Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Saving the rails is a no-brainer

Save The Adirondack Scenic Railroad's Saranac-Placid Line and The Catskill Mountain Railroad!

From The Utica Observer Dispatch


GUEST VIEW: Saving the rails is a no-brainer
Posted Apr 2, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Editor’s note: This column appeared March 23 in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
The news out of Justice Robert Main’s court has not been good for the anti-rail special interests currently huddling behind closed doors with the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation.

The state has been forced to admit it was wrong about its title to the corridor. It’ll have to buy several parcels or make other arrangements before it can start ripping out the tracks.
The Justice has not been impressed by the lack of plans to meet Historic Preservation laws either. The state’s argument that they can’t complete them without starting the project first is an admission they still don’t really know what they’re getting into, and do not really care.
The state has been found in the wrong on two key elements of the Alternative 7 plan. (Alternative 7 is the state “compromise” plan that would rehabilitate Adirondack railroad track between Big Moose Station and Tupper Lake and tear up track between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to build a 34-mile recreational trail. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has filed a lawsuit to stop that action.)
What else is the state wrong about?
The state now claims to have identified all potential title problems, with no more issues all the way back to Remsen. Considering how strongly they claimed that there were no problems at all previously, should we believe them?
The state has claimed that removing the rails doesn’t mean removing the rail line’s designation as a travel corridor – allowing continued use of motorized vehicles like snowmobiles. Would that hold up to a legal challenge? There are those who want all motorized access banned – not just trains. They’re ready and waiting.
The state’s economic case for Alternative 7 ignores the Rail Explorers (a tourism rail bike company that operated in Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, and Tupper Lake and brought 37,000 customers, the majority of whom were new visitors, to this economically challenged region in just two seasons), ignores continued ridership growth on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, and ignores what full passenger service to Lake Placid would mean for the whole corridor. It ignores the value of a direct connection to a major Amtrak route at Utica – and that Amtrak’s ridership continues to grow as well.

It ignores the continuing decline in snowmobile registrations. It ignores the increasingly freakish winter weather that makes investing in winter recreation increasingly risky. It ignores the fact that the region’s limited travel options are too easily compromised by weather, accidents, natural disasters, and congestion.
The Adirondack Park Agency should be facing serious questions about this. Their job is to review state plans and make decisions in the best interests of the people of New York – ALL the people.
Why didn’t they catch the problems now being called out in court? There were those who tried to warn them Alternative 7 has serious flaws. Why didn’t they listen?
The core flaw of Alternative 7 is this: The 1996 plan recognized that much of the economic and historic value of the corridor is because it IS intact, and is best managed as one unit. Cutting off access to the premier destination at the end of the line diminishes the value of the entire corridor, perhaps fatally. It makes no more sense than it would to allow Bolton Landing to secede from the rest of Lake George, or ending the Northway at Plattsburgh.
It’s getting harder to ignore the suspicion Alternative 7 was written to justify removing the tracks at the behest of well-connected local anti-rail activists, instead of as an honest review of the 1996 plan.
Let’s tally what the anti-rail forces have accomplished so far. They’re driving two businesses out of the area, along with their jobs, the money they spend locally, and the visitors they attract. They’ve deliberately framed the issue as an either/or choice between rails and trails – when rails WITH trails would make both stronger than either by itself. They’re putting their interests ahead of everyone else on the corridor. They’re creating serious economic uncertainty for the region.
Unlike the rails, their “free” trail will not be directly supported by the people who use it – it will all have to be funded by taxpayers. Saranac Lake is planning to spend several hundred thousand dollars to build access trails around it – through grants and local taxpayer funding, IF they can get Federal money to pay for the rest of it. (Good luck with that in the Trump era.) And where is the money to maintain all of this going to come from, or the funding for the public safety needs it will create? Meanwhile, using the trail for Olympic training has been dropped, and paving it is now an extra-cost option.

It’s no wonder they’re meeting behind closed doors, out of public sight and accountability, away from hard questions.
There are larger questions about what the Cuomo administration is doing. Governor Cuomo likes to propose big-sounding programs to boost the state economy, but they’re too often uncoordinated patchwork efforts with poor execution. There have been repeated questions over where the money goes, who gets it, and how. Pay to play stories keep making the news.
The governor has called for millions to upgrade the state’s Olympic facilities. Lake Placid will be getting new year-round attractions – while the state prepares to remove the rail line that could bring visitors to them. One step forward, two steps back.
Rail improvements at Albany and Schenectady will soon make it practical for Amtrak trains from New York City to routinely run through to Saratoga. Via the Saratoga & North Creek Railway, this could feed rail travelers right up to Gore Mountain – also being upgraded – but the state would need to give more support to Amtrak to make it happen.
Belleayre in the Catskills is also supposed to get a boost – and restoring the rails between Kingston and Phoenicia would be one way to get more people up there. The cost of rebuilding the line would be trivial compared with improving the roadways.
This year Amtrak revived weekend trains between Denver, Colorado, and the Winter Park ski resort. They’ve had sold out trains and filled hotel rooms. The newly restored Union Station in Denver has become a destination in its own right, and a multi-modal transportation hub that ties the area together.
The only thing keeping the Empire State from similar renewal is lack of vision, small-minded petty politics, and a failure of nerve. Abandon Alternative 7. Return to the 1996 plan. Save the rails. Easy as 1-2-3!

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.