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Fort Drum's Rt.26 plans worry neighbors

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As deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, soldiers are getting more time at home. That means a growing population around Fort Drum near Watertown, and more traffic.

One particularly clogged road is State Route 26, a publicly accessible road that divides the Army base in two. It separates Wheeler-Sack Airfield and some training areas from the main part of the base.

Army planners are considering putting controls on the free-flowing traffic on Route 26. And that worries nearby towns. Joanna Richards reports.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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Right now, civilians can pass through the middle of Fort Drum by using Route 26. It connects two busy highways, State Route 3 and U.S. Route 11. Soldiers who want to cross Route 26 have to leave post and show identification to reenter. They can do that through three small gates.

Fort Drum spokeswoman Julie Cupernall says Route 26 is “a nightmare” before and after Army physical training times. "During our peak traffic times, it is almost impassable," she said. "We really, during PT times, when we're bringing a lot of soldiers and civilians on and off post, we have a really hard time moving people through the gates and through this two-lane stretch of highway in an effective manner."

Cupernall said it's bad now, but with more soldiers and military families in the area, it's only going to get worse. Fort Drum is looking at two options to solve the problem. One is an overpass over Route 26 so that on-post traffic won't have to leave one gate and check in at another. That would alleviate some traffic, according to Cupernall.

"The other option is to basically eliminate those gates within Route 26 and put two very large gates on either end of Route 26 so once you're on the inside of Route 26, you've shown your ID, you can move about Fort Drum freely," Cupernall said. "You don't have to slow down, essentially slowing down the rest of traffic."

That plan would mean civilians just passing through would have to stop and show identification and that has nearby towns worried. They say people might need to avoid Route 26 altogether and that could hurt local businesses and increase travel times.

Terry Buckley, supervisor of the town of Champion, is worried about travel times. "I mean it's not just the traffic flow, it's also emergency vehicles. If a fire department's got to get across over to Route 11 and they have to go all the way around, it may be minutes to half an hour but that's a lot when it comes to an emergency or a fire or whatever," Buckley said.

Champion has invested in sewer and water infrastructure in Great Bend, which is at the east end of Route 26 near the edge of Fort Drum. Buckley was hoping that would encourage development, and doesn't want to see that jeopardized. The supervisor has contacted his state legislators about the issue and said they were receptive to his concerns.

He's also skeptical about whether an enlarged Route 26 with two huge gates would alleviate traffic at all. "If you take it off of Route 26, where are you gonna put it? You're gonna put it on 3 and 342 and then out on Route 11. You're just putting that much more traffic out there," Buckley said. "And I think you take a bad situation and make it worse."

Buckley said he's glad he learned of the potential gating of Route 26 early enough to raise his concerns on the issue.

Fort Drum spokeswoman Julie Cupernall said the potential project is only in its infancy. She said if the post decides to request funding for a project, it would be for 2016. And that would happen only after a series of public forums in 2012 and 2013.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.

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