LACONIA — A completed 20-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail in the railroad right-of-way between Franklin and Weirs Beach would generate additional visitor spending of more than $6 million yearly, according to a study prepared for presentation to the City Council on Tuesday.
It would also generate 40 to 60 permanent new jobs, $500,000 yearly in rooms and meals tax as well as mobility, health and safety benefits, said the study conducted by Alta Planning & Design.
WOW Trail President Allan Beetle provided a synopsis of the study to The Laconia Daily Sun in advance of the council meeting.
Alta Planning calculated a net total benefit of a completed trail over a 20-year period of between $67 million and $89 million.
The City Council endorsed a proposal to commission the research, which was paid for by the WOW Trail committee and others to study the pros and cons of continuing to build alongside the railroad tracks or in place of the tracks.
Those tracks are currently used by a tourist train company, which opposes the idea of removing the rails, as do railroad enthusiasts.
The Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad, which runs the tourist train, reports about $1 million in annual ticket sales and makes about $100,000 in land-rental payments to the state.
Some residents, citing privacy and crime concerns, oppose placing the public trail in the rail corridor near their homes in gated neighborhoods along Opechee Bay.
State law also appears to stand in the way of pulling up the tracks. Statutes give precedence to trains in active railroad corridors.
Beetle acknowledged that this law might have to be changed before the trail could be built in place of the rails.
There are more than 8 miles of completed WOW Trail and there are gaps of more than 10 miles.
It is less expensive to pull up tracks and put trail in its place than it is to build a trail alongside the tracks.
The study showed a 32:1 benefit-cost ratio for building the trail in place of the tracks, four times higher than putting it alongside the tracks.
Beetle described the railroad right of way as “spectacular, underutilized real estate” that could be transformed into an economic engine and source of pride for the community.
He said reluctance to change is the single biggest obstacle.
“Shouldn’t the economic and quality-of-life benefits for our community be considered?” he asked.
The study estimated that many people who would use a completed trail to The Weirs could serve as customers for the tourist train’s platform at that location. It found an additional 6,000 to 8,000 new train passengers could be generated in this way.
Pulling up the tracks would separate the tourist train from a main line. Beetle said the Cog Railway and other tourist trains operate in areas disconnected from a main line.
In addition to expense considerations, safety concerns and a lack of necessary easements argue for a trail in place of tracks, Beetle said. This would also allow the trail to be built farther from homes and without the need for a fence.
He said there has been a 30 percent decline in ridership for the tourist train over the last four years.
Alta Planning specializes in the planning, design, engineering and implementation of bicycle, pedestrian, park and trail facilities and systems. One of its contracts is with the state Department of Transportation.