders insist that resurfacing of the Lake Placid-to-Tupper Lake portion of the trail could be done quickly with or without state backing. They also argue that tearing up the tracks and making the corridor more readily available to hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers would bring an immediate benefit to the Adirondacks, even without investing in upgrades.
“I don’t believe one snowmobiler has been able to reach Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, or Lake Placid [from Old Forge] yet this year,” complained Rolf during an interview in late December. He noted that sledders are forced to avoid the corridor in thin-snow conditions because their machines snag on the metal rails. If the tracks are removed, he said, the sledding tourism season could be extended by three to four weeks—a boon to hotels, restaurants, and taverns that rely on snowmobiles in the winter months.
While questions remain about how a rail trail would be funded and operated, ARTA has convinced many local government officials and businesses that their vision would mean big economic benefits for the Park. More than four hundred business owners, including some of the Park’s largest hotels and tourism operators, have signed a petition urging the Cuomo administration to “bring about the rail-to-trail conversion of the Lake Placid to Old Forge rail corridor as soon as possible.”
Bill Hutchison says
Kudos to Brian Mann for writing this even-handed essay that raises questions about ARTA’s fanciful proposals. The trail will be neither as cheap or easy to build as they suggest. They should stop trying to kill the railroad between Old Forge and Lake Placid and start working cooperatively with the railroad for a comprehensive solution that satisfies all. It can be done.
Doug Vensel says
What a load of BS! These guys did the corridor maintenance??? WHEN?? I did it with other volunteers for 10 years and it’s still done by RR volunteers. NOT ONCE did we get any help. Even Jim McCulley told me that why should they do it when it’s a railroad? Every damned spring we would go out and pick up after the sleds were done with it. Cut trees, cut back the brush (again and again) clean out plugged culverts and rip out beaver dams flooding roadways and causeways.
This an out and out blatant lie!! They’re taking credit for the work done by the volunteers.
Frankly, it’s about time the RR board stood up and finally said something worth hearing and supported the people who make this RR work.
ARAT obviously is purporting to be the responsible parties involve when in reality they’ll leave it up to someone else to worry about and the tax payers will be hung for it.
CONTRARY TO THE IGNORANT COMMENT MADE BY AN ILL INFORMED MR. KEET, THE RAIL OPERATION IS NOT SUBSIDIZED BY TAX MONEY! IT SUPPORTS ITSELF, AND I HEREBY CHALLENGE HIM AND THE REST OF THESE LYING CLOWNS TO BACK UP HIS ASSERTIONS WITH ACTUAL FIGURES!!!
Ryan Lennox says
I say… SAVE THE RAILS! We need these for the future… Not for a “lollygagging Rail Trail”. A financial failure? Boy the Trail advocates seem to always argue with that same line. I am a snowmobiler.. who rode them last weekend. I’m also a full time volunteer for a railroad called: Catskill Mountain Railroad. We are dealing with a similar threat from Rail Trail advocates… SAVE THEM RAILS!
Gene Falvo says
Mr. Mann has presented the clearest picture of the ARTA proposal I’ve seen in these pages to date. Given the thousands of hiking, biking and snowmobile miles already in the region, it seems a stretch to believe that one more trail is all it would take to attract those hundreds of thousands of visitors predicted by Rails-to-Trails. And the fact that much of the Corridor is so remote makes the use by casual tourists even less likely. One point not addressed in the story is that fact that work could begin this spring on track restoration but it will take years, maybe decades, to begin removing the rails and constructing the path. Years of economic impact from railroad tourism that would be lost. The region should focus on Rails AND Trails.
Doug Vensel says
Maybe it’s time you and the rest of the board starting doing something instead of remaining silent about it. Paying lip service isn’t going to fix this. If you guys can’t do it, maybe it’s time someone else tried. You let these opponents get away with their lies and do nothing. Show a little backbone for once. Speak the hell up!!
In the summer of 1980, well after the Olympics had ended, the Adirondack Railroad of the time carried nearly 12,000 passengers in just two months. There is no reason to doubt that similar numbers are not possible now.
Given the money to rehabilitate the corridor, those passengers could be arriving in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid as early as 2015 – not the tens of years this article indicates it could take to complete the trail.
Regarding the salvage value of the rails – once the salvage company takes their cut (50%?), there will be the cost of remediating the ties. One estimate I’ve seen indicates that the remaining moneys would be in the low five figure range – hardly enough for the signage proclaiming how great the someday trail will be.
The railroad is a genuinely shovel-ready project, and has a proven effect on the communities it currently touches. There is no reason to delay completion of the line. Operating trains will allow thousands of people who cannot hike or bike such a trail to enjoy the beauty of our Adirondacks, and may even make areas near the line more accessible to those who would like to hike, bike, camp, or otherwise partake of the forest.
In addition, the ten thousand vehicles that will be necessary to carry those twenty thousand hikers won’t even have to enter the preserve. How environmentally friendly is that?
All I can say is, if they finish rebuilding the railroad, I’ll take it to visit Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, like we could back during the Olympics.
If they rip it up for a trail, I won’t visit at all.
Trains made the Park what it is. Rails opened the park up to the first tourists and helped foster an interest in the ADK wilderness that has grown even stronger as time goes by. That is something to consider as history tends to repeat itself.
What I can’t understand is why not leave them in and push for a Third Olympics in Lake Placid??? The US is due to host a winter games again soon and Lake Placid is synonymous with that idea. The region sure could use the infusion of investment. It is not that far fetched and even just pushing the idea would spread the word about the history of Lake Placid for anyone not old enough to remember. Both the 1932 and 1980 Olympics were great for the USA teams, and they say the third times the charm!
Top Gun says
Forty-Two years folks! There has not been train service in Tupper Lake for over 42 years and during that time not one company has even remotely expressed an interest restoring regular passenger or freight service on this line. So that leaves us with a seasonal tourist train offering 15 mph rides a few days a week for several months a year. The majority of these tracks are so deteriorated that trains are not allowed on them and it will cost millions of tax dollars to repair and maintain them. There is little demand for this service.
Most people are coming to the Adirondacks for outdoor recreation, not to ride a train!
I took my family on the scenic railway from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake and back 6 years ago. It was somewhat fun, but to call it a “scenic” railway is a huge over-promise. 95% of the route is in an alley of deep pine forest, so all you see are dark trees going by. I did get a slight glimpse of the top of Scarface mountain through the trees, but I can get that same view from my car windows. So it was a bit of a let down, once you get past the novelty and fun of riding on a train. We haven’t been back since, and will very likely never go back again.
The only thing that might get me to use that train, is if it truly did run from Utica up to Lake Placid, as an actual, useable form of transportation. But since the line no longer connects, it’s completely useless to me. The fact is, I’m an outdoor enthusiast, 46er, mountain and road biker, hiker, etc. When I go to the Adirondacks, I want to get up to the high peaks/Olympic region 9 times out of 10. The lake country and other areas are great, too, but I need a way to get to Lake Placid. Right now, a car is the only option.
So I’m in favor of the rail trail. My family and I would use the bike trail, when staying in LP. So would other cyclists, and the prospect of much higher snowmobile traffic in the winter months would certainly be helpful to both towns’ economies.
My vote is: it’s time to let go of this flatlining, if not dead, railway (that isn’t even scenic).
I appreciate the opportunity to have read this and I will consider it and I’ll come back in the future, to read what others who find this article are thinking about the subject.
Bruce Van Deuson says
Gee, the supporters of the trail make it sound as if people are standing around with money in their pockets, just waiting for the trail to be built so they can use the trail and spend their money on the local economy.
The other thing which someone else has brought out, is that many miles of the corridor are not readily accessible because of the remoteness, much like our local Appalachian Trail here in NC. Only those sections with ready road access will be regularly used, with the remainder sucking up maintenance costs, but generating little revenue from the hard-core trail enthusiasts who would be the primary users. Most folks want a nice afternoon walk, not a 3-day adventure away from everyone in the wilderness. As for the sledders, that’s motorized conveyance and doesn’t require lots of access points, and apparently the corridor is already used by sledders when there is sufficient snow.