Railway strives to stay on track
Railway strives to stay on track UTICA, N.Y. - More than 100 miles from Utica, a village is waiting, according to the Observer-Dispatch.
The 6,000 villagers -- and dwindling -- who still remain are putting all they have into their tiny downtown, with the hope that one day a train will round the bend and deliver what they are counting on to be their livelihood.
Tupper Lake is waiting for the tourists of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
"Tupper Lake is one of those communities that has suffered a great deal of decline in recent years," said Jon Kopp, executive director of the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce. "Yet amongst those challenged old resort communities, Tupper Lake is on the cusp of a real rennaissance."
Will the railway be a part of that? Despite ridership numbers little changed from the first year and daunting rebuilding costs, organizers think the line -- one of the Utica area's historic links to the Adirondacks -- still has great potential.
"We envision Utica as a future tourism hub," said Eugene Falvo, Adirondack Scenic Railway Preservation Society president. "People can do the railroad, go to the halls of fame -- and travel six million acres of beautiful sites."
The railway society is working to help restore a 141-mile line from Utica's Union Station to Lake Placid's Olympic resort.
"Once we get to Lake Placid, our marketing will go international," Falvo said.
He's counting on at least 150,000 rail passengers each summer season, in addition to the thousands who already flock to the foliage excursions in the fall and the holiday events in December.
It's an ambitious goal for an upstate not-for-profit, but one Falvo believes will open up the Adirondacks to a record number of tourists, who will bring prosperity to the villages along the way.
Now, the cars carry visitors from Utica to Carter Station just north of Thendara, and from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.
The dilapidated tracks hidden in the wilderness northeast of Carter Station and southwest of Saranac Lake will inch toward one another as the line is restored, eventually meeting to form one of the country's longest scenic railways.
But for now, the railway society faces ridership numbers that may not rise until the entire rail corridor is completed, Falvo said. The railway also depends on contributions from the government -- it listed about $720,000 in assistance from government grants in 2002, almost half its total revenue. It seeks more volunteers and more aggressive grant seeking.
When the railway first started with excursions from the Thendara station 11 years ago, ridership topped 65,000 in one year in Thendara alone, Falvo said. In 2003, total ridership was 67,000.
"Part of the reason for ridership being stable is that we haven't been able to expand our services. Once they've ridden it, they've done it," Falvo said.
And ridership hasn't kept up with the increased costs of extending the line, he said.
Outside estimates put completion of the project 10 years and $20 million down the road, on top of the work that has already been done.
But it's one step at a time in a region where residents take great pride in touting their wilderness, the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park.
The village of Holland Patent will dedicate a refurbished train depot on May 14 -- at least 150 years after the first train came through that tiny downtown. Before the Adirondack Scenic Railway began transporting foliage fans and holiday revelers, the depot was last used for trains in the 1970's.
"Then it was a laundromat," said Village Clerk Virginia Wardner.
It took more than $130,000 in state and private grants to jackhammer the concrete floors to make way for gleaming wood, polish historic graffiti found on the walls and shutters, and re-do wiring and heating to bring the building up to date. It now houses village offices, and a ticket window is waiting for train enthusiasts to line up in a lobby that will also be a museum for the village and its rail history.
"The village purchased the building and wanted to keep it," Wardner said. "Now it's something the village can be proud of."
Falvo and village officials along the way hope the next extensions, from Carter Station northeast to Beaver River and from Saranac Lake southwest to Tupper Lake, will be finished within three to five years.
The stretch to Tupper Lake alone will cost $5 million to $6 million, said Gary Douglas of the Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce, who is spearheading lobbying efforts for federal dollars for the project.
The track itself is owned by the state, and maintenance is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Funding is awarded through annual transportation appropriations bills.
Douglas began meeting with state politicians last year to plug for funds for the railway.
"We go down to Washington every month and raise the subject on our rounds," he said. "We spend a lot of time trying to bring home earmarked appropriations for projects in the area, and this is a priority."
With the support of U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert and others, Douglas is confident that the next transportation budget, due in October but frequently late, will include at least a portion of the funding required to restore that northern leg of the railway corridor.
The railway preservation society is also pursuing funding through grants to supplement the federal dollars.
The initiative of the residents of villages along the line helps the campaign, Kopp said.
"Next Stop Tupper Lake," a group of Tupper Lake Villagers, has raised more than $100,000 toward a train station, for which land has already been purchased, Kopp said.
The village's revitalization plan includes new roads, work on building facades, water lines for hotels that currently rely on septic systems, and the development of a ski area.
Tupper Lake is also the future site of the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, a project undertaken by residents who have already raised $13 million toward the $20 million project, Kopp said.
But those working for the railway itself are bound to the state's timeline. If funding is awarded, it will be up to the state DEC to organize the repair of the tracks.
The railway society has repaired sections of the track as needed through routine inspections conducted during the rail season using funds from ticket sales and grants, Falvo said. Last year alone, the railway preservation society took in nearly $30,000 in grants. The organization has spent about $1 million on the tracks, Falvo said, about $350,000 of which has been reimbursed by the state.
"They didn't have to reimburse any of it," Falvo said.
That reimbursement has been used to maintain railway equipment, Falvo said.
But while the engines and cars sit idle during the winter months, Falvo and city and village officials along the rail line look toward the day when tourists from around the world will ride the train.
There is no question that there is a demand for it, said Paul Zeigler, director of the Oneida County Tourism Visitor's Bureau.
"When we're at travel shows they're the top request," he said.
And Utica is ready for an increase in tourism, Zeigler added, just as it is.
When Thomas the Tank Engine chugged into town for the first time last summer, more than 17,000 people rode the train over the course of two weekends, bringing visitors from 21 states and Canadian provinces, Falvo said.
"We have something the public seems to enjoy," Falvo said.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Here are some key numbers from the organization's federal 990 form for the year ending 2002.
* Income: $1.68 million
* Expenses: $1.5 million
* Net gain: $178,100.
* Assets: $1.18 million.
The income includes:
* $720,000 in government grants.
* $590,000 in ticket sales.
(This item appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch May 4, 2004)