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Politi: State should fix Whiteface highway

July 28, 2012

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi took his daughter on a drive up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway recently and he wasn't pleased with what he saw.

Politi said it wasn't the views from the top of the 4,867-foot peak that bothered him; it was the road itself.

"It's deteriorating," he said. "They aren't taking care of it, and it's a state treasure."

The 5-mile stretch of highway, which opened to the public in 1935, was dedicated to World War I veterans by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was later rededicated to veterans of all wars by Gov. Mario Cuomo, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

In 2010, a coalition of stakeholders - including the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, the town of Wilmington, Essex County, the state Department of Transportation and Adirondack Architectural Heritage - came together to spearhead improvements to the highway and other infrastructure on the mountain's summit, including the Castle and the Round House.

The News reported at the time that about $6.3 million would be needed to complete the improvements.

ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin said he hasn't heard from that coalition since it formed, but he noted that ORDA, which operates the highway, has been trying to make improvements.

"We've been working on what were the most damaged portions of the road," he said. "We set aside $200,000 from a NY Works grant for stone work at the castle."

Lundin said funds have also been reserved for repaving and re-grading, and ORDA has already spent about $120,000 to repave, re-grade and fix retaining walls at the Lake Placid Turn, a popular scenic overlook about two-thirds of the way up the highway where visitors can take in views of Lake Placid.

ORDA has also used a $334,000 grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation "to offset the costs of road work and making sure the highway has been enjoyable for our passengers."

ORDA collects tolls at the beginning of the highway: $10 for one driver and a vehicle, $6 for each additional passenger and $6 for a cyclist. Lundin said those tolls don't come close to bringing in enough revenue for a complete overhaul of the highway, which he said would be in excess of $5 million.

Lundin said the state would need to take the lead on the project, and Politi agreed.

"ORDA collects the toll, but it's not ORDA's responsibility," Politi said. "They can't generate enough money from tolls to pay for the repaving of that road. The state of New York should get up there and take a look at it. They own it, and they need to look at it.

"You just can't let roads go; you can't let things fall apart."

Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston said ORDA's budget has been cut repeatedly and it can only afford "band-aid" fixes.

"I don't expect ORDA to be able to do it," he said. "I know (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo loves to vacation here. I'm sure if he saw it firsthand, he'd want to do something about it, too."

Politi said visitors to the highway are "so impressed with the place.

"I think if the governor went up there, he'd also be so impressed with what he has, and yet disappointed," he said.

Politi brought his concerns to the Essex County Board of Supervisors last week. He said he hopes that discussion will bring more attention to the issue.

Lundin said the highway is difficult to maintain because of the harsh conditions it's subjected to during the winter, but he added that in its current condition, it is safe for motorists and cyclists.

"If you're going down that road at 15 or 20 miles per hour, which you should be, it's not dangerous to the vehicle or the passengers," he said.



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