Thank you for the generally fine job that the North Country Regional Economic Development Council is doing in directing state funds to important development projects in this region. Our reason for writing, however, is to express concern about one aspect of NCREDC’s work where your processes and management have fallen short.
Why, for example, did NCREDC just reaffirm its support for rail restoration on the Remsen-to-Lake Placid corridor? Planning documents that you submitted to the state describe the following as a “key strategy”: “Preserve and rehabilitate all surviving rail infrastructure in the Adirondacks, including the Adirondack railroad from Remsen to Lake Placid.” Note the emphasis on this one of many rail corridors, the only one where a true recreation-trail alternative is being pursued, and the only one for which three major studies have been done over the last eighteen months.
But emphasis aside, on what basis can this be judged a “key strategy”? The accompanying text makes a vague reference to the need for trains in the future, but there are no data to support this claim, nor any evidence of their relative efficiency. (It requires 700 passengers on a train to equal the current fuel efficiency of a bus, and increases in fuel prices do not affect this ratio much.) Tourists overwhelmingly prefer the flexibility of their own cars, which are gaining in fuel efficiency much faster than trains.
Utica to Lake Placid was once a logical rail route, when logs and lumber products were rolling out of the Adirondacks, when there was no air transportation and only the roughest of roads to get visitors in. But freight and passenger service ended for lack of demand more than forty years ago. Today there is not even any demand for bus service from Utica into the Adirondacks along the path of the old railroad. A lightly used, nine-mile tourist train based in Lake Placid, which the Albany Times Union recently called “the little train that shouldn’t,” blocks an unused, 81-mile corridor through spectacular wilderness that could easily be converted into one of the nation’s most popular recreation trails.
The central question is this: How is NCREDC making its decisions? How can something that makes no sense from an economic or any other standpoint be justified as a “key strategy”? It is clearly not based on public demand. Informal polls have shown overwhelming public preference for a recreation trail. In just one year, 9,000 petitioners have asked the State to change the use of the rail bed to active outdoor recreation. As for the economic impact of a rail-to-trail conversion, recent studies show a 30:1 advantage of a recreation trail over a train on that particular corridor. Why, then, would restoration of a defunct train service, for which there is no need and no demand, be a priority for an economic development council?
This “key strategy” seems tied to some vague hope that if we build it someone will use it.
We have unused industrial parks all over the Adirondacks based on this same kind of wishful thinking.
We have also found that the grant process has a built-in bias for the status quo. To apply for grant money for projects that use State assets, one must first get approval from the manager of that asset. That itself could prevent many useful ideas from being seriously considered when lower-level bureaucrats at the agency in question—in this case, a regional office of the state Department of Transportation—tend to resist change.
Our organization has underwritten research showing that rail restoration on 90-miles of the old line between Old Forge and Lake Placid is an economic non-starter, incurring huge costs to restore mostly unwanted service. There are no data to support the contention that, other than the one-time expenditure of funds for the actual restoration, renewed rail service would benefit our regional economy. Yet there is ample data showing that a multi-use recreational trail (for biking, running, walking, birding, snowmobiling, wheelchair use, etc.) would greatly improve the economic health of the region. Such an amenity would also enhance the quality of life and physical health of countless residents and visitors.
The North Country Chamber of Commerce’s own study, undertaken by Stone Consulting, says that spending $16 million (Stone’s estimate, while NYSDOT puts the cost at $43 million) to restore rail service between Old Forge and Lake Placid will bring only 7,000 new overnight visitors to the region each year resulting in $686,000 in new tourist spending. In striking contrast is the enclosed study by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the developer of many of the nation’s most successful recreation trails. RTC estimates that 244,000 in new visitors a year, and $19.8 million in new annual spending, will result from converting the rail bed to a one-of-a-kind recreation trail—and that’s just for the 34 miles of corridor connecting Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake. Up to $44 million in additional spending by snowmobilers could be shared by communities along the corridor if the obstructing rails are removed between Tupper Lake and Old Forge.
And the price is right! According to the RTC study, the entire cost of creating the Lake Placid-to-Tupper Lake section of the recreation trail could be covered by the proceeds from salvaging the rails and ties between Lake Placid and Old Forge.
None of the data from the three major studies released since early last year seems to have entered into the decision to make rail restoration on this corridor a “key strategy.” Nor did the well-documented success of rail-to-trail conversions elsewhere in the Northeast seem to get much attention from NCREDC. We are unaware of any open debate on the economics of rails-versus-trails, though such debate was clearly warranted.
Obviously, your charter is to foster economic development. What could be more central to your mission than a recreational-trail project that will generate tens of millions of dollars in new local spending at little or no cost to taxpayers? We are at your disposal to provide data, expertise, and any other support you could use to capitalize on the potential of this extraordinary resource, which has been sitting here, sadly underutilized, for the past forty years.
As you probably know, we have called for the removal of Co-chair Garry Douglas for his questionable judgment and unquestionable bias, including his distribution of misleading flyers claiming support for rail restoration by many leading Adirondack institutions that promptly denied such support in writing. Mr. Douglas also issued a call, in his letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press, to suppress debate on alternatives to restoring train service and to “drown out” such voices at your own public hearing. This from someone charged by Governor Cuomo with promoting tourist-based development in the North Country!
Now we are seeing signs of economic coercion, both overt and implied, as communities located along the rail bed start to take public stands in favor of alternatives to rail restoration, as the Town of North Elba recently did. Supervisor Roby Politi, who voted against North Elba’s resolution favoring track removal, has repeatedly expressed his personal preference for removing the tracks. When asked by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise if his formal vote opposing rail removal was influenced by Garry Douglas’s key role in awarding state funds to local governments, Supervisor Politi replied: “It’s certainly something I took under consideration.”
As a result of Mr. Douglas’s obsession with restoring trains in the Adirondacks whether or not they serve a useful economic purpose, in this case his determination to restore the Remsen-Lake Placid line, it seems that NCREDC’s stance in favor of all rails over any trails thwarts the process it was created to pursue.
We urge you to reconsider how you arrive at your “key strategies,” hopefully using true economic development as the measure. We urge you to overcome any built-in biases that may reflect personal preferences over carefully researched positions. If you do, we believe you will conclude that a faith-based passion for restoring rail service, on corridors that no longer serve industry or the public, should be replaced by hard economic analyses and by projects that lead to real economic development.
Thank you for your attention to one of the greatest opportunities for compatible economic development in the Adirondack Park.
ARTA Board: Tupper Lake: Hope Frenette, Chris Keniston; Saranac Lake: Dick Beamish, Lee Keet, Joe Mercurio; Keene: Tony Goodwin; Lake Placid: Jim McCulley; Beaver River: Scott Thompson
ARTA‘s position is that the rails-or-trails debate should be about our economy, and that the pro and con arguments on each side should be fact-based. As you know, we feel that your fervent advocacy for rail restoration has created an untenable conflict of interest with your positions as head of the North Country Chamber of Commerce and Co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
Both of these roles call for an objective, dispassionate, fact-based analysis of what is best for local economic development, not a faith-based obsession with rail restoration in the face of overwhelming evidence that a recreation trail would do more to stimulate our economy. So far no evidence has surfaced supporting any benefits from rail restoration, other than the wishful thinking that “if we rebuild it they will come”.
We have sent the attached letter to the other members of the NCREDC and to the Governor and his key staff. We are pressing local governments along the rail corridor to take a stance in favor of what is best for their constituents, and we are asking the state to reopen the Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the rail corridor as a first step toward moving these decisions from the shadows into the light.
We believe the handwriting is on the wall. People clearly want a recreation trail, not a tourist train, and our local communities need the economic development that a recreation trail will foster.
The data in support of the conversion of the rail bed to a recreational trail is now overwhelming.
In keeping with the Governor’s recent statement that decisions about the best use of the Thendara-to-Lake Placid corridor should be arrived at regionally, the people of our region–including a growing number of local governments–are speaking up and letting their preference for a recreational trail be known. It is ARTA’s intention to pursue this democratic process to its conclusion, secure in the knowledge that the alternative is unsustainable.
(The letter is signed by Joe Mercurio)