In terms of the experience and purpose, it’s about as far as you can get from CitiBike, the new and enormously popular bike-sharing program in New York City. But a multiuse bike trail through the heart of the Adirondacks, from Old Forge to Lake Placid, could be transformative in its own way, bringing large numbers of tourists each year — not only for biking, but hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling — to a region that badly needs the economic boost. This plan is now a real possibility, thanks to a recent change of heart by state officials.
The path has been proposed by a broad-based coalition called Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), and has widespread support from residents and local officials. But it conflicts with a plan of the nonprofit Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs a train from Utica to Old Forge and wants to extend it along the existing but unused tracks another 90 miles to Lake Placid.
The state Transportation and Environmental Conservation departments made a tourist train part of their unit management plan for the corridor in 1996. However, that plan also called for the alternative of a multiuse recreation trail if the rail experiment failed. And it has failed — if failure can be defined as no tourist train, despite repeated assurances by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad that one was coming, in those 17 years. Meanwhile the state, which owns the tracks and leases them to the railroad, has invested around $30 million in the line since 1992 with ongoing maintenance costs of $300,000 a year.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad appeared to help its cause last fall when it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings Railroad to run a high-end Pullman Car sleeper service between New York City and Lake Placid. (This is the same company that operates the new, and so far successful, tourist train between Saratoga Springs and North Creek.) But the plan is light on details, and also light on investment from the railroad when it comes to track improvements. The state would apparently be responsible for all or most of the cost of rehabilitating the track, estimated at $43 million by DOT in 2009.
A recreation trail would be cheaper (and costs could be recouped by selling the old rails as scrap). It would also attract far more visitors and have much greater economic impact, based on the experience of other long-distance recreational trails around country, and estimates by consultants for both the railroad and the trail group.
There’s nothing wrong with a tourist train — in fact we’ve been proponents of them in other cases, including the one between Saratoga Springs and North Creek. It would be great to have both (provided the train attracted enough riders), with the recreational trail alongside.
But building a separate trail next to a refurbished track for the entire corridor would be financially prohibitive, and, because of sensitive areas like wetlands and other impediments, environmentally destructive. A choice must be made. If state officials are going to take a thorough look at the alternatives, as they now say they are going to do, they should come down on the side of the rec trail.