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Highway study may not exist, Route 11 bypasses focus of DOT plans


Highway advocates’ hopes were raised by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s mention of the long-proposed Interstate 98 during his State of the State address last week, but as more specifics of the coming transportation study are revealed, it appears increasingly unlikely that the so-called rooftop highway will still be on the table.

State Department of Transportation officials confirmed that although the scope and scale of the proposed feasibility study have not been finalized, it will most likely focus on the possibility of building Route 11 bypasses around Canton and Potsdam.

“The study is the first step,” said DOT spokesman Beau Duffy, who confirmed that it will probably not focus on an interstate highway linking Watertown with Champlain.

The news comes as a blow to those who saw Mr. Cuomo’s comments as a major step forward for a plan they have long supported.

Mr. Cuomo’s statement during the speech seemed to indicate that a highway study was imminent.

“In the north country, the proposed Route 98 could reduce travel time and speed up commerce,” he said. “Let’s see if we can make it a reality.”

However, language from a book outlining the governor’s plans for 2014 phrases things differently, highlighting improvements to U.S. Route 11 as the best way to move forward.

“The highest traffic in this corridor is in the Canton-Potsdam areas, where improved connections could bolster quality of life and result in economic benefits derived from increased tourism and easier access,” the book states. “The NYS DOT will work to immediately add the environmental study for bypasses for Canton and Potsdam and a connector for the two to the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).”

Representatives from the governor’s office said they did not have answers to questions about why Mr. Cuomo mentioned I-98 during his speech, when the highway apparently plays no role in the proposed study.

The study has yet to be commissioned officially, according to Michael R. Flick, public information officer for DOT Region 7, which covers the north country.

“From what was said and then clarified, and then what Lieutenant Governor (Robert J.) Duffy has said, this is meant to be a look at the Canton and Potsdam area specifically,” he said.

By focusing more narrowly on these two towns, the study is expected to address the issue of bypasses with greater detail than the more general north country transportation studies that were completed in 2003 and 2008.

Highway advocates say they haven’t given up hope that the governor was in fact promoting a new highway, and hope to hear clarification from him.

“I don’t understand why the state would be saying what they’re saying when the governor was so in-depth in saying he wanted an in-depth study on a connection between Watertown and Champlain,” said St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini.

Bypasses alone would not help bring or retain jobs in the north country, while a highway would, he said.

“I would hope that we wouldn’t spend a whole bunch of money on a couple bypasses and then just leave them there,” he said.

St. Lawrence County Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, agreed that the governor’s wording implied a highway study was imminent, and hopes the confusion surrounding bypasses will be cleared up soon.

“That’s not my understanding of what the governor’s intentions are, and if this is the word of what’s filtering down through the DOT, then I don’t know,” he said.

“The question is what exactly is the governor going to tell the DOT to look at. Obviously there is more than one theory about what that might be, and some of us might need to reach out to the governor directly,” he said.

DOT officials said they do not yet know when the study will begin, how long it will take or how much it will cost.

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