August 14, 2012

In My Opinion: New studies support Rail Trail


---- — A wonderful opportunity has been staring us in the face for 40 years: the opportunity to create a new recreational dimension in the Adirondack Park and provide important economic benefits to the region.

This is the proposed Adirondack Rail Trail, which would run 90 miles through the heart of the region from Lake Placid to Old Forge.

The Adirondack Park — the largest American park outside Alaska — offers thousands of miles of hiking trails and seemingly unlimited waterways for boating and paddling. But nowhere in the Adirondacks is there a level, compactly surfaced, long-distance trail that connects our communities, traverses wild and beautiful terrain and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and physical abilities.

Such a trail would be ideally suited for just about everyone, including cyclists, walkers, runners, athletes in training, parents pushing strollers, people in wheelchairs, families with young children, senior citizens enjoying regular exercise and nature lovers of all stripes.

In winter, with the obsolete tracks removed, it would provide a greatly improved trail for snowmobilers and an economic boon for communities like Tupper Lake that otherwise shut down in winter.

Bicycling the nine miles on Route 86 between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is a distinctly unpleasant experience due to the noise, pollution and distraction of the cars and trucks whizzing by. But with the tracks on the rail bed removed — or with a recreation trail beside the tracks to allow continued use of the tourist train — the public will have a safe, serene, scenic bikeway connecting these principal Adirondack villages.

And that’s just the start. With the tracks up and the trail extended the next 25 miles from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake, you’ll be able to cycle with ease (no more than a 2 percent grade) through some of the loveliest lake-and-forest country in the Northeast. That’s at most three hours of nonstop pedaling between the villages.

But hey, what’s the rush? You could stop for a swim, watch loons, picnic by a pristine lake or try your luck at fishing. Once in Tupper Lake, you could rent a canoe or kayak, visit the Wild Center, climb a mountain, stay over and head back the next day with an entirely new view as you ride toward the High Peaks.

Last month, the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy unveiled a new study highlighting the benefits of such a trail. Commissioned by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, the study focused on the Placid-Saranac-Tupper section of the corridor and compared it with similar rail trails elsewhere. Some of the findings:

▶  The Adirondack Rail Trail would attract up to 244,260 overnight visitors (not including snowmobilers), and the cost of converting this 34-mile segment would be covered by salvaging the rails and ties.

▶  This compares with the findings from a recent study by Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates the tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. That study estimates that 7,000 additional visitors would come to the Adirondacks if train service were restored on the 141-mile line from Utica to Lake Placid.  Restoration would cost taxpayers $14 million, according to Adirondack Scenic Rail estimates, and $43 million, according to the New York State Department of Transportation.

▶  The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy figures that Rail Trail users (not including snowmobilers) would spend $19,789,945 a year in the region. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad study estimates that additional train riders using the Utica-to-Lake Placid line would leave behind $648,855 annually. 

The Adirondack Rail Trail looks like a win-win proposition. In the unlikely event we might someday need to restore rail service between Lake Placid and Utica, the rail bed will still be there, in better shape than ever, to accommodate the new ties and rails that would be required for modern train service.

Dick Beamish of Saranac Lake is a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail AdvocatesBoard of Directors and founder of Adirondack Explorer magazine.