Though there are more than 1,700 rail-trails across America, covering all different shapes and sizes, a small handful stand out as true superstars of the rail-trail movement. Whether for the beauty of their surrounds, their length, or an indefinable charm and character, these rail-trails become beloved attractions drawing praise, and visitors, from near and far.
On this list are trails such as the Route of the Hiawatha in Idaho, the Katy Trail State Park in Missouri, and Vermont's Island Line. Right now, plans are afoot for the conversion of former rail corridor that, when completed, will immediately force its way into that elite company.
Running through the scenic Tri-Lakes region of upper New York is the Adirondack Scenic Railroad corridor (right). Currently, the line carries a seasonal sightseeing train, which through limited ridership hasn't delivered significant commercial returns in a picturesque region bursting with recreational tourism potential.
Inspired by the ability of rail-trail projects elsewhere to boost recreational tourism, a group of locals last year formed the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), with the goal of converting a 34-mile section of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake into a multi-use trail.
As they prepared to build a case to convince local residents and authorities of what such a rail-trail could bring to the area, ARTA turned to the experts. For the past year, Carl Knoch, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's manager of trail development in the Northeast, has been working closely with ARTA, evaluating the potential economic impact of an Adirondacks rail-trail, and studying ways and means to build it.
Knoch's message to the communities between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake is the same message that has sparked the development of similar projects in his native Pennsylvania: Trails are good business for small towns.
This is not just a gut feeling. Knoch's Northeast Regional Office is a national leader in compiling trail user data to assess the economic stimulus of trails to the towns and villages they pass through. This commercial impact--for hotels, campsites, food outlets and outdoor retailers--and the multiplier effect of an injection into the local economy--has helped promote the development of several renowned trails systems in Pennsylvania and secured the viability of towns once suffering the decline of industry.
Knoch says the Tri-Lakes is perfectly placed to reap the same rewards.
"The 60-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail has seen about $3.6 million annually in new spending since the trail was created, with 138,000 users on an annual basis," he says of a comparable trail in the neighboring state. "What could 138,000 new users do for Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and Tupper Lake? In talking to the folks that own businesses along the Pine Creek Rail Trail, they basically say the conversion of that railroad into a multi-season rail-trail is the salvation of the valley."
When Knoch first began traveling to the Tri-Lakes to discuss a rail-trail conversion, he encountered a good deal of local opposition. But after a number of public meetings and a period of outreach and education, business owners, residents and town officials are now supportive of removing the train tracks to construct the optimal rail-trail.
However the state Department of Transportation (DOT), which has jurisdiction over the corridor, has indicated they plan to leave the little-used corridor, deteriorated in sections, as it is. Undeterred, local officials have begun petitioning the DOT to revisit its management plan for the corridor, which hasn't been reexamined in 17 years, despite the evaporation of rail service in that time. The locals' frustration is evident.
"...[T]he taxpayers are paying huge unanticipated sums each year to subsidize a money-losing operation while simultaneously blocking one of the best economic development options open to the North Country," Saranac Lake resident Lee Keet wrote to the editor of the Times Union recently.
Aware that hard data and the recorded experiences of similar communities tell the most compelling story, RTC recently published a study of the proposed 34-mile section, featuring estimated trail-user numbers and related economic impact based on data gathered from similar rail-trails in the Northeast. This study found that a rail-trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake would attract a midpoint estimate of 224,260 visitors annually, each spending between $63.86 and $99.30 per day--worth an estimated $19.8 million to local economies.
The cost of constructing the 34-mile segment would be approximately $2.2 million, which could be offset by $5.3 million of income from the salvage and sale of the tracks and ties. Knoch says the $3.1 million excess could be applied to construction of future sections of the trail, or maintenance.
To read and download the Adirondack Rail Trail study, and other RTC research publications, visit community.railstotrails.org/media