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Rooftop Highway Remains Controversial Over 30 Years

Wed March 28, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Mary Reed

First broached for New York State more than 30 years ago, a proposed limited-access four-lane expressway running between Watertown, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, to Plattsburgh in Clinton County, remains highly controversial.

Crossing that area of upstate New York State, nicknamed the North Country, it would be approximately 172 mi. (277 km) long, running parallel to existing U.S. Route 11 for most of its length, and in the process crossing Jefferson, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Lewis and Clinton counties.

The proposed highway has become known by more than one name. The federal government recognizes it as forming part of Congressional High Priority Corridor 50 under the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act, while the latest NYSDOT study terms the broader area the Northern Tier Expressway: Route 11 Corridor. It also is referred to locally as the Northern Tier Expressway, the Interstate 98 project, or the Rooftop Highway, the latter being due to its proposed location on the “roof” of the state.

The concept of a new, stand-alone highway or expressway is controversial and one of the bigger bones of contention is its cost. However, as pointed out by Michael R. Flick, assistant to the regional director and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) public information officer for Region 7 (Watertown to Plattsburgh), the project costs are, to a certain degree, dependent upon what is being proposed and that real estate costs, general route selection, acquisition for mitigation costs, and so on must also be taken into account. However, Flick said, “when all is said and done, it’s still 172 miles from Watertown to Plattsburgh, and any project of that length is not cheap.”

For example, the cost of the proposed highway has been estimated by the NYSDOT to be $4 billion, based on data from its 2002 North Country Transportation Study adjusted for inflation and compliance with new standards. By contrast, its 2008 Northern Tier Expressway/Route 11 Corridor Study proposed upgrading the existing Route 11 at a projected cost of $213 million. A key feature of the study is that the proposed upgrades have been developed to be site-specific — meaning upgraded signals in one location, improved sight distance in another, and so forth. The study also provides near-term and long-term improvement options, including a long-term option for segments of expressway along the corridor.

Despite the length of time since construction of the Rooftop Highway was first considered, public discussion of the pros and cons of the project has been polarized, with strongly held opinions on both sides.

Miles of Moonlit Cement

Some argue against construction of the highway, in part because its route will take it through a largely rural area whose population and economic activity are comparable to regions such as rural Vermont, New Hampshire, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and western Maine. As a result, environmental concerns have been expressed, vis-a-vis the potential impact of such a highway on the affected area’s water-crossings, wetlands, and forest lands. There also is anxiety over eminent domain acquisitions of homes and farms located in the path of the highway.

Local opposition to the proposed highway led to the foundation of YESeleven, a grass roots organization that supports upgrading U.S. Route 11, the existing two-lane highway forming a primary link across the North Country.

However, as with other areas relating to the proposed project, it is difficult to estimate the environmental impact of the proposed highway in that this area of the state is abundantly supplied with wetlands and a number of water crossings would be necessary. However, as NYSDOT’s Flick pointed out, the number of crossings would depend upon route selection and the number of bridges also would have to take route selection into consideration, as well as which local roads may be dead-ended, etc.

Further, Flick said, “When considering wetland mitigation, using a 1.5 giveback multiplier for every acre disturbed is a generally accepted figure, but it doesn’t take into consideration grasslands bird habitat, bats, or culturally significant sites found along the way.”

John Casserly, co-spokesperson of YESeleven, described the organization as committed to a reasonable approach to highway infrastructure, adding that it would like to see attention and energy directed toward Route 11. The organization supports upgrading Route 11 into a rural expressway, envisaging these improvements would allow future expansion of Route 11 to four lanes in due course, if and when needed.

Different estimates using generic online highway engineering calculators and rubrics have been used over the years in the ongoing discussion of this project. According to YESeleven co-spokesperson John Danis, “their drawback is they generally seem to calculate these things under ideal conditions with no adjacent development of supporting roadway infrastructure, water and sewer infrastructure, electric grid capacity, Internet availability, roadway support, maintenance, and repair, which, incidentally, in our area, would fall to the state and county to fund and perform in addition to their current obligations, which are badly in need of help.”

Current highway rubrics would place the cost of the highway closer to $10 to 15 billion, he added, contending the area’s scarce resources need to be used to maintain, improve, and extend existing infrastructure in order to support current business activity and future economic growth. In this connection, Danis foresaw that while the highway was being built, “it would create so much doubt and division in our regional economy that we would likely see negative economic development while businesses sit on the sidelines waiting to see which horse is going to win the race.”

Currently, there are no engineering or environmental studies for the highway. Thus, he pointed out, cost estimates are “all over the map, depending how you look at it.” By contrast, “the targeted upgrades of the Route 11 corridor has had all of the required engineering studies, is far more fundable, will create more local jobs, and will support and develop a 200-year-old existing infrastructure and economy. An interstate highway will do none of that and would be 20 years or more from completion if the engineering and environmental work started now.”

According to Danis, upgrading Route 11, even if it went 100 percent over the predicted cost, would still be a fraction of the cost of the proposed highway. Citing a February 2011 Smart Growth America study of the 2009 federal stimulus program that found smaller targeted upgrades of local highway infrastructure yielded higher numbers of local jobs by 31 percent more jobs per dollar than constructing new bridges and roads, he pointed out hundreds of construction jobs requiring much subcontracting and equipment would be provided over the life of such an upgrade project. In turn, this would mean more local companies would be involved, which might otherwise not be equipped to handle the much larger amount of work needed to build the proposed highway.

Given the highway’s route is unknown at this point, YESeleven commissioned a study that took into account the highway had to fall west of Route 11 and east of Route 37. This resulted in a 2 to 9 mi. (3.2 to 14.5 km) corridor, and after taking into account wetlands, crossings, communities, topography, and so forth, an educated guess anticipates the highway would be built 2 to 6 mi. (3.2 to 9.6 km) away from the existing business corridor. In essence, such a route would create a bypass of Route 11, assuming the adjacent infrastructure required to support business development was factored in. As Danis put it, this would result in “business development at the end points of the highway with scores or hundreds of miles of moonlit cement and asphalt and traffic passing through as quickly as possible.”

Summing up, Danis said, “Our existing infrastructure is aging and needs great amounts of investment and revitalization. The recommended upgrades and improvements to Route 11 would accomplish the goals of expanding and developing our economy in far more relevant and appropriate ways than an interstate highway, which would tend to serve the interests of large concerns from outside of our region and population.”

NYSDOT’s Position

The New York State Department of Transportation has hosted many public meetings, collected numerous comments from interested parties, and carried out multiple studies while considering its decision on the Rooftop Highway.

There has been more than a little discussion about the development of a new, stand-alone highway connecting Watertown and Plattsburgh and more than a little discussion, too, about how the contents of the previous studies have been interpreted. Proponent plans for a Rooftop Highway have been around for decades and the latest studies rekindled the argument for its development. However, after multiple studies and much discussion, it is clear that currently, improvements to existing Route 11 are favored by the department.

“The most recent studies suggest that the construction of a full-blown expressway or the construction of a full-blown interstate along the corridor is not warranted. The studies do suggest that the development of site-specific improvements along the broader Route 11 to improve mobility are warranted — and would have a positive impact,” NYSDOT’s Flick said. “This includes near-term improvements, such as passing or slow traffic keep right lanes, as well as improved and updated traffic control devices in the villages along U.S. 11 to improve traffic flow.”

“Given that the studies indicate positive results could be achieved for considerably less money than a complete expressway, our focus has been on making those improvements with the resources available. It has been the department’s position that the studies done to date all point to the same general conclusion and that the referenced monies would be better spent on getting a few of the site-specific improvements built. Once these near-term improvements are in place, we will continue to examine Route 11 with the intent of making longer term improvements to the corridor where and when we can,” he said.

Stable, High-Paying Jobs

Supporters of the new highway, however, remain hopeful that the proposed project will come about.

Jason Clark is executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena (BDCGM) and chairman of the Northern Corridor Transportation Group (NCTG), an organization made up of representatives from seven counties of the North Country.

In speaking of the estimated cost of the proposed highway, he said while the $4 billion figure mentioned is widely believed to be a high estimate, the independent GAO has used this estimate as the basis for its job creation data — 25,000 permanent jobs in the North Country region.

Clark submitted written testimony at the 2011 New York State Joint Legislative Hearing on Transportation, in which he stated it is a widely held opinion that expanded trade with Canada is likely the most important factor and that the value of that trade expansion weighs against the perceived limitations of the project with respect to a limited local population.

St. Lawrence County, one of those affected by the proposed highway, is one of the least densely populated in the state with the highest unemployment rate, the lowest per capita income, one of the lowest educational attainment levels, and the highest percentage of people living below the poverty level outside of New York City. As Clark put it, “Basically, the three center-counties of the North Country rank among the lowest five in every one of those categories and likewise with respect to almost every other economic indicator measured by the state.”

“The Northern Border Regional Commission was created as part of the federal farm bill a few years ago and when fully funded, it will help foster projects such as this. A good example of the economic impact of interstate development can be seen by the work completed by the Appalachian Regional Commission or the Southwest Regional Commission. WPA projects accomplished similar goals in the 30s,” he added. “These agencies’ primary purpose was to develop regional infrastructure as a means to eradicate rural poverty and expand economic potential.”

As an example of benefits accruing from construction of the proposed highway, Clark cited the fact. “There is no real east-west transportation corridor north of I-90 in spite of about 10 international crossings. There are north-south crossings in Watertown (I-81) and Plattsburgh (I-87). Plattsburgh has the fastest growing economy in upstate N.Y. given access to an interstate, robust opportunities at their airport, and proximity to Montreal.”

Concerning the environmental impact of the highway, Clark said the next phase of the project is a tiered environmental impact review. “For those that have questions about environmental impact, this process should be welcomed,” he said. “It delivers, among other things, the answers to the environmental questions. In 2003, New York State received approximately $6.3 million from federal sources for the sole purpose of initiating this environmental review. It cannot be used for any other purpose.”

Proponents of the project cite a general lack of transportation in the North Country as holding back commercial development. This position was treated in two reports. One was commissioned by the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority (OBPA), funded by NYSDOT and published in 2010 as the North Country Freight Needs Study, and the other was commissioned by the town of Massena, again funded by NYSDOT, appearing as the Massena International Airport Master Plan.

In examining expansion plans for Massena International Airport, the report compared easier access to the Canadian highway system to difficulties in reaching the U.S. Interstate system from the North Country. Currently, access to the Interstate system is provided by two- or four-lane highways, and criticism of this situation from a commercial development point of view included speed limits varying from 15 to 55 mph and having to follow less direct routes. Should the proposed highway be built, manufacturers’ difficulties with distribution issues would be eased, while Fort Drum and colleges in the upstate region also would benefit from better access to their facilities.

In conclusion, Clark said, “My position includes support for the U.S. 11 upgrades if NYSDOT operation and maintenance funds are used and that the best case scenario is if NYSDOT commits to both projects. We have met with NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald and other senior NYS Transportation officials where I have advocated to this end.”

“Transportation policy and economic development policy need to be synergistic in order to create a truly effective jobs plan. Those policies must, in turn, also be consistent with the will of the people in order for its effect to be optimal. Never has there been, anywhere in upstate New York, frankly, a stronger consensus toward a set of policies that will yield so many stable and high-paying jobs as there is toward the Interstate 98 Multi-modal Corridor Project.”

The Last Word

NYSDOT’s Flick pointed out that, “Given the studies done to date, and from the language in the earmarks, which source the referenced $6.3 million, it is the Region’s position that a tiered Environmental Impact Study would not be supported by the Federal Highway Administration and that further study would be a waste of limited resources.”

“While I cannot fault anyone’s efforts to develop infrastructure in the North Country, the department simply cannot abdicate its responsibility to maintain the infrastructure that is currently in place and is in use, in favor of new. We continually look to modernize and to improve the operational characteristics of the in-place infrastructure — and this includes Route 11 and the broader Route 11 Corridor,” he concluded.

And the Latest

According to Jason Clark, NYSDOT recently announced plans to use $6.3 million in federal funds to upgrade U.S. Route 11, creating a four-lane road in some locations, and adding traffic signals, roundabouts and bypasses. The move has disappointed advocates of building I-98, who want the money used for design and feasibility studies for construction of the “Rooftop” Interstate highway from Watertown to Plattsburgh. By a vote of 10 to 3, the full board adopted the resolution.

The people seem to agree. A recent poll taken by the Watertown Daily Times — “Do you think improvements to Route 11 will help improve the St. Lawrence County economy?” — revealed the following result:

• 58.4 percent — Yes

• 32.4 percent — No

• 9.2 percent — Not sure

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