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Let’s study I-98 again

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s mention of the Interstate 98 proposal in his State of the State speech last week was more than a bit surprising for some.

For some. I have to say I wasn’t that surprised. The governor is, after all, up for election this year. And let’s face it. His popularity in the north country took a major hit with passage of the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act. He is definitely not the favorite person of those seeking repeal of the recently passed gun control law, and that includes north country Republicans and Democrats alike.

The I-98 proposal has been a priority for north country Democrats for some time. By making mention of it in his speech, Mr. Cuomo was quite obviously looking to win back the hearts and minds of north country Democrats he alienated with his support for the SAFE Act.

But mentioning something and supporting it are two very different things. He didn’t say we should move the proposal forward. He said the state Department of Transportation should study its feasibility. Again.

That’s right, folks. There will be yet another study on this decades-old proposal. The last study was in 2008, when DOT concluded that bypasses along Route 11 would be better than building an all new interstate between Watertown and Plattsburgh. I am absolutely sure that Route 11 bypasses will again be mentioned in the upcoming DOT study, because it would be foolish for DOT officials to dismiss the conclusion they came to just five years ago as the department’s preferred remedy to speed traffic through the north country.

I have to wonder what has changed over the last five years that would lead DOT to a different conclusion. I suspect the only thing that’s different currently is that Mr. Cuomo is up for re-election. And I suppose if you study the same thing over and over again, you eventually get to a conclusion that you like.

It’s been studied enough. And the facts associated with the proposal are crystal clear. It currently carries an estimated $6 billion price tag. It would require the state to acquire from willing sellers or by eminent domain enormous swaths of land. It would require a staggering number of environmental impact studies.

St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini was quoted following Mr. Cuomo’s speech as such: “This would be the biggest transformational project the north country has seen since the Seaway.”

He’s right. And it would affect the north country the same way the St. Lawrence Seaway did. It will allow people to bypass our communities even more quickly than they do now.

In addition to being an enormous waste of money, time and energy all for the benefit of creating some union jobs that will only last a few years, it will kill us. We can’t afford it, not just because of the billions the highway itself will cost, but because our businesses won’t survive its aftermath.

If people don’t have to even see our communities as they thunder past at 65 miles an hour, they definitely won’t stop in our communities to fill their gas tanks or grab a bite to eat. The state will make sure there are rest areas with gas stations, restaurants and rest rooms along the interstate, just as there are on I-90. Seeing an exit sign for Gouverneur, Canton or Potsdam is not going to compel any travelers to check out what those communities have to offer.

This is one of those rare instances where I hope political posturing rather than sincerity is what we’ve seen with Mr. Cuomo’s mention of I-98.

If DOT does go through with yet another study, however, it will be interesting to hear its findings. If officials conclude that a whole new interstate is the way to go through an area where the number of cows rival the number of people, we will have to ask what changed from when DOT last studied the proposal five years ago, other than the fact that there is a gubernatorial election in November.

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