As Adirondack Park waits on rail trail construction, Pennsylvania GAP Trail boosts local business and offers hope for enthusiasts
By Michael Virtanen
On a summer morning in West Newton, Pennsylvania, Leslie Pierce pointed to four brightly painted bed-and-breakfasts—houses just across the way from the GAP Trail—as simple and obvious evidence of the economic boost that came from converting the old railroad line there into a packed gravel bicycle path.
“You should have seen them 10 years ago. They were dumps,” said Pierce, business manager for the Regional Trail Corp., which operates the visitor center there in a replica train station and maintains part of the 149-mile trail. B&Bs and other businesses have popped up elsewhere along it, she said.
In the Adirondacks, supporters of the new 34-mile rail trail under construction between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake are looking for similar results.
West Newton, 24.5 miles south of Pittsburgh with a population somewhere north of 2,500, has the worn hardscrabble look of a former coal and factory town, but not along the rail trail. It runs next to the Youghiogheny River, which like the railroad is another key to its commercial past. Instead, there’s a grassy trailside corridor, benches, the river and a cavernous bike shop just across the main street with a restaurant above it, and people walking or riding by.
At a downtown bakery two blocks away, the cashier said they get a lot of business from cyclists passing through.
In Lake Clear, John H. Brockway Sr. stood outside Charlie’s Inn a month later, looking over the dirt-packed unfinished northern bike trail, where the train rails had been removed earlier and stacked in a rusty pile. He said grading has been done and expected that section of the Adirondack Rail Trail to get covered in crushed stone and finished in the spring. He predicted a financial boost from the trail for the small hotels in Tupper Lake 19 miles down the line.
Snowmobiles should be able to ride it this winter.
“These communities are going to come back,” Brockway said. He and his wife, Jill, own and operate the bar, restaurant, inn and 30-trailer campground on nine acres, where business has been good this summer during the coronavirus pandemic that has kept Americans closer to home. They own the old train station, now used for storage. A longtime advocate of the rail trail conversion, he’s thinking of turning the old station into a beer garden and bike shop as the trail develops.
But will the cyclists come? And will the reported economic success of the 333.5-mile. bicycle route that extends from Pittsburgh south to Washington, D.C., translate to the shorter Adirondack route?
Park and ride
One family explores recreation opportunities along Adirondack Rail Trail
Contentious questions remain. Should it be extended farther south? Will newly rehabilitated railroad tracks from Big Moose north to Tupper—a train line that begins in Utica and currently carries tourists north to Remsen or Thendara—bring more visitors? Would that include cyclists who could load their bikes in a baggage car and pedal north from Tupper?
The GAP or Greater Allegheny Passage may offer a few clues, though the circumstances are different. Begun in 1978, bought and built-in sections from abandoned rail lines, the bike trail cost more than $80 million over 35 years. Funds came from federal, state and private sources. The last nine-mile section north to Pittsburgh was completed in 2013.
The GAP actually ends in Cumberland, Maryland, where bike riders can continue down the 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal Towpath to the nation’s capital. Motorized vehicles are prohibited.
The two trails together can take long-distance cyclists well over a week to cross.
The Adirondack trail will be used also by snowmobilers, staple winter clients at Charlie’s Inn, who will no longer risk damaging their sleds on the rails. “It’s a major safety issue. People get hurt on a daily basis,” Brockway said.
State officials say the trail’s surface will be compacted stone dust along most stretches. Designers are trying to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disability Act and build in wheelchair accessibility. The ADA allows for exceptions in “rare instances” where it is “structurally impracticable.”
A 2009 study by Headwaters Economics of the GAP’s impact the previous two years concluded that many businesses near it “have experienced increased revenue due to their proximity to the trail, and expect to expand operations to meet demand.
“The greatest economic impact comes from overnight trail users, who spend seven times as much as day users,” the study said. It also found that its appeal “comes from two unique characteristics: it is one of the longest continuous non-motorized corridors in the U.S.; and its proximity to the major population centers of Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. at either end. While these features result in particularly high use, communities near other long-distance trails would likely see a similar difference between single-day and multi-day users’ economic impact.”
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A 2015 study by the Trail Town Program of The Progress Fund, which supports small businesses, noted the 149-mile GAP Trail sections are now owned and operated variously by municipalities, the nonprofit trail corporation, and the state.
Most riders surveyed for that study said it was their first trip and they were traveling in groups of two. Some 62 percent were planning an overnight stay and spending almost $125.
Forty-five businesses—lodging, eateries, and retail—reported an overall increase in trail user traffic: from 34 percent in 2013 to 41 percent in 2014. Their international traffic was 6 percent of the total. Almost half of the businesses planned to expand and most attributed it to the impact of the trail.
During an hour in West Newton, more than a dozen cyclists rode past the visitors’ center, which Pierce runs for the Regional Trail Corp. It contains maps, guidebooks, memorabilia, rest rooms, and clothing, including socks she said have become popular buys among riders, who come from all over the world. The coronavirus pandemic reduced international traffic, which has started to open up again, she said.
“Saturday and Sunday you’ll see a lot of people,” said Pat Nolder, a retiree who lives nearby and stopped there that sunny morning.
“You’ll see travelers with saddlebags on,” his friend and cycling partner Wayne Kulis added.
The official trail map shows lodging, campsites, restaurants, groceries, drinking water, rest rooms and Amtrak stations along the way. Another rail line still operates just across the river, carrying mostly freight and some passenger trains.
The men were riding about 24 miles and cycle weekly, sometimes three or four times, on that section of the former train tracks.
In winter, some cross-country skiers use it. The trail is considered closed for riding at night. The 3,294-foot tunnel through Big Savage Mountain, between Meyersdale, Pa., and Frostburg, Md., is closed from early December to early April with no easy detour.
JOIN A COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT ADIRONDACK JOURNALISM
An economic study for the Greater Allegheny Passage Conservancy of 2020 use—by Saint Vincent College Economics Professor Andrew Herr—and using volunteer counters, estimated there were nearly 1.5 million visits to the 149-mile GAP portion, up nearly 51 percent and saying that likely reflected restrictions on other recreation and entertainment from the pandemic.
Herr estimated more than 117,000 were through-riders. Trail estimates since 2015 showed an overall annual increase of about 14 percent a year, he wrote.
Another possible indicator is the 2011 user survey by the Pennsylvania conservancy managers of the 15-mile Lebanon Valley Rail Trail, also measuring use of the contiguous 5.5-mile Conewago Recreation Trail.
Using infrared counters and completed surveys from users, they estimated 125,244 annual user visits to the combined trails and $1.3 million economic impact, with more than $875,320 directly into the local economy. More than 64 percent of the users were local.
In New York, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it’s developing a web page with updates on rail-trail construction and various segments, while recommending against public riding until the terrain is graded and finished, though some cyclists and hikers have already used it. The DEC estimated the cost of removing tracks at $1.9 million.
The DEC will be ultimately responsible and projects overall costs of $22.9 million for the trail. That includes parking lots; pull-offs for bicycles, pedestrians and snowmobiles; retaining walls; stormwater measures; wetlands mitigation and signage, as well as basic trail construction and rail removals.
The department expects the entire trail to be open in 2025, with sections open as they are finished.
Brockway said snowmobiles should be able to ride on it this winter. “They’re grandfathered in,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Adirondack Scenic Railway resumed train operations from Utica in July, following a Covid shutdown, with regular runs to Thendara, just south of Old Forge. It has also run some round-trips farther north to Big Moose.
The railroad says it plans to start service to Tupper Lake next year. It also now offers four-passenger rail bikes at Thendara, which can be rented for seven-mile round trips on the tracks. Cyclists can store their own bikes in the railroad baggage cars for the trip north to pedal elsewhere in the Adirondacks on their own.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society has been raising $60,000 to help buy another locomotive for the trip of almost 100 miles from Utica to Tupper Lake.
The state Department of Transportation says the track removal and rehabilitation of 45 miles from Big Moose to Tupper Lake is on schedule for completion this fall in a $19.1 million project. The DOT plans to rehabilitate platforms and rail sidings at Beaver River, Sabattis and Tupper Lake starting next year for $12.7 million to be completed in 2023.
“The intent is to begin excursion rail service from Big Moose to Tupper Lake beginning next spring as it would be too late this season with the upcoming changeover to snowmobile use,” department spokesman Joe Morrissey said. The platform and sidings work won’t preclude rail service in the spring, he said.
The state’s decision to convert part of the rail line for other recreation and to restore tracks farther south was a compromise between advocates on both sides.
The state agencies didn’t formally consider putting a bike trail alongside the rehabilitated rail line, saying the narrowness of the corridor limits the capacity to safely accommodate multiple uses.
“Nobody has really taken a good look at that and whether the compromise worked out in 2015 … whether the whole thing makes any sense,” said former Adirondack Explorer Publisher Dick Beamish, a board member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He said the railroad piece will cost far more and questioned the ridership that will follow compared to the recreational trail.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society has been operating tourist trains seasonally in the state-owned rail corridor since 1992. The former New York Central line was built a century earlier with operations continuously until 1972.
On its website, the railroad says it has carried more than 74,000 riders annually on hundreds of trains.
In its latest posted filing with New York’s attorney general, the nonprofit reported $1.6 million from 2018 ticket sales.
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This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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