12/2/2008 -Funding for rooftop highway is major challenge

Press Republican
December 2, 2008
By DENISE A. RAYMO
Staff Writer 
 

MALONE — The ambitious proposal to bring a four-lane expressway to the North Country may have a fatal flaw: It carries a $1 billion price tag.

The state has pledged the first $6 million in short-term Department of Transportation improvements throughout the region that could one day lead to the Northern Tier Expressway, known for years as the "rooftop highway."

If built, the 175-mile highway would extend from just outside Watertown in Jefferson County to Rouses Point in northern Clinton County.

LIMITED SUPPORT
The idea for a Northern Tier Expressway was introduced as a bill by Sen. Robert McEwen (R-Ogdensburg) in 1961. It received approval in the State Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as too expensive.

The bill was reworked and reintroduced, and in May 1963, Rockefeller signed the bill establishing the "rooftop highway."

But the measure generated little support from the New York State Office of Roads, as the Department of Transportation was known then.

It also needed approval from the federal government, which it has yet to receive, even though President Richard Nixon endorsed the idea in 1971.

A final draft of a traffic study, commissioned by the Development Authority of the North Country, is ready for public perusal. Two meetings are scheduled to hear public input: one at 7 tonight at the Franklin County Courthouse and another at the same time Thursday at the Clinton County Emergency Services Center in Plattsburgh.

State, federal funds
Among the recommendations are additions of turning lanes and an on-road bicycle lane, changes in traffic-signal timing, re-alignment of roads, removal of dangerous curves and other safety measures for pedestrians and drivers.

So where will the funding come from, beyond the $6 million promised so far by New York state?

"Even in bad economic times, projects are still funded by the state and federal governments," said Franklin County Manager James Feeley, who, along with St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire, co-chairs the local expressway effort.

The draft report states roughly the same thing.

Preliminary work could be paid with state DOT funds while the wait for federal dollars continues.

Initial money could come from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

If the full $6 million earmarked comes through, it would pay for the first four years of improvements.

USER FEES
However, the report states, "beyond 2011, funding becomes even less certain. It is very possible that highway-user fees and public/private ventures will be necessary to develop significant highway capacity."

Much of the expense in the final 12 years of construction is for the planned expressway and bypasses, which could either be shortened or redesigned as the project stretches out.

But if the plans remain as drafted, the report states, "charging motorists a fee to use the expressway is one way to generate the revenue necessary to fund and maintain the road.

Also "if the federal government decides to pursue a project such as the CanAm Connections, it may be possible to get the road financed through more conventional channels," the report states.

CanAm Connections Corridor is an international plan to join the maritime provinces of Canada with the New England states and the Midwest.

Strategists have suggested such a corridor through the North Country could be used by as many as 370,000 trucks and 718,000 passenger vehicles a year.

RENEWED ATTENTION
The concept of a Northern Tier Expressway was recently given priority status in one important way.

During a hearing earlier this year, New York State DOT Commissioner Astrid Glynn said it is one of eight "illustrative major projects" in New York's transportation plans for the next 20 years.

However, there was no mention of how the needed $175 billion for all of those projects would be financed.

"The initial studies that identified a rooftop highway had one limiting factor: It would cost $1 billion," said DOT spokesman Mike Flick.

"Do we have $1 billion? My guess is no."

STEP BY STEP
"But there are areas where you do see a lot of traffic and localized congestion that can be improved and make it work more efficiently," Flick said.

"The final report is more of a corridor-based approach versus a rooftop highway. But the two could eventually tie together.

"These improvements could put us in a position for possible bypasses, but that is yet to be determined," Flick said. "We're not flush with money, but we're going to grab the low-hanging fruit."

The less-expensive portions of the project that can make the most improvement to safety and congestion for the cheapest price will likely see funding first.

Priorities will be determined from the public comments received.

"There is no bombshell surprise coming," Flick said. "We will be working on the long term and the short term."

He said projects ranging in cost from $2.5 million to $3 million are easier and more quickly approved by DOT officials than large-scale ones with cost estimates in the $50 million range.

E-mail Denise A. Raymo at: draymo@pressrepublican.com

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The North Country Small Business Development Center is funded in part through a Cooperative Agreement with the US Small Business Administration. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.