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New York State Gets Funding to Make Route 17 Interstate 86 Dream a Reality

Wed June 07, 2000 - Northeast Edition
Mary Gelling Merritt

Route 17, the popular span of highway that cuts across the southern portion of New York state, is undergoing a major transformation.

It is becoming Interstate 86. When the construction is complete, New York will have a new four-lane interstate with a 65 mph speed limit.

In May, New York state leaders reached a final agreement on a $17-billion five-year master transportation plan that includes the completion of Interstate 86. Susan Myers (R-Friendship), an Allegany County legislator who helped lead the effort to turn Route 17 into an interstate, said lawmakers plan to pass a transportation bond act to fund the $550-million project. The bond issue would be presented to New York state voters in November.

“Right now we’re in a holding pattern waiting for a hard copy of the bond act to come out of the New York State Legislature,” Myers explained. “Once it is on the books, we need to work together to get the bond issue passed.”

U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) led a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and citizens in lobbying state lawmakers to commit to completing the project in five years. The state’s previous timetable for completing the work had been 10 to 12 years or more.

“This is great news for the economic future of the Southern Tier,” Hinchey said. “Completing the interstate is the single most important thing we can do to boost the region’s economy. While I’m not thrilled about the tactics that the state is using to finance the upgrades to I-86, the important thing is that New York state is finally making a commitment to getting the job done quickly.”

Nicknamed the “Quickway,” Route 17 runs 613 kilometers (381 mi.) along the southern border of the state from the New York/Pennsylvania state line near Jamestown to Interstate 87 near New York City. The road connects many Southern Tier cities like Olean, Hornell, Corning, Elmira and Binghamton. The highway also intersects with several major thoroughfares including Interstate 90 in Pennsylvania, which leads to the New York State Thruway; U.S. Route 219 out of Buffalo; Interstate 390 from Rochester; Interstate 81, a major north-south highway connecting Binghamton and Syracuse; and Interstate 88 which leads to Albany.

“Future Interstate 86” signs already dot the landscape east of Elmira proclaiming the improvements to come. A 285-kilometer (177 mi.) stretch of Route 17 between Corning and Interstate 90 near Erie, Pennsylvania was officially rededicated “I-86” last December. At the ceremony, New York State Lt. Governor Mary O. Donohue said the new interstate would help promote economic development across the region.

“I-86 is no longer a dream … it is a reality,” Donohue said.

“The project is a roadway to increased economic stability and growth in our area by strengthening our transportation infrastructure,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Young (R-Olean). “It will also showcase the scenic beauty of our Southern Tier and will give tourism a terrific boost.”

“The new interstate will help us attract new industries,” Myers said. “Right now the first thing companies ask is ’how close are you to an interstate?’ We had to say 90 miles. At least now we will be on a level playing field competing with other cities which already have interstates.”

Officials said the new road would pump billions of dollars into the Southern Tier’s economy. They’re expecting a 15-percent increase in truck traffic immediately, first boosting the sales of gas and service vendors.

The idea to upgrade Route 17 first surfaced in 1955 when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (R-New York) was an aide to Governor Averell Harriman. The project ran into serious roadblocks. Then in 1997, Samara Barend, an intern aide to Moynihan, approached the senator with an idea to improve the economic development in the Southern Tier. He mentioned the previous proposal and the idea was at the start line once again. Barend, with the help of several key New York politicians, became the driving force behind the I-86 initiative. Allegany County Legislature Chairman John W. Walchi Jr. (R-Wellsville) said Barend had the vision to see how vital a federally assisted highway would be to the economic development of the region. Barend is now a student at the University of Pennsylvania. She said she owes the success of her proposal to the many state lawmakers who worked to pull out all the stops and hopped on board.

Now the state is focused on finishing 328 kilometers (204 mi.) in the eastern end of the project in a timely fashion. The state Department of Transportation has identified 11 areas that need work to bring the road up to interstate standards. The cost of the upgrade is projected to be $550 million.

Hinchey has been lobbying the state to use the record amount of funding that he and other New York legislators secured in a 1997 federal highway law to complete the I-86 construction. Hinchey is distressed that the state is choosing to fund the I-86 work through a transportation bond act.

“My congressional colleagues and I secured more than $8 billion in federal funding for highway improvements … a 32-percent increase for New York,” Hinchey explained. “I’m disappointed that the state sees the need to borrow more money to complete the work.”

New York State Governor, George Pataki, said he was going to make completion of I-86 “a very high priority” among state highway construction projects. Pataki acknowledges New York is slated to receive $8 billion in federal transportation money over the next four years, but he said the state would actually receive $192 million less per year in one state account used for highway improvements.

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