Adirondack train group moves to answer growing questions

The last few months have been complicated for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.  Bill Branson, head of the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, says his group has tried to remain above the fray as debate swirls about the tourist train project.

“We chose a while ago to take the high road and be above the name calling and the misinformation,” he says.

But this week, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates announced that it had gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for the railroad tracks from Old Forge to Lake Placid to be torn up and replaced with a multi-use trail.

Perhaps more importantly, seven local governments along the rail corridor have now passed resolutions questioning Branson’s vision of an excursion train — with some town, village and county leaders calling point-blank for the tracks to be torn up immediately.

Train advocates still have a lot of supporters, including powerful groups like the region’s Chamber of Commerce and the Adirondack North Country Association.

But in an interview this week, Branson acknowledged that his group hasn’t been visible enough in the debate.  “We don’t have an attack organization or a defense organization,” he said.

“We don’t have volunteers who really want to mix it up with their neighbors in the community.  It’s hard for us to respond.”

It appears that Branson understands that this approach hasn’t worked.  He said his group recognizes that many locals are skeptical about the tourism railroad’s future, after decades of delay and slow progress.

The current plan for reviving the railroad was approved nearly a quarter century ago, and much of the track remains in disrepair.

“They’re not wrong in what they’re saying,” Branson said.  “Whatever is happening is happening in small bites.”

Part of the problem is that train advocates, including those within the state Department of Transportation, think removing the tracks seems inconceivable — or “crazy,” as Branson describes it.

They see slow, steady progress toward a vision of revived rail transport that could one day include cargo trains and regular passenger service into the heart of the Adirondacks.

But that’s clearly not the way it looks to a wide swath of the general public, or to local government leaders.

I suspect that train boosters will have to make a more convincing argument or run the risk of watching their support erode even further.

(A lot of smart people disagree with me.  Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association, and a passionate supporter of the train, calls the whole debate about the rail corridor’s future “a bit of a distraction.”)

Fortunately, the railroad is currently developing a public business plan, which Branson says will be available soon.

The document will include information about how much state of New York funding would be needed to move the project forward, along with specific claims and information about what an expanded tourism railroad might do for the Park’s economy.

Providing those numbers and a detailed vision for where the tourism train project goes next, will be a hugely helpful addition to the conversation.

One big question is the future of a proposed Pullman car overnight excursion that would take passengers from New York City to Lake Placid, which was announced this fall to great fanfare.

But there have been few details offered for how long that project would take to launch — speculation has ranged from two to ten years — how much it would cost taxpayers, and what the benefits would be for communities along the rail corridor.

I have no idea who will, or should, win the Great Adirondack Train Debate.  But I think it’s undeniable that, welcome or not by train boosters, that debate is well underway, it’s serious, and not going away any time soon.

Next month, I have a full article about the debate in the Adirondack Explorer magazine.  And in the coming days, NCPR will also air an interview with one of ARTA’s founders about their vision for a recreational trail.

233 Comments on “Adirondack train group moves to answer growing questions”

  1. Arlan says:

    All these accusations about twisting and distorting facts is the perfect reason to Reopen the UMP. If the facts were on the train’s side, train advocates wouldn’t be fighting so hard against reviewing the UMP. If they were confident that the train is the best option, the train option would be reaffirmed and the issue would finally be put to rest. Plus it would answer questions like whether snowmobiles would be allowed if the rails were removed

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  2. Walker says:

    “I’m just pretty tired of every time some published verifiable information is put out there somebody comes out and basically says its a lie with absolutely no basis or if there is one they don’t tell you what it is. DOT puts counters out all the time to determine usage.”

    Hope, if it was indeed verifiable, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s an advocacy survey by the New York State Snowmobile Association “with “Survey services provided by the Potsdam Institute for Applied Research, SUNY Potsdam.”

    That doesn’t make it a lie, but it doesn’t mean you can take it to the bank, either. And in particular, this study doesn’t speak authoritatively to the traffic on the rail corridor, unless I missed it.

    As I’ve said before, of course the traffic on the rail corridor will increase if the tracks are taken up. But anyone who tells you it will generate a particular dollar amount of return is peddling pixie dust.

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  3. Walker says:

    “DOT puts counters out all the time to determine usage.”

    Where’s the data, Hope?

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  4. FYI, I was told DOT is going to install and manage another round of traffic counters on a number of routes used as trails, not just the tracks.
    Arlan makes the point that the UMP should tell. Someone mentioned game cameras; I had one out last year and you could watch the snow build up and almost on the hour the packed snow got above the rail, it was like some one opened a gate!

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  5. Tom Calhoun says:

    Scott, when you say “routes used as trails, not just the tracks” are you saying that DOT has put counters on the corridor since 97-98?

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  6. Tom Calhoun says:

    Hope, I was under the impression that this discussion was concerning the Adirondack travel corridor, correct? When I contacted both the DOT and the Parks and Recreation Snowmobile unit, I was informed that they had not put any counters anywhere on the corridor. Dot said never and Parks and Rec said that they did supply some counters to NYSSA for use on the corridor in 97-98, but had not been aware of any activity since that time. Parks stated that they have placed counters on Tug Hill and other areas but not on the Adirondack Travel Corridor.
    If it is as you say “DOT puts counters out all the time to determine usage.” Why is there no statistical data available from either agency concerning snowmobile traffic numbers on the corridor?
    Jimmy talked about the numbers from the 97-98 preliminary results “according to a study using infrared counters from NYS Parks and recreation and NYSSA they counted 223,000 snowmobiles over a 4 month period of time” (http://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/pdf/news/504487_1.pdf ) but if the study was not completed nor verified then it would seem that he and, not I, is guilty of, as you say, “”twisted facts and lies”. I have my doubts as to whether he or any one can produce the completed results.
    In a comment on a letter to the editor in the Adirondack Express (http://www.adirondackexpress.com/Viewpoints/04122011_letters ) Scott stated “The Study in Question was a three month study for the 1997/1998 season conducted with the University of New York and the New York State Snowmobile Association. I was emailed a copy by Jim Jennings, then director of NYSSA”
    Notice he claims that the study was done under the auspices of the University of New York. When asked multiple times for the completed study, He was either unwilling or unable to produce it because the completed study does not exist.

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  7. Arlan says:

    Tom, this is why the states needs to update the UMP. You can argue back and forth with an incomplete set of facts all night, but the UMP process will assemble the real facts in a public process. Do you want to guess why the train folks are so against reviewing the UMP and finally coming to a decision on the future of the corridor?

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  8. Hope Frenette says:

    When I said “DOT puts out counters …” I was not meaning specifically trails but that they do it all the time and have formulas that they use to make adjustments to those counts for various scenarios. There is no reason to doubt that adjustments are made to compensate for people going up and then down the trail or leaving it before they are counted or coming on and going off before being counted. Look train folks count passengers everytime they get on and off the train. 60 passengers getting on the train in Lake Placid and then off in Saranac Lake and then the same 60 passengers get back on the same train and go back and get off in Lake Placid is counted as 120 passengers. I get it. That’s how they count it, but it is still only 60 people.
    Not to worry, they are putting out more counters this winter so there will be more data to disbute.

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  9. mervel says:

    Do we have a scope of work for the train plan? Is the plan to connect rail service within the Park to cities in the East, both for Amtrack and commercial rail? Is the plan to have a tourist train serve areas within the park? Is the plan to have one overnight type train from downstate to Lake Placid? What do each of those plans cost as far as preparation of the tracks and getting the actual trains moving?

    Maybe all of these things have been answered? It seems though we are told that we just have to leave all of the decaying tracks as they are into perpetuity until a plan and funding is put together at a later date.

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  10. Tom Calhoun says:

    Hope, “they are putting out more counters this winter so there will be more data to disbute” when was the last time that the DOT or Parks put counters specifically on the corridor? I’m only concerned about counters on the corridor as they apply to our discussion.

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  11. Tom Calhoun says:

    Arlan, Do you have information about counters on the corridor?

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  12. Arlan says:

    No. If the state has the info, it will come to light during the Planning process.

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  13. Hope Frenette says:

    I believe that Parks and Trails maybe providing counters this winter up near Charlie’s inn. Don’t quote me but that is what I heard.

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  14. Tom Calhoun says:

    hope, I take it by your comment above that I will not be getting an answer to my question, when was the LAST time that the DOT or Parks put counters specifically ON the corridor?

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  15. Tom Calhoun says:

    Arlan, I believe that if the state has that information, it should be easy to obtain, just for the asking. That’s the way state agencies operate.

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Arlo, I’m happy to have you walk on the same trails to go hunting or drop a canoe in the water to go fishing for free. You’re one of the loudest voices in support for freedoms. I would think you would support all freedoms not just the ones you think are important.

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  17. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Walker- the point is that the hie/bike crowd gets a free ride but the hunters/fishermen/snowmobilers/ATVers/motor boaters/etc. don’t and that mostly includes private property too! So, if the hike/bike people are going to use state lands, not private lands, then either they need to pony up for the use or the rest of us need to stop being charged. I know they won’t go for the rest of us not being charged, so the hike/bike/paddle people should be charged too. Equal treatment.

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  18. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Walker-

    “It’s an advocacy survey by the New York State Snowmobile Association “with “Survey services provided by the Potsdam Institute for Applied Research, SUNY Potsdam.”

    That doesn’t make it a lie, but it doesn’t mean you can take it to the bank, either.”

    I hope you remember that when the survey supports one of your positions.

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  19. Walker says:

    Arlo, if you’re as old as I am, you’ve seen a lot of unequal treatment in life– it’s been going on forever. Look at Mitt Romney’s tax rate.

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing– as I’ve said above, I wouldn’t oppose a hiker’s fee. But don’t hold your breath.

    And Arlo, one thing I try to be pretty scrupulous about is honoring good data whether it says what I want it to or not. Feel free to call me on it if you see me failing to live up to that claim.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Tom Calhoun says:

    Having asked repeatedly for simple information and not receiving factual verifiable answers, I will conclude that five arta board members, two of which are heavily involved in their respective snowmobile clubs, (Lee Keet Tony Goodwin Scott Thompson Jim McCulley and Hope Frenette) can’t come up with accurate and verifiable information concerning snowmobile traffic numbers on the Adirondack Travel Corridor. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t seem to bother Scott and Jimmy from talking about hundreds of thousands of snowmobilers that theoretically traverse the length of the corridor every season. McCulley is quoted as saying “according to a study using infrared counters from NYS Parks and recreation and NYSSA they counted 223,000 snowmobiles over a 4 month period of time” Scott is quoted as saying “Data is available from NYSSA State traffic counters” “The Study in Question was a three month study for the 1997/1998 season conducted with the University of New York and the New York State Snowmobile Association” Clearly no published snowmobile counts are available for the Adirondack Travel Corridor, and yet they talk as if thousands use the corridor daily in season.

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  21. Lee Keet says:

    This has gotten silly. Open the Unit Management Plan, as long-ago promised, and let the facts be heard from both sides.

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  22. Tom Calhoun says:

    Silly is wanting to do something as far reaching as that and ignoring the facts! Perhaps you have counted the snowmobiles that pass your place on Lake Colby each winter?

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  23. Tim says:

    As far reaching as what?

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  24. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I don’t think you need a study to conclude that more people would use the corridor if the rails were ripped up. How many people do you know who snowmobile? Who ski? Who hike? Who bike? Who four-wheel? If you live in the Tri-Lakes area, I’m willing to bet a lot of people you know does at least one of those things. Compare that to the number of people you know who like to pay $19 to take a slow-moving train less than 10 miles from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid.

    Whatever you think about what the best use for the corridor would be, though, things have changed since the UMP was last done. People’s views have changed. Communities all along the corridor want to see it opened. Even the town board in Tupper Lake, which was staunchly pro-railroad just a few years ago, wants to see the state open the UMP. If the railroad was bringing recognizable benefits to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, I doubt their local governments would support change, but they do; in Lake Placid, they even came out in support of removing the rails. It’s time for the state to listen to what the people want.

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  25. Tom Calhoun says:

    @ Tim, ARTA is disingenuous by using false information to make their case, Scott and Jimmy have done it time and time again with the “study that doesn’t exist”. There are no valid snowmobile traffic numbers available for the Adirondack Travel Corridor period. The fact is if they had numbers that would support their case, they wouldn’t need to talk about a study that is not valid and allegedly took place fourteen years ago. In the “preliminary report” there is no mention of the brand or model of counters, no mention of calibrations, no mention of training of individuals for the use of the counters. As I have stated previously, the study is listed not once, but twice as a “preliminary Report” not, where are the final results? Parks and Rec doesn’t have them, DOT doesn’t have them. It would seem to me, if ARTA needs to use false information to make their case then it is a case that should not be made.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  26. Walker says:

    Hope, I’ve said it before– I have no doubt that if you rip up the tracks and build a bike/snowmobile trail, there will be more users than there are at present in the corridor, given that only extremely limited use can be made between Big Moose and Saranac Lake at present. The question is, how much more use? And would it be more than the ASR would get if it got the track upgrades they’ve been working toward? You’re trying to compare two future maybes.

    Look, it would be one thing if you could do the snowmobile/bike trail without destroying twenty years of work by ASR and DOT. And guess what? You can, with a parallel trail. But to make a case that those twenty years and millions of dollars of work should be destroyed, along with any potential that the future might bring, you’d need hard numbers. You don’t have them. You could get some hard numbers by actually building a parallel trail somewhere and looking at the results.

    Actually, it’s my understanding that such a trail exists between Utica and Old Forge. Have you ever put up counters on it? Or are you folks desperate to get this settled before the Saranac Lake to Lake Placid parallel trail gets built, which might show that your numbers are wildly inflated?

    Anyway, I, for one, do not oppose reopening the UMP. I think the railroad use of the corridor could survive the examination. But it always astonishes me when ARTA folk say that this could happen in a flash. Not in this universe it couldn’t.

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  27. Arlan says:

    All this arguing about whether a study is preliminary or not, whether a parallel is realistic, is all the reason to review the UMP. I have not heard a good reason to nOt review.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  28. Arlan says:

    Those 20 years Of work wouldn’t be destroyed if the train continued to operate btw SL and Lp . One option would be to convert the part west of SL which is only used 2 x a year. Im not sure the logistics of keeping the train in Lp in the winter but sure it’s no more comPlicated than building a parallel trail.

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  29. Arlan says:

    I would love to hear someone explain what they disliked about my 7:02pm comment.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. Walker says:

    Wasn’t me, Arlan. But it could have been one of the 736 fans of the Next Stop Tupper Lake Facebook page, or one of the 3595 fans of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad page who want the rails to go through. Could have been someone from Utica who wants to be able to use the train to get their canoe to the St. Regis Canoe Area. There are plenty of people who want all the rails on the corridor to stay in place.

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  31. Walker says:

    Oops, sorry Arlan, I was thinking of your 7:07 comment. The 7:02, I don’t know. I’ve drawn some thumbs down on some pretty innocuous comments around here. Folks get cranky!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  32. Tim says:

    Arlan – good question. If I was involved with the train, I’d hate to keep working so hard on something without certainty that the rails will remain. Obviously, given all of the towns on the northern end calling for rail removal or UMP review, this issue isn’t settled. Reopening the UMP and reaffirming the rail use would remove some uncertainty of the future. Uncertainty is bad for business.

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  33. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    There Walker, I gave you a thumbs down for noting you got some thumbs down.

    And don’t worry, I’ll remember about the data from advocacy surveys.

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