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Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for the northeast region office the the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for the northeast region office the the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Photo: Mark Kurtz

Rails to trail advocates stick to the positive

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A local advocacy group is trying to highlight the possible economic benefits of a year-round, multi-use recreational trail between Lake Placid and Old Forge. The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates hosted a meeting at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake on Wednesday to unveil a new study on the potential economic impact of the group's proposed Adirondack Recreational Trail.

More than 100 people attended the presentation, which focused on the first stage of the would-be trail: the 34-mile span between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. As Chris Morris reports, the group, known as ARTA, is spending less time talking about the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and is instead focusing on the benefits of the trail.

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Trail advocate lee keet, and the crowd at the ARTA presentation. Photo: Mark Kurtz

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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This new study was conducted by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy following weeks of detailed analysis by Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for the group’s Northeast office. It shows that a trail could be constructed between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake at no cost, if rails and ties between Saranac Lake and Old Forge can be salvaged and sold for $65,000 per mile.

“The goals of the project were to do a site assessment,” Knoch said. “On a cold, rainy day, (ARTA members) Jim (McCulley), Tony (Goodwin) and I walked the entire nine-and-a-half miles from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake along the rail corridor to get a firsthand perspective of what this corridor looked like. Then I went back to my office and started to do research, and I wanted to research to different things: We wanted to research what it costs to build a trail, and what the economic impact of a trail is.”

Knoch says stage one could attract more than 240,000 visitors and generate nearly $20 million in annual spending. The study works on the assumption that the town of North Elba will move forward with and complete a parallel recreational trail. Knoch says the highest estimated cost to construct a trail from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake would be about $5,357,000. That’s approximately $760,000 more than what a recently released Stone Consulting report estimated for upgrading the rail line between the two communities.

Knoch says that stretch between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake is currently in poor condition. “There are places where, literally, the ties are hanging with no ground underneath them, rotted ties — five, six, seven ties in a row are rotted out — so it’s in pretty bad shape,” he said.

According to Knoch, the costs to put down a recreational trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are significantly less if the railroad is removed. But ARTA says it supports North Elba’s plan to build a parallel trail using more than $3 million in grant money and potential private donations. This new study is the third examination of the rail corridor in less than two years.

Earlier this year, several groups that support enhanced railroad service in the region teamed up to sponsor a study by Stone Consulting on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s economic impact. It found that current railway operations have a $3 million economic impact on the region in direct spending and could bring $5.5 million in tourist spending annually if the railroad is rehabilitated from Utica to Lake Placid. In 2011, a Camoin Associates study showed that either expanding railroad operations or replacing the railroad with a recreational trail would have a larger economic impact than doing nothing.

ARTA co-founder Lee Keet says both prior studies lacked “essential information,” and the Camoin study used “fairly suspect” methodology. He says the Camoin study only counted new cyclists who would come to the region to use the trail, not other users like snowmobilers and hikers.

“Camoin assumed, and this to me is a biggie, that the traffic would be proportional to the trail length,” Keet said. “In other words, a 100-mile trail would bring in four times as many people as a 25-mile trail. Well, the study you’re about to see disproves that. Most of the trails in the United States have visitor populations that are not related to their length; they’re related to the attractiveness of the locale, the scenery and the amenities nearby.”

Notably absent from Wednesday’s meeting were vocal supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. During a public comment period following the presentation, every speaker expressed support for the trail and lauded ARTA’s efforts. Pete Nelson, who has visited the Adirondack Park for most of his life, says a recreational trail would have a huge impact on the region’s economy. He says the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in his home state of Wisconsin has put small, rural communities on the map.

“In the Atwood neighborhood on the outskirts of Madison where I live, there’s a rail corridor that was abandoned for a long time and went through one of the seedier neighborhoods in the city,” Nelson said. “Now it’s filled with restaurants and businesses. Everybody in Wisconsin knows that recreational trails are an irreplaceable part of our economy. This is not a matter of a little bit better this way or a little bit better that way. This is a game-changer.”

Before the meeting, Matt Scollin of Saranac Lake said he hasn’t followed the rail corridor debate too closely over the last couple of years. He said he went to the meeting to get a better sense of what was at stake. Speaking after the meeting ended, Scollin said he still didn’t have a solid opinion about whether the railway should be upgraded or removed in favor of a trail, but said that he shared some of the trail advocates views.

“What I can claim to know is that I walked along the corridor one day,” he said. “I went out and I walked from Kinney Drugs to McCauley Pond. I just kept going because it was beautiful. That’s under-utilized; there’s no two ways about it. Even with the scenic railroad, it’s not the same benefit that you get from wondering what’s around the next bend and walking up around that next bend and seeing it.”

ARTA’s organizers say people like Scollin, the one’s who haven’t made up their minds, are the ones his organization needs to convince. Bill Branson, board president for Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, said Thursday he hadn’t reviewed the study yet. He notes that the Adirondack Park is “laced with trails,” but there’s only one north-south railroad. He said ARTA’s efforts won’t distract rail supporters from their push for improved rail service on the corridor.

But while train advocates seem eager to put the rails versus trails debate behind them, ARTA organizers say they plan to keep promoting the idea that use of the rail corridor deserves a second look.

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