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Time to replace the railroad with a recreation path

August 17, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
I recently learned about a new advocacy group that is looking for a piece of the great Adirondack pie. Over the years, like most locals, I have developed an affliction that is often triggered by the mention of the word “advocacy.”

Typically, it is a noticeable flinch, a tangible cringe or a rolling of the eyes that is often followed by a retort, such as “What do they want to save us from now?”

However, the new group has already assembled an impressive, and unlikely, cast of allies, including some familiar faces. Among them is Jim McCulley, a Lake Placid snowmobiler who has butted heads with the state Department of Environmental Conservation over the use of motor vehicles on state forest preserve land. He was ticketed for driving on the Old Mountain Road section of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, and won the case.

McCulley will join Tony Goodwin from Keene Valley, who has long been a staunch advocate for trail development. Goodwin heads the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society during the summer months and manages the Jackrabbit Ski Trail in the winter, along with working on a host of other worthwhile projects.

In his spare time, Goodwin manages to author guidebooks on hiking trails in the High Peaks and ski tours of the Adirondacks. Goodwin knows trails and how to build bridges to develop both community support and community connectors.

Lee Keets is a fourth generation Saranac Lake resident, who earned a degree of local notoriety a few years back for his efforts to quash a proposed car race on the ice of Lake Colby. Depending on you ask, Keets has been equally scorned and adored for his efforts. Regardless of your take, he’s certainly proved that he can get the job done.

Last, but not least, is Dick Beamish, a founder of the popular and widely read Adirondack Explorer, an outdoor journal that is the flagship for a modest advocacy group known as Getting the Word Out. Beamish earned his advocacy chops while working for the Adirondack Park Agency, the Adirondack Council and the Quiet Waters Campaign. Rhetoric aside, Beamish is simply a biker at heart.

When the entire crew is locked together in the same room, there’s bound to be some fireworks, and when it happens, I hope to be there. 

Group members have put aside any past grievances in order to work together for the common good, which in this case is to bring a new economic development engine to the region. They hope it will replace the diesel-belching, money-burning contrivances that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s currently uses to haunt the rail corridor and the surrounding communities.

The founding members of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) hope to attract new members when they host an organizational meeting for the public Tuesday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Lake Placid.

The group intends to advocate for the development and establishment of a new 34-mile recreational trail along the old Adirondack railroad corridor. The trail will connect Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, Rollins Pond, Fish Creek and Tupper Lake. 

I must confess that I come from a railroad family. In a nostalgic sense, the train whistle often triggers memories of younger days when I would ride the rails along the Hudson River. My great-uncle Joe was a retired railroad engineer who frequently took us aboard.

Young boys always seem to be fascinated with trains, which tend to be large, loud and smelly. From my adult perspective, they still are large, loud and smelly, and I’m still fascinated. However, my fascination now revolves around the economic impact of the trains that have traveled through my backyard for more than a decade.

On a recent summer morning, I was in a canoe casting to brook trout along a lonely stretch of Ray Brook when the train rumbled by. The stench of diesel quickly displaced the fresh morning air and three shrill blasts of the whistle, which are required for road crossings, provided an even greater intrusion on our early-morning outing.

My guest turned and queried, “How long has that been going on?”

“Too long,” I replied. “But there are only a few trips each day because it’s a tourist train.”

“A tourist train?” he asked incredulously. “I’m a tourist, and I come here to escape the train. So do most of the travelers I know. We get enough noise in the city, and we come here for the silence and the fresh air.”

I nodded in agreement as he laid out another cast. But the train remained on my mind. 

I’m not just a NIMBY (not in my back yard) type of opponent. I don’t want the train in my backyard, or anywhere else. Local residents must understand that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is not a sacred cow. Rather, it is a huge drain of taxpayer funds, a gross misuse of state land and an affront to the very peace and serenity that makes the Adirondack region so unique.

In these times of fiscal hardship, I find it astonishing that a group of hobbiest railroad enthusiasts remain in control of such a vital recreational resource. I am equally amazed that public funds continue to be expended to support this private choo-choo playground. The train continues to be a drain on the local economy and it is time to put a stop to it.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad does not own the tracks or the corridor. These assets are the property of the state and the maintenance costs are provided by state taxpayers. In more than a dozen years of operation, the ASR has yet to turn a profit or create a single paying job. Ridership has been abysmal, as the trains regularly travel with mostly empty seats. The majority of tourists typically take a ride, but rarely return. It is a one-shot tourist attraction.

Fiscal review should be used to determine the wisest use of the corridor.  If such a review was conducted, I’d likely be hearing less rumbling steel and blaring whistles and a lot more laughter emanating from my backyard.

If tracks are removed, and replaced with a suitable surface for biking and hiking, the corridor would almost instantly become an economic engine for the region.

Bicycling has become a powerful and in?uential force in our culture and economy, as surveys indicate that over 27 million Americans take a bike along with them on vacation.

Consider the potential for the number of campers that could ride into our local communities. DEC records indicate that there are over 195,000 campers who annually stay at campgrounds such as Fish Creek, Rollins Pond and Meadowbrook.

“It is a gold mine that is waiting to be discovered,” explained McCulley. “Just think of what it would do for the local communities to have just a few of these folks visiting.”

Unlike train passengers, bikers would arrive in our local communities with a vehicle to transport them around town, so they could pedal to Main Street, to a museum or a local diner. They wouldn’t be stuck waiting at the train depot for a taxi.

Consider also the possibilities for hosting lodge-to-lodge or bed and breakfast vacation packages for bikers, hikers and ski tourers. Anglers could utilize lightweight trailers to haul a canoe or kayak, to access numerous trackside ponds, lakes and streams. Additional offerings could feature such unique combo-adventures as biking and birding, biking for bucks or biking for berries.

The potential for adventure is limited only by the imagination. The route could also be utilized by snowmobilers, dogsledders, horse and sleigh and skijoring. The train depots could become the recreational centers, where outfitters could rent bikes, trailers, canoes, camping gear and more.

Consider the numbers. Nearly 40 percent of adults in the U.S. ride bikes, and almost 20 percent of them, some 16.5 million, live within a day’s driving distance of the Lake Placid train station. Although the region regularly caters to a variety of athletes and other sporting enthusiasts, bicyclists outnumber the total number of skiers, golfers and tennis players combined.

Look around town and around the region, and count the cars that arrive with bikes strapped on top. Then check out the train depot in Saranac Lake or Lake Placid, and count the number of cars parked in their lots. Count the riders!

Cycling is second only to exercise walking and it ranks well ahead of such traditional Adirondack attractions as swimming, fishing, paddling or hiking.

Biking has become the most popular outdoor pursuit of the baby-boomer generation, and it remains an activity that can be shared with their children. Bicycling improves our quality of life, and it offers an equally minimum impact on both the land and the participants. It is also a great way to spend quality time with family and to stay healthy.

Biking is an activity that gets people outside, relieves stress and makes us feel better. Best of all, it’s convenient, easy and free. Whether for recreation, transportation or competition, bicycling offers a lifetime of health and fun. 

Cycling is also the doctor’s favorite prescription, raking No. 1 as the fitness and health activity among both doctors and lawyers over the age of 40.

Most important from a tourism industry perspective, people are willing to travel to participate in biking adventures. Surveys indicate that they are especially drawn to areas where there are dedicated bike trails.

Biking on the narrow, crowded and poorly maintained Adirondack highways is a very dangerous proposition. A bike trail along the rail corridor from Lake Placid would serve to alleviate the already crowded conditions along state Route 86.

Bike trails serve as community connectors. These paths can also function as a recreation corridor for many other uses, including skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, jogging, races and more.

The Lake Placid to Saranac Lake section would also prove to be a convenient and popular asset for athletes training at the Olympic Training Center.

NIMBYs who fear a bike path near their home should note that bike paths actually raise property values. In fact, trails are the number one amenity influencing homebuyers ages 55 and older.

Properties next to the Mountain Bay Trail in Wisconsin sold faster and for an average of 9 percent more than similar lots located away from the trail. Homes near the Monon Trail in Indiana commanded selling prices 11 percent higher than other homes in the area. Property sale studies conducted in other parts of the U.S. con?rm this trend.

Conversely, homes in close proximity to active train tracks are more difficult to sell and can be devalued by as much as 25 percent, depending on the frequency of train traffic.

The first train pulled into Saranac Lake Depot in 1887. When will it finally depart?


       Want to learn more, and get involved?  The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) hopes to attract new members at an organizational meeting for the public on Tuesday, August 30, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Lake Placid. The event begins at 7 p.m.


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