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View of the Floodwood Pond area from the tourist train
View of the Floodwood Pond area from the tourist train

Study raises pros and cons of scenic train

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A new study released last night in Tupper Lake is raising questions about the future of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

The non-profit tourist train already carries thousands of passengers every year between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

The company hopes to expand that service soon to include the route to Tupper Lake.

But backers of the new report say state and local officials should also consider tearing up the tracks and building a multi-use trail for bicycles and snowmobiles.

Brian Mann has our story.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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A debate has raged for nearly a decade over what to do with the old rail line that runs from Lake Placid down through the Tri-Lakes and then across the central Adirondack wilderness to Old Forge.   

A growing coalition of activists wants to tear up the tracks and build a new multi-use trail.

Jim McCulley head of Lake Placid’s snowmobile club said that would open the floodgates to a new wave of snowmobile tourists.

"I think it’d be huge.  You've got 3,000-4,000 snowmobilers every weekend in Old Forge who would like to come north, but they can't do it because it's too dangerous," he argued.

McCulley said even in deep snow riders who use the route sometimes hit the iron rails, damaging their sled and causing accidents.

This debate makes for strange bedfellows and on this issue many cross-country skiers, hikers and bike-riders agree with the snowmobile groups that the route owned by the state Department of Transportation would get more use if the rails were torn up.

"I have no doubt that the rails should come up," said Tony Goodwin, head of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society.  "The tourist railroad is not a viable option."

On the other side of this argument is an equally sizable coalition of economic development leaders, tourism officials, and train enthusiasts like Bill Branson. 

"To tear the tracks up I think would be a diservice to the taxpayers.  This is part of our history.  Andt here is only one.  Once this is gone, it'll be gone."

Branson is head of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which now operates a seasonal excursion train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.  Branson says he thinks it’s already a settled question that the rail bed should be used for trains.

"We just bought two new locomotives last month from Canadian national.  We're moving ahead.  We believe the DOT has made the determination that the best use of the corridor is its current use.  And it seems to be going the way that we would like.  This is not about people playing with trains.  This is about preserving the history of the mountains."

Those views are obviously pretty far apart.  At a meeting last night at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake a group called Adirondack Action tried to pump more facts and information into what’s become a heated argument.

 The group released a new study that attempted to measure the relative advantages of a multi-use trail versus a restored railroad on the stretch of line between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.

The report concludes that a trail system would create slightly more jobs and economic activity than the tourism train – 20 new jobs compared to just 13.

But it also found that converting the railbed into a modern, attractive trail would be more expensive than simply refurbishing the railroad, costing about $4 million more.

Ted Kolankowski with the firm Barton & Loguidice helped prepare the study.  He says more goes into building a modern multi-use trail system than people realize.

"Removing an existing [train] infrastructure and replacing it with a new one, I think that's wh [it's so costly]," he said.

The report also attempted to clarify a question that’s been hotly debated in the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake – and that’s just how much success the current tourist train has enjoyed.

Carmen Lorentz who worked on the economic impact portion of the study for a company called Camoin Associates, says about 14,000 people ride the Adirondack Scenic Railroad every season between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

Lorentz says average ridership is 80 passengers per trip.

"We feel it's very accurate.  We actually got the ridership numbrers from Adirondack Scenic Railroad and were able to verify it based on their annual ticket sales," she said.

But while this study attempted to create a more factual basis for the debate, critics last night immediately began questioning the assumptions that shaped it.

"I live on Averyville Road, which is where the train pulls out of," said McCulley.  "I don't see 80 riders per trip any day of the week.  I find that number hard to believe."

Other conclusions in the report also raised eyebrows, including a claim that if the railroad is refurbished from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake at a cost of 14 million dollars it would only attract about 8,000 additional train passengers per year.

Bill Branson says he thinks over time new ridership would be much higher.

"It's gorgeous.  I think other groups would like to be a part of that."

A couple of other assumptions in the report also drew skepticism.  One was the decision by Camoin and Associates that a new multi-use trail wouldn’t attract new hikers or skiers to the area.

Co-author Carmen Lorentz says she’s convinced that there are already so many trails in the region that a rails-to-trails venue wouldn’t be a significant new draw for those kinds of tourists.

But she acknowledged that her assumption wasn’t based on data or analysis from other rail-to-trail projects.

"We couldn't actually find any studies that addressed that question specifically," Lorentz said.  "So we didn't have anything very solid to base that on.  It was just a logical assumption that we came to on our own."

People on both sides of the debate were also fiercely critical of the cost estimates for this project. 

According to Barton and Loguidice’s figures, refurbishing the railroad to Tupper Lake would cost around $10 million dollars. Branson says he thinks volunteers and non-profit railroad groups will do much of that work for free.

"It's very possible that we could do this for a quarter of those estimates," he said. 

Supporters of a trail system meanwhile, say they don’t think building an adequate multi-use trail would cost $14 million. 

They point out that other abandoned railroads in the North Country – including the popular Bloomingdale Bog trail – already draw heavy foot, bicycle, snowmobile and ski traffic with only rudimentary maintenance.

"They've way overblown the cost estimatest of the trail," McCulley said.  "I mean it's ridiculous.  You could your bicycle there tomorrow if the tracks were removed." 

Dave Wolff, head of Adirondack Action, says his big take-away from the study funded by his group is that the community should decide on one option or the other and move forward quickly.

"Doing either one is better than doing nothing," Wolff argued.

But even that conclusion will likely draw scrutiny.  The report found that only between 13 and 20 new permanent jobs would be created by either approach – most of them paying only around $24,000 a year.

That’s well below the region’s average salary. At a cost of between $10 and $14 million, and with state and Federal budgets tightening, some will question whether either plan is a good investment.

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