The state now will be able to use a $984,000 federal earmark for transportation projects regardless of what the money originally may have been intended for, according to a recent White House decision.
But the state Department of Transportation on Friday would not indicate how it will spend the money or why it wasnt spent in the first place. Advocates of an east-west interstate highway across Northern New York, a decades-long dream among some who argue that economic development requires it, insist that the money should be spent to advance the so-called Interstate 98 idea the original intent of the money, they say. Unrelated to an earlier federal earmark that state officials ultimately decided would be used to improve Route 11, this money could set off another fight.
The state Department of Transportation will be examining these projects to determine which are still able to go forward and which are no longer feasible, state DOT spokesman Michael R. Flick said in an email. Overall, this funding will strengthen and preserve New Yorks infrastructure.
The state must decide how to use the money totaling $29 million statewide – by Oct. 1. It originally was earmarked for north country use at least six years ago, though the federal DOT couldnt say what legislator secured the funds.
The earmark was listed in a U.S. Department of Transportation list of unspent earmarks from 2003 to 2006. It is described as a preliminary environmental impact study related to the North Country Transportation Study. Congress has imposed a ban on legislator-directed pet projects, but the money was approved in a previous appropriation and should be put to work regardless of politics, President Barack Obama said this month.
Supporters of the Interstate 98 proposal said the 2002 North Country Transportation Study recommended a four-lane interstate highway. They wanted the highway to go from Watertown to Rouses Point, at Lake Champlain. Now, they want the $984,000 earmark to go toward making the dream a reality.
I would hope with all sincerity that the DOT would put that money where we always wanted it to be to put that money toward environmental study of I-98, said Ernest J. LaBaff, an avid I-98 supporter in St. Lawrence County.
The $984,000 earmark is separate from an earlier spat over a $6.3 million federal earmark that I-98 proponents contended was for the project they wanted. The state DOT announced earlier this year that the $6.3 million would go toward Route 11 upgrades, cheering opponents of the I-98 idea.
Route 11 boosters werent sure about the provenance or destiny of the recently released earmark, either.
Its a real murky pool, said John W. Danis, a member of YESEleven.
U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he was hopeful that the $984,000 would be spent on projects in the region. The White House decision mandates that the money be used by the state to which its allocated, but is silent on whether the money can go to different parts of the state.
Mr. Danis, a resident of Rensselaer Falls, said the $6.3 million earmark could legally go to Route 11 improvements, despite claims to the contrary by I-98 supporters. He criticized what he saw as the zealous approach among some in St. Lawrence County.
Its almost like a religious thing, Mr. Danis said. Thou shalt support the highway.
Mr. LaBaff doesnt see it that way.
If we ever lose Alcoa, this will be an Appalachia. To counteract that, we have to have good transportation, and good infrastructure, light or heavy, into Northern New York, Mr. LaBaff said.