Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Opinion: Gillibrand Listening to the Wrong People on Rooftop Highway

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s quest to obtain federal stimulus funds for the “Rooftop Highway” is a puzzlement. Who has the senator’s ear on this? Apparently nobody inside the Adirondack Park.

While the science is abundant and clear, that four-lane highways are akin to walls to animals that travel on the ground, the presence of a six-million-acre park south of the proposed expressway is rarely mentioned. Nor are movements of wide-ranging mammals between the Adirondacks and southern Canada.
And if Malcolm Gladwell is right, that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become expert at it, then I am nearly expert at driving Route 3, which connects Watertown and Plattsburgh. Here is what I’ve found: not a lot of traffic. The Rooftop Highway would also connect these two not-very-large communities in the vicinity of Route 11, farther north. As John Sheehan, a spokesman for the environmental group the Adirondack Council, asks, “Do we really need to get from Watertown to Plattsburgh fifteen minutes faster than we can now?  What is the prize for this burst of efficiency?”

The Council has expressed its concerns to Gillibrand and other representatives in Congress. The park is already surrounded on the west, south and east by major highways. The Northway (I-87), constructed in the 1960s, is an obstacle to wildlife travel between the Champlain Valley and the park interior. A Wildlife Conservation Society study published in 2003 found that animals rarely pass through 19 culverts under the road; they may be too small or too frequently used by humans to be useful to wildlife, the study hypothesized. Elsewhere larger, carefully designed underpasses and forested overpasses have proven more effective, with some drawbacks (the overpass in this Wikimedia photo is near Banff, Alberta). “Perhaps the expense and effort required to allow for effective wildlife passage through another interstate barrier might make planners think twice about constructing the [Rooftop] highway at all,” a WCS conference poster on the study states.

There are economic arguments against a Rooftop Highway as well, most of them citing the post-Northway withering of businesses along Route 9.

The $75 million Senator Gillibrand is seeking to advance this plan is just one of 60 road and rail appropriations she hopes to gain for projects statewide. She is correct when she says that rural broadband is a higher priority. All interest groups agree that the North Country needs better Internet connections to encourage sustainable economic development, and several well-conceived projects have obtained permits or are in the application process. They are shovel-ready.

These orderly broadband initiatives stand in stark contrast to shifting Rooftop Highway advisory committees that after five decades can barely decide what to call the thing. “It’s no longer the ‘rooftop highway’; it’s no longer the ‘northern tier expressway’; it’s no longer ‘some fictional highway in the sky,” the chairman of the Northern Corridor Transportation Group pronounced last week, optimistically anointing it “I-98.” It was also only last week, after prompting by Gillibrand, that his group came to a consensus that they need an on-ramp/off-ramp superhighway rather than just sectional improvements to awkward parts of Route 11, which was its consensus last fall. Nothing like switching direction in the nick of time to apply for a truckload of federal funds.

Even if there was a shred of credibility to the notion that we need a superhighway from Watertown to Plattsburgh, after this random and embarrassing process, who could believe it? Let’s not make walling off the park the legacy of this recession.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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