- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Glens Falls Post-Star on the proposed Adirondack Rail Trail recreation path.

Feb. 1

This is the year for New York to create in the Adirondack Park one of the country’s most stunning bikeways.

The trail, running about 80 miles from Old Forge to Saranac Lake and through some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in the nation, already exists. It is already cleared and leveled and wide enough not only for bikers in summer and for snowmobilers in winter.

The only thing needed to make this rail bed ready for recreation is to tear up the ties and rails that lie on top of the right of way. Although that sounds like a lot of work - and it is a lot of work - it carries an unexpected benefit. The salvage value of the rails is so great, the money realized from selling them will go a long way toward paying for the work of removing them.

Now is the moment for the Adirondack Rail Trail, because of growing participation in active tourism. More and more people want to do something active when they visit a place - especially a beautiful place like the Adirondack Park - and more and more of them are choosing bicycling.

Bike trails are flourishing nationwide, because they combine exercise and natural sightseeing and because biking is a moderate activity families can do together. Unlike climbing in the Adirondack High Peaks, bicycling allows for participation by people of all ages and body types.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a nonprofit organization, brought together diverse factions - snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, bikers, environmentalists, tourism promoters - to push for the trail. Communities along the rail corridor have either endorsed the project or called for the state to review its management plan to determine its best use.

Hearings were held in September, but since then state officials have kept quiet about the project.

Advocates for the trail suggested state Sen. Betty Little opposes the project, and is holding it up.

Little said she wants to weigh things carefully, would like to see a compromise between trail advocates and those who want to keep the tracks in place, but is not holding up the decision-making process.

Little said infrastructure is scarce in the Adirondacks, so removing a railway should not be done hastily.

We would agree, except the railway has been in place without being used regularly for decades. Excursion trains have been running on the southeast section of the line, between Utica and Big Moose, and on the northern end between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

The best compromise is to embrace the existing reality: Allow the excursion trains to continue where they are working, but take up the tracks along the 80-mile stretch from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.

This would not be a removal but a transformation of transportation infrastructure.

One of the rail trail’s advantages over train service is it will be a year-round thoroughfare, open to walkers, runners and bikers in the warm seasons and to snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in winter.

Snowmobilers can use the tracks now, but the rails and the ties make sledding difficult.

Some have suggested everyone can be made happy by construction of a recreation trail alongside the existing train tracks, but that would be expensive and impractical.

The beauty of the rail-trail project is that the trail already exists underneath the tracks, and no major construction would be necessary to make it ready for use. Building a new trail alongside would involve much more engineering and construction.

Safety would be a consideration as well. The goal of such a compromise would be to have trains running along the tracks, with families walking and biking alongside. The danger is obvious and any solution, such as a moat or a fence separating the trail from the tracks, would add to the project’s expense.

Adirondack Railway Preservation Society has managed through a lot of hard work to get two sightseeing trains running in the Adirondacks. They deserve credit for that, and those services deserve support.

But the best use for the long-unused portion of the line, from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, is as a recreation trail. Nothing but the state’s say-so stands in the way of its immediate creation. New York should jump on board with the Adirondack Rail Trail.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/82C5jT

The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on the slow pace of Thruway Authority plans to switch to an automated toll collection system to save costs.

Feb. 2

When the Thruway Authority backed off a 45 percent toll hike on trucks 13 months ago, it had to engage in some pretty serious cost-cutting to make up for the loss of $90 million in projected revenue, as well as some creative accounting - foisting the $60 million-a-year cost of patrolling the Thruway onto state police. But the Authority didn’t solve its problem with the shell game, which in large part is driven by labor costs.

The Thruway spends an average of $90,000 a year for salary and benefits for its 3,000-odd workers, and that figure rises every year, thanks mostly to pension and health insurance benefits.

The good news is that the Thruway board recently authorized transitioning to a fully automated toll collection system - replacing traditional toll booths with the overhead electronic system currently in use for E-ZPass customers at the Harriman entrance, as well as in numerous states. But the Authority appears to be in no rush to implement the system - which would not only save a bundle in labor costs but reduce capital costs.

Politicians can’t have it both ways: They can’t grandstand against toll hikes and high taxes if they’re not willing to replace the Authority’s antiquated toll collection system. And there’s no reason, other than those pertaining to patronage, for the Thruway to avoid switching to an all-automated system, the sooner the better.

The technology is already available, thanks to E-ZPass, to record tolls automatically; and to photograph the license plates, and thus bill the owners, of cars without E-ZPass. Increasingly, that’s the way it’s being done in states like Florida and Texas. Why not here?

Thruway officials claim to be working a plan for a fully automated system, but just for Harriman, the new Tappan Zee Bridge and Yonkers toll barrier. The sooner this transition takes place there, and for the rest of the 570-mile system, the sooner the Authority can start spending more money where it can do the most good, maintaining the actual highway.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/DfgzLb

The New York Times on the growing number of Congressional staffers and lawmakers becoming lobbyists.

Feb. 3

The anonymous congressional staff members who write the nation’s laws generally work hard for fairly modest wages. Increasingly, though, they do so because there is a promise of K-Street riches at the end of their toil.

A new study by the Sunlight Foundation found that the number of active lobbyists with prior government experience has nearly quadrupled since 1998, rising to 1,846 in 2012. Those revolving-door lobbyists, mostly from Capitol Hill, accounted for nearly all of the huge growth in lobbying revenue during that period, which increased to $1.32 billion from $703 million in 1998.

A New York Times article on Sunday showed that many of those former staff members are violating the intent of a 2007 law that requires a waiting period before former congressional employees can lobby Congress. The law imposes a one-year ban for senior staff and House members, and two years for senators, but some House staff members are deliberately keeping their salaries low so they won’t be considered “senior” and can lobby right away. Others use a loophole to claim that they can lobby a committee right away, because they technically worked for an individual lawmaker and not the committee.

Some of those who are lobbying or working for corporate clients are actually former lawmakers. Joe Baca, a former Democratic congressman from California, introduced a bill when he was in the House that would have reduced oversight of payday lenders, notorious for exploiting desperate low-income people. Then, after he left the House, the payday lending industry hired him to run its lobbying organization. (He is now running for re-election, adding gall to his spin through the door.)

Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who spent 20 years on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is now working for APCO Worldwide, a large lobbying firm, where he advises clients on telecommunications and trade. Mr. Stearns should know a lot about the subject, since he was the ranking member on the telecommunications subcommittee, where he helped big corporations in that field try to kill net neutrality, which would have allowed phone and cable companies to undermine the open nature of the Internet and give special treatment to some services.

But most of the revolvers are staff members, particularly those who worked on important committees. Jim Coon, who was Republican staff director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is now senior vice president for government affairs and advocacy at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He has also worked for Boeing and the National Air Transportation Association.

Many law firms and lobbying shops have no qualms about impressing their clients with the government experience of their revolving-door staff. Clarine Nardi Riddle, who was chief of staff to former Senator Joseph Lieberman, “draws on her insider’s perspective of the legislative and judicial systems to provide legal, strategic and policy advice to national and international clients on matters at the intersection of law, business and public policy,” according to the website of her current employer, the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. Not coincidentally, Mr. Lieberman works there, too.

The danger of this practice, as always, is that the lure of corporate-lobbying money is strong enough to orient both lawmakers and their staffs toward the values of their future employers. (And it’s not necessary to be a registered lobbyist to make big money in the influence game.) This isn’t a new phenomenon, but its growth shows that the current waiting period before congressional employees can lobby is far too easy to evade, and may not be long enough.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/AwNrT6

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican on ensuring the safety of freight train traffic following major accidents involving oil tankers.

Feb. 2

This is train country. Freight trains have rumbled through local communities for so long that their sight and sounds have become a backdrop to our lives.

They pass along Lake Champlain, stopping at little buildings in a smattering of small towns and at the rambling structure in the City of Plattsburgh that once housed a busy station.

Unless we are taking the train north to Montreal or south to Albany and beyond, we don’t think about them much.

But we must. Because, as we have learned in explosive fashion over the past half year, the cargo carried by some of those cars can be extremely dangerous if freed from its confines.

Last July 6, a 72-car train loaded with crude oil crashed as it passed through Lac-Mégantic, a small town in Quebec. The derailment and roaring fire that followed killed 42 people and leveled half of the downtown.

On Dec. 30, an oil train collided with another train in North Dakota, bursting into a fireball that consumed 10 cars.

If you have waited at a crossing in the North Country as a long freight train passed by, you know that oil cars travel through this area, too. And you probably remember that trains have derailed here from time to time over the years.

While major disasters caused by train accidents are rare, they can happen, and local residents need assurance that safety is a priority in the minds of railroad officials and government leaders.

A two-part series by the Press-Republican last week uncovered concern among local first-responders about the lack of information provided to them about the contents of cargo trains.

Railroad companies don’t want to reveal what they are carrying, partly because national-security guidelines established to prevent terrorist attacks discourage full disclosure.

Responders say it takes too long after an accident and is too complicated a procedure to find out what kind of substance they are dealing with. Crude oil and other flammables aren’t the only danger; the cars can be carrying chemicals that place firefighters, cleanup crews, area residents and even water supplies in peril during a derailment.

The makeup of shipping containers carried by rail has been called into question, as well. North Country Congressman Bill Owens is pressing the Federal Railroad Administration and U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for safer tanker cars.

In a rare partnership, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada jointly released recommendations to toughen standards on trains carrying crude oil.

And New York officials are urging immediate federal action to protect communities and natural resources. The state wants revised design specifications for certain railcars and “aggressive phase-out” of those that can’t be retrofitted; more stringent crude-oil testing standards; changes to federal standards for flammable liquids; and train-route reviews.

It took life-shattering accidents to prompt all this federal and state attention to railroad safety. It shouldn’t take another one to put crucial changes on track.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/0wJ5Iz

The Poughkeepsie Journal on progress in Congress toward agreement on a farm bill.

Feb. 1

It charts the country’s farming policies for at least the next five years.

It determines how billions of dollars will be spent on crop subsidies, conservation programs - and food stamps.

And, in this particular case, it may just be an example of what congressional compromise looks like.

After years of wrangling, the House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate a massive farm bill that will cost nearly $100 billion a year but scales back, albeit not far enough, subsidies to megafarms while also offering a tough compromise to slow the growth of the country’s food-stamp program.

Overall, the bill is designed to save around $1.65 billion a year, which is a step in the right direction.

Both Democrats and Republicans gained and lost in this battle - and that is precisely what is going to happen anytime congressional leaders and the president move the country forward with sweeping legislation.

The bill ends, for the most part, direct payments to farms through subsidies, a long-awaited change considering that in many cases farmers were getting this money whether they actually grew the crops in question or not and regardless of market prices. Instead, the legislation will plow money into protecting farmers through insurance programs that will greatly aid them during the toughest of times, which makes far more sense.

What’s more, numerous provisions will help New York’s smaller farms and growing dairy industry. Both U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Cold Spring, serve on the House Agricultural Committee and voted in favor of the bill. They cite, in part, the more favorable terms for New York’s specialty growers and provisions that make it easier for the state’s dairy farms, which have benefited greatly from the popularity of Greek yogurt and other products, to expand.

Regarding food stamps, the bill would cut about $800 million a year, or about 1 percent, from the $80 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

House Republicans had sought a much larger reduction, between 3 and 5 percent, pointing to the growth of the program over the last decade and believing more oversight is needed to eliminate waste and make sure the subsidies area available for those truly in need.

The Senate wanted a $400 million reduction annually to this aspect of the farm bill but a majority of senators are amenable to the higher figure ultimately agreed upon in the House.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. however, is not one of those senators. She has repeatedly expressed concerns about the tougher standards being imposed for the so-called “heat and eat” program. This enhances SNAP benefits for New Yorkers and others who also are helped through the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The ramifications of this change do bear watching, both on the people needing these programs and the states helping to deliver these services.

While also expressing concerns about the SNAP reductions, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he supports the bill on balance as does President Obama.

Frankly, this bill doesn’t bring the radical changes that many had hoped for when the process started, but the results represent solid progress and are far better than the protracted stalemates that have occurred far too frequently on other important issues facing the nation.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/t3Px7y

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