With little more than a ripple of opposition, the St. Lawrence County Legislature has approved spending $20,000 to help pay for the selling of the long-dreamed-of Rooftop Highway.
And indeed, if you read the most recent piece of propaganda that was distributed, it is SO much more than “your grandfather’s rooftop highway”! There will be, if you can believe the literature, a railroad running between the northbound and southbound (or is it eastbound and westbound?) lanes. There will be a parallel “multipurpose recreational trail” created so that snowmobilers and ATV enthusiasts can ride gaily from Watertown to Plattsburgh. And the new plan is to “utilize the corridor to connect the open access telecom networks in Watertown and Plattsburgh in order to achieve true system redundancy...” This latter must be something of a shock to the Development Authority of the North Country and SLIC Network Solutions, who are using federal money to do that right now, long before any pipe dream I-98 can even be approved.
The claim by the Northern Corridor Transportation Group is that the new interstate will cure just about every economic ill of the north country, defend motherhood and apple pie and offer up thick, juicy steaks cooked just the way you like ‘em! And it will do this by...creating a high-speed, limited access highway that will allow people to cut an hour off the time it takes to drive from Plattsburgh to Watertown by bypassing every village on Route 11 — and bypassing their gas stations and restaurants and commercial districts that now might at least attract some passersby.
Let’s take the most recent example of a completely new interstate in New York. In 1970, I-88 was created on paper, linking Binghamton with Rotterdam along the Route 7 corridor. It took 19 years of political activity and construction before the road was open from end to end, and it has now been a part of the landscape for 22 years. What has it done for the region between Binghamton and the Capital District?
Arguably, not much. This is a simplistic response, because the few manufacturing centers along its path — Sidney, Oneonta, Cobleskill — have business that are happier now than they were 25 years ago. But it has not exactly been a factory magnet for any of those places. Other towns along the way have barely maintained the status quo. Little places like Afton, Schenevus, Delanson and Duanesburg probably can’t point to any financial gains directly related to I-88. Lots of empty storefronts and closed motels dot Route 7’s smaller burgs and villages, and the population in the counties along the superhighway have remained stagnant through the two Census periods since the road opened.
So what is to suggest that Route 11 communities will benefit from any great influx of business? The citizens of any hamlets so unfortunate as to not have an interchange will be able to gather at the fence that guards the highway and watch big rigs and family vans and small sedans buzz by at high speed. The places that may benefit to the extent that existing business may become more likely to stay — Canton, and Potsdam and Malone — are unlikely to find a boom in new manufacturing facilities, for the same reason they don’t feel that surge now. No matter how you look at it, Northern New York is a hell of a long way from anything resembling a large market.
Consider this: if you were thinking of building a widget factory in this state (and why you would be considering that to begin with is beyond me), are you likely to say “Boy, with that I-98 built, we ought to put this in Malone!” How many widgets are you going to sell within 200 miles of Malone? Now move that widget plant to Schenectady, or Pittsfield, or Poughkeepsie — how many widgets are you going to sell within 200 miles of any of those places (think a factor of several times)?
The Northern Corridor group isn’t going to offer any of these points to consider. In fact, they have wallpapered Lewis County with brochures trying to get support for an interstate highway that almost certainly will be a minimum of 30 miles away from the county seat along Route 12. And a lot farther from, say, Croghan. While the I-98 proponents are saying the project includes a spur to Lowville and a spur to Massena, the chances of that are about the same as Mark McGwire getting into the Hall of Fame. Massena is too close to the proposed corridor, and Lowville is way too far away, for that to ever happen.
And none of this even considers the current political climate. Interstate highways are big government. They suck up tax dollars faster than the U.S. can print money. In this state, both the governor and legislature are cutting the money dedicated to existing highways — and education, and social services and aid to communities. Anybody really think they’re going to pour a few billion into a new interstate that will best accommodate the state’s only moose herd? When we talk about a new interstate, we are talking in the tens of billions of dollars. Would you rather have this highway — or have your kids educated? Because, in this decade of the 21st century, that is really your option.
Three clear-thinking St. Lawrence County legislators, Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, and Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, had the courage to vote against this complete waste of taxpayer money, even though they weren’t quite willing to come out against the concept. But they were wise enough to see that this particular expenditure would be better spent throwing a countywide hot-dog roast.
It’s unlikely there ever was a need for a rooftop highway. This region is what it is, and for it to succeed, it has to embrace that and build upon its strengths. It is a perfect place, for example, to try to attract Canadian businesses who can benefit in the trade game by having a U.S. manufacturing facility. Or to promote tourism (even its carp fishery, as bizarre as that may sound to the noncarp angler). Or to encourage firms that need only the Internet and a fast connection to locate here. It is, after all, the 21st century. And the 21st century isn’t about new interstates. It’s about new thinking.