The dream of a “rooftop highway” – a full-blown divided highway interstate running across the North Country between Watertown and Plattsburgh – has obsessed regional economic developers for the better part of 60 years.
But perhaps for the first time, we can actually see what building such an Interstate would look like.
The first 5 miles of what supporters hope will become the rooftop highway is under construction, connecting I-81 to Fort Drum’s main gate. It’s going to be called I-781.
Looking at these pictures, it’s hard not to be struck by a couple things.
First, imagine dredging this wide a swath for 180 miles across the North Country, through forests, wetlands, neighborhoods, farm fields.
Second, it will have taken more than 8 years and some $70 million just to build these five miles of highway. DOT engineer Kenneth Bibbins told the Watertown Daily Times yesterday:
It’s a large, complex project. We don’t get to do this much — new highway work — especially here in Watertown.
How “complex” would it be to build this road 36 times over?
Opposition to the rooftop highway has been little more than a quiet mumble of disapproval all these years. That’s mostly because it seems so unfeasible, with its vast scope and $2-4 billion estimated price tag, not to mention the DOT’s assessment that Route 11 (the basic route of the rooftop highway) really isn’t that choked with traffic at all.
But that will change if the project takes a step toward reality. There have been rumblings of federal funding for an environmental impact study, which would include public hearings. I think it’s arguble that this could engender one of the biggest political battles in North Country history.
Rooftop highway supporters have most local governments on their side via a blizzard of resolutions. And they have a study that promises 27,000 new jobs, and a sturdy belief that the only way for the North Country to escape its decades-long economic downturn is, as Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena director and lead rooftop highway booster Jason Clark says, “a Big Road.”