Large public turnout for DOT meeting regarding Route 11 corridor between Canton and Potsdam
Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 1:03 am

A full house of residents, local government officials and business people turned out for the DOT's informational meeting regarding proposed work on the Route 11 corridor between Canton and Potsdam Tuesday night. North Country Now photo by Adam Atkinson.

By ADAM ATKINSON

CANTON — Dozens of people attended the state Department of Transportations’s public information meeting Tuesday, Jan. 30, regarding enhancements of U.S. Route 11 between Canton and Potsdam and possible bypasses around the two communities.

With two rooms in Eben Holden hall at St. Lawrence University decorated with satellite photos of the region marked with proposed bypass routes and enhancements for local residents to peruse, the meeting was geared to deliver options proposed in the North Country Access Improvements Study.

And, to garner feedback. DOT staff were on hand to answer questions, and public comment cards were presented to each attendee to fill out regarding the proposed projects, with instructions on how best to return them to the DOT staff working on the study.

However, Steven G. Kokkoris, DOT regional director based in Watertown, cautioned the gallery early during the formal presentation that the department was merely in the planning stages for improvements of the Route 11 corridor between Canton and Potsdam at this point. Kokkoris was quick to point out that while about $2 million had been allocated for the study portion of the project, no money has been accounted for any actual shovel ready work.

“This is a study only,” Kokkoris said. “This isn’t the start of a building project.”

During the presentation, various DOT project staffers supplied hard data gathered over the last couple years from driver surveys, traffic data, meetings with local businesses, residents and stakeholders, and cost to benefit analysis about the highway connection shared by Canton and Potsdam and how that may be enhanced.

The DOT’s local interviews revealed some concerns that many in the region have voiced over the years and most recently in last week’s North County Now survey. Notably, worry that bypasses would kill downtown business districts, or that there were currently too many trucking companies traveling through downtown business districts in the two towns, inhibiting commerce there.

During the presentation, findings from DOT’s roadside survey indicated that of the 3,000 vehicles surveyed, 85 percent were making local trips, 75 percent of the drivers were conducting travel for work, business and errands and 91 percent were from New York State. However, only about 10 percent of those surveyed were trucking companies traveling Route 11.

The DOT is currently reviewing several different bypass options including a northern bypass of Canton, a southern bypass of Canton, a northern bypass of Potsdam and combination of bypasses of both communities with a connector paralleling U.S. Route 11. The bypasses could allow truck traffic to swing wide of business districts when delivering goods through the area or to various hubs in the region.

The proposed work could cost as high as $272 million said the DOT representatives, if the double bypass option was pursued.

Route 11 enhancement ideas involve widening the corridor into a 4-lane highway, and spot improvements like adding turning lanes in key spots to make the route safer. The total wish list of all the work could range as high $62 million.

The DOT’s findings however, indicate that for four key benefits of the various proposals under consideration — reductions in vehicle operating costs, reductions in accidents, reductions in travel time and reductions in emissions — the costs of the bypasses, Route 11 spot improvements and Route 11 widening into a 4-lane highway were greater than the gains.

These benefits are fairly limited in scope and do not take into consideration economic development leading from the infrastructure improvements which could result, nor the inevitability of the eventual need of said improvements.

Civil engineer Michael MacNeil, one of the DOT presenters at the meeting, said after the presentation, that if the project had funding to move ahead that the DOT would be ready to turn earth in a couple years.

MacNeil clarified that the work proposed at the meeting was completely separate from the proposal for a “rooftop highway” which has been debated on several occasions over the years.

Public reaction to the DOT’s study were mixed, if not cautious in some cases.

“To me its just one more survey,” said Jim White of Canton. White said the same sorts of ideas for the Route 11 connection to Potsdam have been bandied about for the last 30 to 40 years. “It seems that they have all these studies all the time. . . It would be great if they got the funding. But they have enough problems maintaining the roads they have now.”

Others in the open forum rooms seemed to echo White’s sentiment. Some offered that the North Country already has a four-lane highway for trucking, the 401 in Ontario, which could be more accessible. Others repeated cynicism over the lack of funding for project work, and the number of studies over the years.

Some residents, however, expressed an interest in abating the downtown truck traffic.

“We live on the Judson Street Road,” said Ruth Thorbahn. “We often call it the Route 11 bypass. It sure would be nice to not have to deal with all this [truck] traffic. I find it hard to believe all these tractor trailer [drivers] are going to stop and shop.”

Many local government officials attended the meeting, as well as representatives of the Labor’s Local 1822 from Massena. The union set up a large neon sign in the SLU parking lot supporting the construction of bypasses, and a table inside Eben Holden with t-shirts and other schwag backing the DOT proposals.

Don Boyajian, a Saratoga lawyer and former congressional aid who is running for the 21st Congressional seat in the coming election, attended the meeting and voiced support for the proposed improvements. However, Boyajian said infrastructure rehabilitation and construction like that proposed should have bipartisan support at the federal level.

“Infrastructure is one of the most overlooked functions of federal government. They have fallen short terribly.”

Boyajian said when the federal government “fails on infrastructure,” the financial burden to fix it is passed on to the state.

The DOT plans to have another public information meeting on the study.

For more information about the study or to comment on what is proposed, visit https://www.dot.ny.gov/ncaccessstudy.