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The general sketch of a "rooftop highway" as envisioned in a 2003 report for the Development Authority of the North Country.
The general sketch of a "rooftop highway" as envisioned in a 2003 report for the Development Authority of the North Country.

Cuomo's savvy "rooftop highway" reference

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Last week in his State of the State message, Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised pretty much everyone when he made specific reference to Interstate 98 - the name used these days to talk about a "rooftop highway" between Watertown and Plattsburgh.

Here's all 16 seconds of what Cuomo said: "In the North Country, the proposed route 98 could reduce travel times and speed up commerce. Let's see if we can make it a reality. We've been talking about it for years. Let's get DOT to undertake a study and see if we can make this project happen."

North Country officials--almost all of them supporters of the rooftop highway idea--cheered Cuomo's remarks.

But interestingly, so did opponents of the Interstate.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley to explain why both sides of this issue heard something they liked in Cuomo's I-98 reference.

Martha Foley: So David, you confirmed on Friday that the study Governor Cuomo talked about in the State of the State is not a feasibility study for a 172 mile Interstate, but rather for a bypass to alleviate traffic in the Canton-Potsdam areas. How is that?

David Sommerstein: We heard what the Governor said last Wednesday. But what’s in the actual State of the State book – the detailed document that lays out the actual policies behind the speech – is a directive to the state Department of Transportation to to conduct an environmental study of a Canton-Potsdam bypass…and that the results of that study will “guide consideration of next steps” for the rest of the corridor.

On Friday, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi confirmed that what is in the State of the State book is "what's accurate". Azzopardi said "the intent is to make better transportation options" in the North Country.

And so everybody has something to be happy with. Rooftop highway supporters can point to Cuomo’s comments. And critics like Yes-11 – the grassroots group that says the rooftop highway would destroy forest and wetlands across the North Country and be a waste of money – they can point to the Canton-Potsdam bypass study and say, “this is exactly what we want”, more modest traffic improvements along route 11.

MF: What are local leaders saying about the Canton-Potsdam bypass study?

DS: Not much, to be honest. Most officials are still focused on Cuomo’s mention of, and perhaps support for,  the whole rooftop highway Interstate idea.

I talked on Friday to Congressman Bill Owens, a rooftop highway supporter. And he said the important thing is that slow traffic in the North Country and slow economic growth is on Cuomo’s radar. And Owens sees the bypass study as one incremental step. "It's the beginning of the process to get you to a highway that goes from Watertown to Plattsburgh," said Owens. "And certainly, the bypass concept has been used before. I think it’s a good idea. And again, it remains positive, setting, if you will, the groundwork to move forward."

MF: In fact, you could argue the first baby step towards a rooftop highway was the connector road from Interstate 81 to Fort Drum’s gates.

DS: Yes, and that took 9 years and $87 million to build, just for about 4 miles of highway. A full rooftop highway is estimated to cost $6 billion.

Another way you could interpret all this is that the DOT has already studied the idea of a rooftop highway twice in just the last ten years, and it came to the conclusion that traffic on Route 11 is light enough to justify smaller modifications rather than a full Interstate—things like passing lanes, and bypasses. So this Canton-Potsdam bypass study is just the next logical policy step.

MF: So, Cuomo comes out looking like a very savvy politician here.

DS: Very much so. At least on the face of it, he seems to be following up on his transportation staffs’ recommendations while also pleasing the North Country political establishment just by mentioning those words – “route 98” – in his State of the State.

MF: What about a bypass around Canton and Potsdam? Some of the little towns bypassed by Interstates 81 and 87 when they were built never recovered. What do businesses in Canton and Potsdam’s downtowns think?

DS: Potsdam already has half a bypass, and people in Canton have been complaining about too much tractor-trailer traffic choking Main street for some years now. In fact, one of the businesswomen who was against a Canton bypass in the 1990s told me a couple years ago that she’s changed her mind.

But there hasn’t been much vigorous public debate recently. This study, if it happens, would certainly stoke that. Would it be good for the villages and promote economic growth? Or would it just make it easier for motorists to whiz by and not spend money on downtown businesses always desperate for customers?

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