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DOT will spend rooftop highway money on Route 11

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The $6.3 million in federal money earmarked in 2005 for design and environmental studies that I-98 supporters thought was designated for a four-lane highway will instead be used to improve Route 11.

The state Department of Transportation, which has favored making Route 11 into an expressway rather than creatinga separate four-lane highway, does not want to use the money to review the interstate idea anymore.

“It’s been studied,” DOT spokesman Michael R. Flick said. “The conclusions are close enough on the studies we’ve already had. Route 11 exists. It works and we’d like to make it work better.”

The $6.3 million was the result of two earmarks in the 2005 federal highway bill. One was for $4.8 million to conduct design and environmental studies along a proposed Northern Tier Expressway. The second for $1.5 million was to conduct scoping and planning studies for the same expressway.

Supporters of I-98 have interpreted that to mean the money would pay to determine a route for an interstate from Watertown to Plattsburgh.

DOT presented its version of a Northern Tier Expressway in 2008 at a public hearing in Canton. Small improvements would eventually lead to an expressway that would not be an interstate, but a mostly four-lane road with traffic signals, roundabouts and bypasses.

The $6.3 million, which Mr. Flick said was released for use by the Federal Highway Administration, will go for design and construction of improvements along the Route 11 corridor from Watertown to Plattsburgh.

“Right now, we’re in the early stages of a plan,” Mr. Flick said. “We need to balance the needs of 170 miles with $6 million. We’re going to stretch that money as far as we can.”

Improvements might include left turning lanes at busy intersections, passing lanes or bumpouts.

I-98 booster Jason A. Clark, the executive director of the Business Development Corp. for a Greater Massena, did not think DOT had the right to take the money to work on Route 11.

“They would need a federal change order to do it. If they use it for anything else, they have to go back to Congress,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s happened. We intend to investigate where funds were diverted from and get an understanding of what was done.”

A congressional change was not necessary because the language in the earmark was generic enough, Mr. Flick said.

Opponents of I-98 have wondered about maintenance plans for Route 11.

“First and foremost, we need to take care of the existing infrastructure within our primary economic corridor, and this means upgrade and improve Route 11,” said John W. Danis, one of the founders of YESeleven.

The group is developing a map of what it believes the I-98 route would be, which it has started mailing to affected property owners.

“We don’t claim for it to be the chiseled-in-stone route. It’s a very plausible guess. Once you start laying down what the parameters are, it starts to dictate itself,” Mr. Danis said. “We’re seeing some signs property owners are talking to each other. This is the discussion the other people don’t want to happen. They want it as an abstraction.”

YESeleven has mailed copies of its map to about 100 property owners in Jefferson County who it believes are in the path of the proposed interstate and will continue sending out individual notices over a period of months.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 476 people have signed YESeleven’s online petition supporting improvement of Route 11 as a top priority.

Regardless of what happens on Route 11, Mr. Clark said, promotion of I-98 will continue.

“I think the project is further along with top state elected officials and federal officials than ever before,” he said.

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