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No justification for building rooftop highway

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There have been more than 15 articles, letters to the editor and perspectives, both pro and con, published in the Watertown Daily Times concerning the rooftop highway in the past year. Possibly some history on this issue can provide a better perspective on the project.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 approved a National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, now commonly know as the interstate highway system. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the driving force behind the enactment of this legislation. He got the idea when in 1944, during World War II, he crisscrossed Germany and observed the autobahn highway system and how fast and efficiently it could move vehicles. Once Eisenhower became the president in 1952 he reasoned, and rightly so, that building an autobahn type highway system could help fuel economic growth during the post war period in the United States. He believed not only would construction of such a highway system spur economic growth but it would also serve to improve the country’s national defense posture.

The original layout of the interstate highway system unfortunately did not include a section of highway (later labeled the rooftop highway) across the top of New York state. To correct this oversight, the region’s popular congressman at that time, Rep. Robert C. McEwen, on two occasions tried to have this section of highway added to the national system through legislation, but both attempts were unsuccessful. In hindsight, not having this section included in the original legislation and the failure to have it added through new legislation probably sounded the highway’s death knell.

A study of a rooftop highway was not undertaken until 2002 when the Development Authority of the North Country commissioned the North Country Transportation Study (NCTS).This study, commonly known as the DANC Study, took an in-depth look at the link between all modes of transportation and economic development in the northern tier counties of Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Lewis, Franklin and Clinton.

Through an initial screening process, the NCTS determined that the five-county region should focus on highway-based solutions, primarily the development of an east-west highway alignment generally along the U.S. Route 11 corridor and north-south connections to that route.

As a follow up to the DANC study, the state Department of Transportation initiated a Tier I Environmental Impact study. However, the Federal Highway Administration placed a stop order on this initiative. Instead, it recommended that the state DOT undertake a Northern Tier Expressway-Route 11 Corridor study (NTE).

It laid out an action plan, which identified a range of near- and longer-term projects that would improve safety, decrease travel times and improve quality of life along the Route 11 corridor. Ultimately, when implemented over a period of time, these projects would serve as the building blocks of an expressway. Neither study, however, recommended that an interstate highway be built.

There are other factors to consider regarding the viability of a rooftop highway besides the obvious one of not having the funds to build:

1. There is not a great demand to travel from Interstate 87 in Clinton County to Interstate 81 in Jefferson County.

2. To even come close to producing the increased traffic volumes required to produce a benefit-cost ratio of more than one, new and expensive connections from the rooftop highway to Ogdensburg, Massena, Lowville and Plattsburgh would have to be built.

3. What would be the effect on Route 11 if the rooftop highway were built?

4. New highways don’t just magically appear. An undertaking of this magnitude would take many years of planning, environmental studies, design and right-of-way acquisitions before actual construction could begin.

In the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams,” Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella is convinced that if he builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield, disgraced Chicago White Sox ballplayer Shoeless Joe Jackson and other players will materialize on the ball field to play games. In Ray’s mind, at least, this actually happens. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with an “if you build it, they will come” scenario when considering the rooftop highway.

Neither the federal nor the state government can plan and build new highways based on this premise. New highways, particularly expensive four-lane highways, can only be funded when there is a clear need from a benefit-cost basic to do so. Many projects, even with a favorable benefit-cost ratio, are not currently being built because funds are just not available. In fact, a just released estimate, from the American Society of Civil Engineers, states there is a nationwide need amounting to $2.2 trillion for highway and bridge improvement projects right now. North country residents have to be realistic enough to know that this is the case with the rooftop highway. It’s easy to dream, but dreaming does not produce the justification or the funding for such a project.

In summary, making improvements such as building passing lanes, making intersection safety improvements and building other beneficial projects, as recommended in the NTE study action plan, will eventually produce a Route 11 which will serve the needs of the region for many years. This is the sensible plan, which the state DOT is currently pursuing.

Mr. Irwin is a retired professional engineer and former long-time director of regional transportation planning and program management for Region 7 of the state DOT. He was a leader and active participant in both the NCTS and the NTE studies.

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