PLATTSBURGH - The draft of a new study of U.S. Route 11 has been made public, with several recommendations for improvements to the major highway.
Representatives from the New York State Department of Transportation, the Development Authority of the North Country, and Wilbur Smith Associates, the Latham firm which conducted the study, presented their findings at a series of town hall meetings across Northern New York last week, completing their stops in Plattsburgh Dec. 4.
James Levy, senior transportation planner with Wilbur Smith Associates, gave an overview of the Northern Tier Expressway: Route 11 Corridor Study, which examined the 150-mile stretch from the city of Watertown in Jefferson County to the village of Rouses Point. The study was conducted keeping in mind the ultimate goal of creating a four-lane expressway as has been pursued for decades, said Levy. The 17-page document outlines creating an expressway, with steps building up to that point that could be taken slowly.
"We wanted to explore a range of shorter-term transportation improvements that would improve safety, travel time and quality of life for the villages along the corridor," said Levy. "We wanted to be realistic. The expressway itself is a very ambitious undertaking. It's very expensive; it will take time because all transportation projects take time."
The overall estimated cost to develop the 150 miles of Route 11 into a four-lane expressway has been estimated at $1 billion, said Levy. That figure is one that has fluctuated congruently in recent years with the prices of construction materials such as steel, concrete and oil.
"If you were to ask me to price it out six months ago when the cost of oil was what it was, I would have given you a different number than I would today, and it would be a lot less," said Levy.
Believing the development of a full expressway would take "many years," Wilbur Smith examined a stepped process which involved addressing existing traffic and safety concerns by making improvements that would ultimately be incorporated into an expressway design. One of the improvements consists of creating passing lanes on various sections of Route 11, which would measure approximately three-quarters of a mile to a mile in length.
"Passing lanes would hopefully allow the breaking up of traffic every few miles so they're not all stuck behind a truck, for example," said Levy. "It can be very difficult to pass in a legal passing area, sometimes.
Bypasses that would divert faster moving traffic from more densely-populated communities such as Rouses Point were also recommended.
"There are a lot of fast-moving vehicles sometimes in some of these villages, when there's already passenger traffic that's just trying to get from one end of the village to the other," said Levy. "[The fast-moving vehicles] would be using the bypass instead of going through the village so that would improve safety."
The bypasses were only suggested for communities with populations of 2,000 or more, said Levy, due to the high cost associated with their construction. Costs would ultimately depend on the cost of obtaining land for the bypasses, if necessary, as well as environmental impact studies and other necessary research and procedures.
"What we've proposed in this document provides very little of what we call 'throw-away,'" said Levy. "The majority of what we would do in the interim are things that could hopefully be incorporated into an expressway. That way, we're not building a passing lane for say $2 million and turning around in 15 years to tear it out. The intent is to try to keep as much of whatever we do now there and incorporate it into a full expressway concept later on."
The question also remains how the project would be funded, though Levy said there is funding available from state and federal government levels.
"When it comes to financing of a project like this, the federal transportation bill that funds most of these types of projects is up for renewal next year," explained Levy. "We don't know what it's going to say, we don't know how much money it's going to have or what the requirements will be necessarily. We have to go under the assumption that funding for projects like this is going to have to be looked at not only as we have in the past, but from new opportunities, new ways of funding."
Establishing a toll system or pursuing public partnerships for funding could be among those ways, he added.
"The full expressway concept - best case scenario, if we had the money, we could do the design right away and get the shovels in the ground - you're looking at probably at least 10 years before it would even be under way," said Levy. "We just don't know where the money's going to come from."
Community input that was taken during the public meetings will be incorporated into the final draft of the study