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Article - Concerning the Prospects for a Development Highway for St. Lawrence County

The following opinion piece was published in the Merwin Rural Services Institute's newsletter, North Country Economic Development Newsletter 6/98.

Concerning the Prospects for a Development Highway for St. Lawrence County:  A Response to Dan Duprey's "The Best Investment The North Country Could Ever Make…."

By Richard Mooers, St. Lawrence County Planning Director 

High volume, high speed, limited access highway travel….  The North Country has it on three sides but not the middle, and every ten years or so we take a fresh, energetic stab at landing The Road That Will Make All the Difference.  Build it and they will come.  We will grow.  Our young people will make their lives in the region.  We will all have jobs.  We'll be discovered at last.  We'll get our due.

Why does this idea go away and then resurface, again and again?  Well, because mostly it's a good idea, but it fails to catch on with the folks who have the highway money.

Good ideas are worth pursuing, aren't they?  The devil being in the details, let's take a reality check on St. Lawrence County's chances for success with the proposed development corridor between Alexandria Bay and Massena:

Interstates are phenomenally expensive.  We have no idea.  What's more, the federal Interstate Highway System is essentially complete, in the eyes of the government, and so we are going after this new highway very much the underdog, and we are leaving the gate awfully late.  And maybe by some miracle the New York State DOT will help us go fast.  That does not mean that we can't catch up, but it does mean that we will have to run very hard and be very smart.  Where were we in the 50's when the national system was being planned and built?  We were listening to a snake oil salesman talk about a miracle cure called the St. Lawrence Seaway.  We've got to be street fighters this time, by comparison.

Most (but by no means all) of the Interstate System was built on the basis of connecting the nationally important market centers.  However, this masqueraded as defense strategy.  Perhaps national defense strategy really was the rationale for building some of the system, but even lonely I-91 (in Vermont) ultimately connects with a major center.  Can we make a national defense case for building the "St. Lawrence Trade Development Corridor"?  Hardly.  Do we have a nationally important market?  No, but we do have a nationally important product, aluminum, and we are in a good location for distribution, thanks to NAFTA and Canada 401.

We actually can make a good case for a development-fostering highway.  Sadly, this has not been the typical reason for Interstate highway construction, with the notable exception of the Appalachian Region, where development highways are accepted, federal policy.  (Getting the North Country into the Appalachian Region would give us a boost in getting The Big Road, and Governor Pataki is the current chairman of the ARC.)

Convincing the state and federal governments to build an interstate will require more than considerable political clout, which will have to be cultivated in Washington and Albany, and that will take time and money.  Locally, is there the will, political or otherwise, to fund a serious, long term bid for an interstate?  There is of course an effort in Congress to provide funding for a feasibility study, but that is technical, and this road will be built for reasons of influence, not "feasibility", just like any other example of recent major highway construction.  The principal benefit to the proposed "St. Lawrence Trade Development Corridor" being chiefly a local benefit to Massena and Ogdensburg, we will have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to convince the holders of the highway purse that a whole region will benefit.

OK, so my crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else's.  Acknowledged.  But sure as shootin', an interstate that is inter-state stands a better chance of being built, and my position is that we'll fail again if this development corridor is designed to benefit only St. Lawrence County.  Our chances will be somewhat better if other New York counties are on the bandwagon with us (Franklin is interested), and much, much better if other states are involved.  The socio-economic conditions we want so desperately to improve here are no worse than in many other northern counties in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire and in central Maine—coincidentally a natural alignment for an interstate between I-81 and the New England coast.  What is needed is nothing less than a North Country Development Corridor.

Caution:  Let us not for one minute assume that everything about a new interstate is going to be just great.  Farther down the road, when an actual route is selected, we will be able to assess the social cost, the loss of productive land, and the environmental cost of our Good Thing.  It won't be so very good to those who lose a home, a well-loved patch of woods, ready access to farm fields, even a whole farm.  There will certainly be huge difficulties with state and federal regulatory agencies as well.  In the larger scheme of things The Big Road could mean the loss of some of the very qualities we treasure about the North Country.  While we truly want the things that economic success can bring to our region, we must also know the full price and be willing to pay it.

Another Caution:  The next time you travel an interstate through a rural area with small villages, notice that almost all of those villages still are sleepy and small, and, except for the small cluster of businesses at some interchanges, the interstate traffic passes them by.  The Big Road is not going to come with a guarantee of  success for the whole region.  Remember the Seaway.  Reread "The Emperor's New Clothes".

I see this project as well worth the effort on economic grounds, but as extremely tough and at least uncertain of outcome. Meanwhile, our regionally important highways (arguably, SH 11 and SH 37) see more and more frontage development that has considerable potential to lead to more local traffic, fewer opportunities to pass, lowered speed limits, and, sadly, more accidents.  We work toward our goal of truly adequate highway access while the roads we drive begin to fail to do the job.

The incremental loss of highway function is hard to see until it's too late.  I have to say that the blame should be shared, but I do note that the only real land use control authority in this state is local.  So is the property tax authority.  And they are related:  a town typically wants to broaden the tax base to reduce the burden on the individual landowner.  In effect, the capital used to accomplish this is the town's open, developable land.  The most developable of all, certainly, is located on the important traffic arteries.  Those new businesses that are signs of economic success are also symptoms of illness:  hardening of the arteries.

There is another cost to strip development, of course, and that is that this often takes place at the expense of the population centers.  At least some of those empty storefronts downtown can be explained by those roadside businesses out along the highway.  The local highways should be development corridors, but only in the sense that they should be corridors between developed places, which is exactly the role of the interstate highways.

We must work on two fronts to further our highway access interests.  Long term, we should work to achieve a broadened vision of the concept that Dan Duprey has put forth so well and so diligently.  I thank him for what he is doing.  But we must work equally well and diligently to preserve the traffic carrying function of the critically important highway system that we have now and that we are at risk of letting slip gradually away.