The signing this week of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act–the federal economic stimulus package–has spurred a stampede of applicants for financial assistance from every state and every sector of the economy. The State of New York has posted a website spelling out how much of the overall $789 billion will come our way and roughly what types of projects will receive what share over the next two years. To wit: the $789 billion total is divided into $326 billion worth of tax cuts and $463 billion in direct spending. Of that $463 billion, $24.6 billion will come to New York State, and (for example) $1.1 billion of that will be distributed across the state for highway and bridge projects.
This cannot be good news for supporters of the Northern Tier Expressway (aka the Rooftop Highway), the proposed 175-mile four lane divided highway that would link I-81 in Watertown and I-87 in Champlain.
Endorsements from a diverse spectrum of politicians ranging from Richard Nixon to Hillary Clinton have kept this project limping along for nearly fifty years, an eternity for most public works concepts. Persisting doubts about the potential return on the estimated one billion dollar cost of the road have kept the roadway on the drawing board. Any hopes that the federal stimulus might rescue it from its bureaucratic limbo are now pretty well dashed.
While the final draft shows the roadway approaching the Adirondack Park no closer than two miles at its nearest point (near Ellenburg), the potential economic and environmental impacts would spread far inside the Blue Line. In 1999, The New York Times reported Neil Woodworth of the Adirondack Mountain Club supporting the road as a way to open up the western regions of the park to hikers, relieving the congestion in the high peaks. More recently, concerns raised over the impact of highways on wildlife migration patterns have conditioned the enthusiasm. In its conservation report issued last month, the Laurentian Chapter’s incoming vice-chair Peter O’Shea suggests it might be time to take the project off life-support before any federal stimulus money attaches to it.
One final, picky thought on the matter: Anyone who understands metaphor and knows the first thing about house construction can tell you that the nickname, Rooftop Highway is all wrong. Rooftops are exterior surfaces, existing above the space in question. Seen in this light, a Rooftop Highway already exists: Highway 401 just across our rigorously-guarded frontier in Canada. As for the proposed road above the Blue Line and below the border, perhaps renaming it the “Attic Crawl Space Highway” might help lower our expectations.