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The whole route does not, in our mind necessitate or warrant a four lane highway. - DOT

Boosters seek to push 'rooftop highway' ahead

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The concept of an Interstate connecting Watertown and Plattsburgh has been the holy grail of North Country economic developers for decades. It's been so long, the so-called "rooftop highway" can seem more legend than reality.

Supporters are fighting hard to push the project into the reality column. They're calling it by a new name - Interstate 98. And they're urging the state Department of Transportation to begin an environmental review of the project. That would mean charting a precise path for the road. And it would mean studying impacts on wetlands and forests, birds and other animals, and people's homes and properties.

But the DOT isn't on board. It doesn't think an Interstate is needed to begin with. David Sommerstein reports.

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It’s hard to find any elected official in the North Country who’s against the rooftop highway.  County legislatures have passed resolutions of support.  The state Assembly has, too.  

The support’s bipartisan, from all of the region’s state and federal lawmakers.  Here’s Democratic Congressman Bill Owens, following in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor John McHugh.

Where you can move people and goods efficiently and effectively, you will create more jobs, so I look at it as a real job creator, both in the long and the short term.

Still with so much backing, the rooftop highway isn’t exactly cruising along.  The estimated 4 billion dollar price tag has a lot to do with that.  But get this.

Five years ago, McHugh and former Senator Hillary Clinton got 6.3 million dollars – earmarks - for the rooftop highway.  The funds are for designs or environmental studies.

Jason Clark of the Massena Business Development Corporation says it’s time to use that money.

Those funds have sat in New York State DOT coffers and they have not been used to initiate or advance any sort of shovel-readiness, any sort of advancement of the project at all.

Clark says the next logical step is a full-blown environmental review - for engineers to figure out exactly where the road should go, how it will affect the land and the people and animals who live there, and what to do about it.

We are, and we remain, fairly perplexed as to why that initiative has not taken greater shape and why it has not taken shape more thoroughly.

The DOT, however, says the reason should be pretty clear.

The whole route does not, in our mind necessitate or warrant a four lane highway.

Spokesman Mike Frick says the DOT told Clark as much in a letter a year and a half ago. 

In 2008, a DOT study determined the Route 11 corridor between Watertown and Plattsburgh really isn’t congested at all, save in 3 places – the Fort Drum area, the Canton-Potsdam area, and the Brushton-Moira area east of Malone.

Frick says the DOT would rather use the 6.3 million dollars for little projects in those spots.

Keep right lanes could be installed, next generation signal systems could be put in place in villages that would help traffic move through a little more, and there are even areas where you could make a plausible argument for a bypass.

Jason Clark says the DOT is missing the point.  It’s not just congestion.  It’s that businesses – and jobs – stay away from the North Country, he says, because there’s no Interstate.  And without jobs, young people move away.

When you see so many people my age, anywhere between 25 and 40, automatically leave the area because there’s no job opportunities, and once those people leave, the likelihood that we’re going to get them back is fairly slim.

Though all the twists and turns of the rooftop highway-now-Interstate 98 debate, public opposition has been almost non-existent.  But that’s starting to change as supporters push ahead.

People have sort of sat back and said, well, it’s not worth getting worked up about because it’s not going to happen.

Tom Langen is a biology professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam.  He and others who are against the rooftop highway have been e-mailing and meeting informally.  Langen believes the economic benefits are overblown.  And he says lost in the hype is the huge footprint of a 100-300 foot wide Interstate right of way.

If you ran down 11 with that, you’d have to knock out every house and business, and that’s not going to happen.  You have to go through farmland.

And protected wetlands.  And forest.  Langen says that’s across 175 rural miles.

I-98 alone, without any spurs or anything else, would be the equivalent of about 25 to 30 full-sized average farms in the North Country.

Langen says the 8 million dollars already spent or allocated for the rooftop highway would be better spent on other economic development projects in the region.

Jason Clark of the Massena Business Development Corporation agrees there are environmental issues that need to be worked out.  And that’s why he wants the DOT to get to work on them.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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