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Group opposes "rooftop highway"

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The idea of an Interstate across the North Country to connect Watertown and Plattsburgh is more than 50 years old. It's had different names: the rooftop highway, the Northern Tier Expressway, Interstate 98. But it's never faced any organized opposition, until now.

A group of residents in St. Lawrence County has formed "Yes Eleven." They argue that with a price tag of at least four billion dollars, and opposition from the state department of transportation, the rooftop highway is a pie in the sky.

John Danis is the co-coordinator of YES-Eleven. He told David Sommerstein the group's name references the notion that the rooftop highway is siphoning precious funds from existing infrastructure on the region's main existing artery--Route 11.

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"If you look at it across from Watertown to Plattsburgh, all of the twenty some villages and towns and so forth across the area and all the small businesses along that area, small manufacturing and retail, the idea of developing a separate and new economic corridor just does not seem consistent with supporting any of that existing economic activity. As matter of fact, the small business community is worried about a competing corridor. You are gonna set up a corridor three, five, seven miles away from Rt. 11, and what are you going to bring in? A whole bunch of big box retailers? Is anybody going to come?

"The other thing I think that we have talked about a lot is the concept of I-98 or the Rooftop Highway has been around for a very long time. It’s been around for at least fifty years. And it comes up and then it goes away. It comes up and it goes away. And every time it comes up, attention gets taken away from existing infrastructure, existing economic needs. If I was to hazard a guess, the I-98 group has probably spent tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of dollars promoting and advertising the rooftop highway. Now that’s money being diverted away from other things. For instance, we are not keeping up with our bridge maintenance in the county; we are not keeping up with our road maintenance. We are not keeping up with a lot of our infrastructure. We are having problems funding our schools. We are having problems keeping the county bus running. And the thought that we’re adding this huge economic burden that’s actually competing with all these other things, that’s really the issue"

Supporters say the rooftop highway is what we need to bring a large manufacturing plant here with a lot of jobs. "A number of people have kept pressing for, you know, show us some data that supports that. And really there is nothing out there. You keep hearing this mantra: 27,000 jobs. And there are vague references, oh there was a GAO study that said this somewhere along the way, but nobody can find it. Nobody seems to be able to produce it. And is it really going to bring business? We see a pattern across New York State. We may lose two congressional seats in the next election, just because we are losing population in New York State. We have ten thousand fewer public school students in the Northern Tier. I mean the demographics lead us away from a conclusion that just by simply dropping 172 miles of cement on the ground that we are suddenly going to change all of that. And we have heard from the proponents of this well, we might as well try it. And that says to me, well we are just going to go ahead and do this and hope that they come.

"I think that we see that the existing corridor offers the greatest potential for the creation of numbers of small businesses. Be them mom and pop, or small light manufacturing, that really protects the regions from the radical swings of a General Motors that comes in and employs hundreds and hundreds of people and then suddenly walks away, leaving hundreds and hundreds of unemployed people. I think that we have a vision that we are going to have a more stable economic environment with a hundred small and medium sized businesses as opposed to two or three large businesses.

"At least at the outset, we see it as something of a quixotic discussion. I mean we come to the game late, there’s a lot of momentum as far as the appearances of support for the rooftop highway, and Ill get into that another time. One of the things that we figured out a long time ago was that there’s a lot of people are saying well why worry about it, it’s never gonna happen. It’s a pipe dream. The money is never going to be there. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that every time we have this discussion, it does take away from things. If we are spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars funding advertising campaigns for a rooftop highway, that’s money that’s not going into school budgets"

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