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A ‘field of dreams’

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In talking about a proposal to build an interstate connector between Watertown and Plattsburgh, people are quite right to call it a “field of dreams” kind of project.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie of the same name starring Kevin Costner, let me educate you. Costner’s character lives in the middle of nowhere and is told by mysterious spirits to build a baseball diamond on the premise that “if you build it, they will come.”

That’s the phrase supporters of Interstate 98, or the Rooftop Highway, or the Northern Tier Expressway, or whatever they are calling it these days, seem to have seized upon.

I got news for them. They aren’t coming now. And if you build it, they still won’t come.

The idea is that by building a large superhighway between Watertown and Plattsburgh, businesses will have a better way to get their goods where they need to go. Presumably, they need a better way to get to major highways, like Interstates 81 and 87.

A problem with this premise is that a lot of our existing businesses will still have to drive just as long a distance to get to this shimmering ribbon of paved economic salvation as they currently do to get on Interstate 81.

A big highway connecting Interestates 81 and 87 is not going to change the high cost of doing business in this state. It is not going to change the fact that people who don’t have a reason to come here don’t. Building it will not magically convince businesses to set up shop here.

What it will do, however, is waste more money than taxpayers can afford and provide a quicker way for people to bypass our communities altogether.

Improving existing major highway corridors would help our businesses. It is an achievable, realistic strategy.

Jason Clark, whom I know, respect and in many ways admire, defends the I-98 idea as the key to the region’s economic development in a letter in today’s Advance-News. I concluded from what he wrote that he believes the proposal has some kind of momentum, and it’s only a matter of time before the highway is built.

I can’t blame Mr. Clark for defending the I-98 concept. He has spent a lot of years convincing people to spend time, money and energy to bring the decades-old proposal as far as it has gotten. He has convinced a lot of people that it’s a good idea, although it is still far, far away from ever becoming reality.

At some point he and the rest of the highway’s supporters have to wake up and smell the asphalt.

The federal government is broke, and even if the U.S. Department of Transportation had billions of dollars to throw at pipe dreams, they aren’t going to spend it in a place where cows and deer, each in their own right, outnumber people.

DOT favors adding passing lanes and other modifications to Route 11 as the best way to improve transportation through the region. This proposal is a good idea. Improvements to Route 11, a major trucking and passenger traffic route, are a justifiable, necessary, and considerably more tolerable expense.

The thousands of jobs I-98 would create are in union construction jobs, just like was the case with the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway, by the way, was also billed before its construction as the transportation project that would ensure our economic prosperity well into the future. Let’s pause to marvel at all the economic prosperity communities along the St. Lawrence are currently enjoying, with their high unemployment, decaying buildings and shrinking populations.

As our experience with the Seaway should have taught us, if we build it, they still won’t come.

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