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Lt. Gov. Duffy delivers regional State of the State address; locals with I-98 hopes attend

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Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy visited Watertown on Thursday to reinforce the agenda Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlined in his 2014 State of the State address.

Delivering a PowerPoint presentation at the Dulles State Office Building, Mr. Duffy made sure to highlight the proposals that would affect the north country most directly, which he said reaffirms Gov. Cuomo’s unique commitment to upstate New York.

“Three years ago we said we would focus on upstate,” said Mr. Duffy, who served as mayor of Rochester from 2006 through 2010. “I can’t remember anyone in the position of governor in my career who has spent more time and energy on upstate.”

In addition to state and county representatives, including state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown, there were several Northern New Yorkers in the crowd with a keen interest in the Interstate 98 project Gov. Cuomo mentioned toward the end of his address Wednesday in Albany.

For decades, a proposal for an interstate highway called I-98 that would connect Watertown and Champlain has been discussed.

In his speech, Gov. Cuomo spoke of plans to have the state Department of Transportation take another look at the feasibility of building such a road, which has been deemed too expensive in the past.

“It’s certainly something that’s got to be fully analyzed,” said Gouverneur Mayor Ronald P. McDougall, who attended both the governor’s address in Albany and Mr. Duffy’s presentation. “But the real message is that it was in the governor’s State of the State yesterday.”

And while no additional details about the feasibility study were revealed during Mr. Duffy’s presentation, Mr. McDougall, who in addition to being mayor is president of the regional Central Trades and Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, said that he and his colleagues, who sported I-98 lapel pins, were encouraged by the governor’s recognition that the region is economically limited because of the lack of a major thoroughfare. Mr. McDougall is the husband of former Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava, now deputy secretary of state for local government.

After speaking at a deployment ceremony for the 10th Mountain Division, Mr. Duffy expounded upon the governor’s I-98 proposal.

“I remember hearing about Route 98 or I-98 probably four years ago in my first trip up to Massena, when I campaigned with the governor,” Mr. Duffy said. “What the governor said yesterday was not that it’s going to be a reality and they’re going to be breaking ground soon but that he is going to assign the Department of Transportation — the commissioner and her team — to start looking at the feasibility and work with the state and work with local communities along that route to see if it can go to the next step.”

Mr. Duffy reiterated that while there are still many considerations about the I-98 project that have to be sorted out, the renewed look demonstrates the governor’s focus on economic development in the north country,

“It’s a long-term project from environmental issues to land acquisition and everything in between, but I think it speaks well for the governor’s support of the north country and what he feels about it and how much he supports it,” the lieutenant governor said.

Mr. Duffy also took time to address a slide showing a reduction in the unemployment rate in the north country from 9.9 percent to 8.3 percent.

“Those still aren’t numbers that are acceptable, but it’s an improvement,” Mr. Duffy said.

He also paid particular attention to Gov. Cuomo’s tax-cutting and government consolidation initiatives, which include a property tax freeze for residents in municipalities that hold down tax increases and share services, but sped through slides pertaining to the governor’s medical marijuana proposal, which would enable up to 20 hospitals in the state to dispense the substance.

In his introductory remarks, Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham mentioned that the city had reclaimed its title as Snowtown USA with the nearly 3 feet of snow that fell on the area this week.

Speaking about the governor’s decision to close I-81, which stranded many travelers in the town of Adams and turned Route 11 into a morass of traffic, Mr. Duffy said the governor was taking precautions necessary to keep New Yorkers safe.

“I’m a lifelong upstater and I’ve been through snowstorms my entire life and I’ve been on roads that I probably shouldn’t have been, so I think the governor was being prudent because had he not closed roads, had there been fatalities, and had there been issues coming up, he certainly would be criticized for not doing it,” Mr. Duffy said. “He was trying to be pre-emptive in terms of stepping in, making those closures, giving the great men and women who man those snowplows time to get out and clear those roads and make them safe, and in the end I think it all worked out well.”

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