For three Adirondack railroads, debate over taxpayer costs

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Time for the debate to leave the station?
Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

A couple of years ago the AMC movie channel launched an on-going series called “Hell on Wheels” that dramatizes — in gritty fashion — construction of America’s trans-continental railroad in the 1860s.

A similarly gritty melodrama is unfolding now in the Adirondacks over the future of railroading in the mountains.

The big news earlier this month was the state’s decision to revisit management of the big rail corridor that stretches through some of the Adirondacks’ wildest country.

The decision was bitter news for train buffs who see a future for railroading that might someday include Pullman cars arriving from New York City and the restoration of regular passenger and freight service to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

But as New York prepares for public hearings, the skeptics are increasingly, well, skeptical.  The Adirondack Daily Enterprise ran a lead editorial this week asking pointed questions about millions of taxpayer dollars going to keep the little-used tracks in place.

We understand it’s hard and expensive to re-establish a railroad, and maybe the public hasn’t gone far enough through the tunnel to see the light at the end. But if there is enough demand for a train to justify to the expense, wouldn’t it have shown itself more by now?

Similar questions are being asked in the North Creek area, where the “Saratoga-North Creek Railway is months behind on payments the railroad is supposed to be making to the county,” according to the Glens Falls Post Star.

At one point, the delinquent payments totaled more than $85,000, though the railroad has cut the amount owed to roughly $28,000.  This from the Post-Star:

The railway pays the county a portion of the revenue it takes in, and has been continually late with its payments, the Treasurer’s Office said in a budget report released this week.

“We have had problems collecting our monthly payment on time since 7/1/12,” Deputy Treasurer Robert Lynch wrote.

Finally, there is renewed debate over the future of a railroad spur that runs to Newton Falls in the northern Adirondacks.  A couple of years ago, New York state agreed to spend $10 million refurbishing the line.

It was the largest single project approved as part of the state’s new Regional Economic Development program and backers touted it as a way to help revitalize the local paper mill and protect jobs in the region.

But now the mill in Newton Falls is being dismantled, with the component parts auctioned off.

Even though there’s no industrial operation in place to use the train route, some locals say the state dollars should still be spent.  This from WWNY-TV:

Despite the paper mill’s demise, officials say a plan to use nearly $10 million to rehabilitate a 46-mile railroad line running through St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson Counties has not been scrapped and remains on track.

“You have to have that railroad if we’re going to encourage any type of business into that site,” said Chris Westbrook, Clifton-Fine Economic Development Group.

So what do you think?  Is the railroad spur to Newton Falls “a road to nowhere”?  Or a smart infrastructure investment that could bring industry back to the northern Adirondacks?

What about millions of dollars in taxpayer support for these other Park railroads?  A smart downpayment?  A boondoggle?  Your comments welcome.


17 Comments on “For three Adirondack railroads, debate over taxpayer costs”

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  1. Peter Hahn says:

    Realistically – its much more likely that demagoguing the train will lead to ending train investments (by the state) than ending the train will lead the state to build a rec trail – especially given all the controversy. What that means is that economic harm to the adirondacks is much more likely to occur from this reexamination of the UMP than is any benefit.

  2. newt says:

    I had a comment, but I dumped it. The story is newsworthy, but doesn’t change much. When the smoke clears, the tracks will be heading for wherever the pieces of theNewton Falls Paper Mill is now going.

  3. newt says:

    “are” now going.

  4. newt says:

    Worse than leaving things as they are and watching the rails just rust away, Peter?

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    Newt – currently the train provides some minimal benefit to the adirondacks. If the line between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake were improved, Tupper Lake might get some of the Lake Placid tourist money. It would be pretty easy to stop the state from improving the Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake section. But convincing the state to tear out the tracks and replace them with a rec trail (instead of say building some basketball courts in Buffalo) is a much tougher sell. Therefore… from a probability standpoint or card-playing standpoint – harm is more likely than benefit.

  6. The Original Larry says:

    It isn’t a melodrama, it’s a comedy. We must have money to burn in NY, when you see the way they throw it around.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – all forms of government in every country in the world spend money on transportation infrastructure and parks and recreation. Third world countries spend less but they do their best (although a lot gets stolen). But spending the money on the Newton Falls section is a stretch. Its more like a road to used-to-be-somewhere.

  8. This is interesting, there has been property inquiries (seriously only 3 that I know of, but 100% more than train related) for trail related businesses. A tour of Utica area bike shops garners a consensus of opinion that Old Forge is crazy not to jump all over the Trail conversion. Old Forge is building the TOBIE trail which will be a great amenity, but not the Tourist Destination Trail this will be.

  9. The Original Larry says:

    Thanks for the lecture, Peter. I had no idea that governments spent money on infrastructure. And in the Third World, too! Imagine that!

  10. mervel says:

    Oh come on lets face it this train stuff is going nowhere, its like a slow death. Every dime spent on the thing should be spent on North Country schools. The Newton Falls Paper mill is an apt analogy, just on and on about its re-start and its new beginning, when we all knew this is over; ten years ago.

  11. newt says:

    Your argument against tearing up the tracks makes some sense, as long as the State is willing to pour hundreds of thousands in so the rail hobbyists and enthusiasts can receive thousands back. Has anyone done an cost benefit study on the current rail system? I don’t follow it that much, but it seems like neither side has. Maybe the new UMP would do this.

    Likewise, I have yet to see a concrete proposal of what would fund a conversion from rails to trails. Once upon a time the Feds could be counted on to help. Hard to imagine it today. On the other hand, the trails people seem to have a lot of energy, talent, money, and “juice” in their camp. Like the rails people, twenty years ago. But mostly they seem to be saying “If you tear tear the rails up, somebody will build it.”

    Once we built railroads, then superhighways. Now Americans can’t/won’t even build a bike trails over old railroad beds.

  12. Brian Mann says:

    Investing in infrastructure obviously makes sense – and anyone who drives down North Country roads this time of year knows that we taxpayers also spend a HECK of a lot on asphalt — much more than we spend on rails.

    The question is whether there is a viable argument that these rails can be developed into really meaningful transportation assets if the investment is made.

    What are the chances that southern St. Lawrence County will attract the kind of industry that needs rail transport to thrive?

    What are the chances that the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor will carry enough people and stuff enough months of the year to make the substantial taxpayer investment required worthwhile?

    As the hearings move forward, this is one of the big questions we’ll be asking.

    It’s worth noting that the Scenic Railroad folks have been working on a business plan for over a year and have offered assurances that it will include a really concrete plan for how the numbers make sense going forward.

    As the Enterprise noted in their editorial, that plan hasn’t yet been released. We’ll report on that when it becomes public.

    –Brian, NCPR

  13. TourDeForce says:

    If the mill failed with a railroad servicing the area, what evidence is there that any other industry would do better? Recent events are a testiment to the contrary, so we can anticipate with relative certainty that this would be 10 million dollars WASTED.

    Infrastructure ‘investments’ are to support commerce, not direct it. ‘Build it and they will come’ is a game for the wealthy, not politicians spending somebody else’s money.

  14. mervel says:

    Meanwhile once again in the North Country we not only are not supporting infrastructure but fighting it:

    We should be welcoming business that WANTS to build infrastructure, but no we are running around trying to force infrastructure investment that we “like” and has an interest group.

  15. Paul says:

    If those tracks are removed and the RR corridor ends doesn’t that revert the land back to state ownership? Or does the DOT already own it? If the state owns it then you can’t ride a bike or snowmobile through wilderness areas. I can smell another lawsuit in the wind!

  16. The Remsen to Lake Placid Corridor was transferred to State ownership by a combination of purchase and satisfaction of debt. The Corridor was then classified as a “Travel Corridor” which is an approved legal designation. Once established, the classification in my understanding, can only be changed by back to back acts of the Legislature, far from likely. Environmental groups seem to favor the idea that the corridor can manage the snowmobile traffic in winter and bicycle traffic other months without creating any new environmental impact. Restoring the railroad brings new contaminates to the corridor in the form of creosote (PCB’s) and dirty diesel. Again, tracks are pretty much limited to trains while the trail would support a diverse range of activity. Sometimes infrastructure is just outmoded. Pony Express, many canal routes, most street cars; all good, all gone.

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