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Cuomo announces support for Watertown-Champlain highway

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POTSDAM - A major north country highway took a small step closer to becoming a reality Wednesday, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announcing his support for a feasibility study for the long-discussed project during his State of the State address.

Interstate 98, a highway linking Watertown to Champlain, has been discussed in the north country for years, with plenty of supporters and opponents. Wednesday’s remarks were the first time Gov. Cuomo has addressed the idea as anything more than a vague possibility.

“In the north country, the proposed Route 98 could reduce travel time and speed up commerce,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Let’s see if we can make it a reality. We’ve been talking about it for years.”

Gov. Cuomo said the state Department of Transportation will perform a feasibility study to see if the project is possible.

The governor’s tone was more optimistic than it has been in the past. During a trip to Potsdam in February, Gov. Cuomo said the idea was worth studying, but expressed doubt about its economic feasibility.

St. Lawrence County Democratic Chairman Mark J. Bellardini attended the speech and said the governor’s remarks were a major victory.

“It was tremendous. This would be the biggest transformational project the north country has seen since the Seaway,” he said.

Supporters say the highway would create new jobs and provide more support for existing ones.

“The economic benefits are clear. We’ve been the only part of the state without access to a four-lane highway, and the governor sees the need to remedy that situation. This is a very positive announcement,” said St. Lawrence County Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington.

Opponents of the highway see things differently. John W. Danis is a spokesman for YESeleven, an advocacy group that supports maintaining and renovating Route 11 instead of building a separate highway. Mr. Cuomo’s changing position is not based on facts, Mr. Danis said, but rather is about winning the favor of local Democrats, many of whom support the project.

“Politics is a different thing. It’s about relationship,s and it’s about alliances,” Mr. Danis said.

YESeleven has long said the traffic across the north country is not heavy enough to justify a lengthy, costly highway construction project.

“We think it’s a waste of money. We think it’s a huge waste of time,” Mr. Danis said.

Supporters say the highway is more realistic now than it ever has been, with the possibility of federal funds and the state in better fiscal shape than it’s been for years.

“I think the state is climbing out of where it’s been in the past 20 years,” Mr. Bellardini said.

The details of how the DOT study will be performed, when it will begin and how much it will cost have not yet been announced.

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