Our first images of a “rooftop highway”

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.”

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41 Comments on “Our first images of a “rooftop highway””

  1. DBW says:

    There is plenty of opposition and reservations about a rooftop highway in high places in the region. Most people are not bothering with this because it seems so farfetched and unlikely in what is shaping up to become America’s own lost decade. When the rooftop highway came up during the Chamber of Commerce visioning session last year in Massena, there was enough push back that the discussion quicily moved on to other topics. As for the feds, how can you talk about an unneeded road, when they are talking about cutting social security? If anything is done it will be NY DOT’s Norther Tier Expressway.
    Jason Clark is a good guy and I am glad he has had a chance to come home but I hope Mr. Hidy will put that boy on a short leash, and put him to work on something that will actually benefit his beleaguered
    community in the short term.
    In an age of expensive gasoline there will be grass growing up through the cracks in route 11.

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  2. Ellen Rocco says:

    I wish the money could be spent on a digital super highway–that would bring more 21st economic opportunity to our region than 1,000 miles of 4-lane highways.

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  3. Brian says:

    Why would local government leaders be in support of a highway that would divert traffic (customers) around their towns to effectively replace the highway that takes traffic (customers) through their towns and past their businesses. Look at how downtowns between South Glens Falls and Plattsburgh have been gutted since the Northway effectively replaced Route 9.

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  4. rockydog says:

    A complete waste of money

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  5. verplanck says:

    I hope that this is an issue that brings common-sense folks from all political persuasions together. I can’t see any logical reason for a rooftop highway.

    In an era where transportation dollars are so scarce, investing 4 billion in this thing is insane. Does that mean the Dewey Bridge gets permanently closed while this ‘highway to nowhere’ gets planned/built?

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  6. TurdSandwich says:

    I think we need more stop lights and 45 mph zones. Who can resist stopping in Canton to shop at Rex? Or in Malone to shop at the IBC? Let the rest of the world leave us 40 more years behind. And we wonder why the north country loses so many college students? There is nothing here and it takes too long to get anywhere else.

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  7. mary says:

    from nowhere to nowhere? Another I-88?

    Just another welfare plan for the construction industry.

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  8. Brian says:

    Turd: yeah, people are leaving the NC because of 45 mph zones on Route 11. I mean, western NY has practically morphed into another Westchester County since they built I-86.

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  9. TurdSandwich says:

    I’m not sure that I-86 has been completed yet? And yes people are leaving the NC due to the slow pace and lack of stimulation.

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  10. Turd: No way. Having lived in Malone for a few years, and knowing from talking to people that things haven’t changed there much, no way is anyone ever complaining about Rte. 11 being too slow. Too empty, yes. Too many deer in the road, yes. Too many snowdrifts, yes. Too much of a likelihood you’ll die if you go off the road because no one will come by for two or three hours, yes. But too busy? Too slow for all the traffic it gets? Too many stoplights? You’re dreaming. We need a rooftop highway as much as the Northway needs extra lanes north of Exit 20.

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  11. TurdSandwich says:

    Will, talk to a corrections officer about getting through Brushton and Moria in the morning. They’ll have plenty to say about traffic. How about anyone who even attempts to get from Potsdam to Canton (11 miles) in less than 45 minutes during the day. Most likely you’ll get stuck behind someone doing 45 with no chance of passing. Canton to Governeur? Pack a lunch. Have you read any of the opinion pieces calling the Potsdam-Morley road a racetrack? Its because people are trying to get around the traffic.

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  12. verplanck says:

    Turd, if someone is going 45 for 11 miles, math tells me that the trip will take 15 minutes. I think you’re mistaking a main thoroughfare for backcountry roads. In the morning, there is usually traffic. A 4 lane highway won’t eliminate that reality.

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  13. TurdSandwich says:

    At a constant your math is correct 14.6 something minutes. Factor in stops and stop lights and I’ll concede to 30 minutes. Ask a SUNY commuter and they’d probably agree with me. The highway would eliminate thru traffic which is the point. How many shortcuts through residential areas would be eliminated due to less congestion on 11?

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  14. verplanck says:

    Canton to Potsdam has 15 minutes worth of waiting in stop lights? Depending on where you’re coming from/going to, you’re only talking about 5-6 lights total.

    To be clear, you’re advocating spending 4 billion dollars to reduce commuting times for a few thousand people by 15 minutes or so.

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  15. Brian says:

    “At a constant your math is correct 14.6 something minutes. Factor in stops and stop lights and I’ll concede to 30 minutes.”

    Canton to Potsdam in 30 minutes?! I’ve heard of exaggerrating wildly to make a point but this is ridiculous. Maybe 30 minutes if there’s a blinding ice storm or something like that… but the vaunted interstate isn’t going to be any better (probably worse). If I hustled, I could bike between the two villages in 30 minutes.

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  16. DBW says:

    There are things that could be done to alleviate problems on Rt.11 between Canton and Potsdam. It is part of the County’s critical highway network. A couple years ago I asked County government to convene a meeting to discuss options between the Towns of Canton and Potsdam. Neither were interested. Finally, we can halt sprawl such as big box stores and concentrate development. The speed limit used to be 55 mph before large retailer was located west of Potsdam. Using access rds. parallel to Rt.11 with fewer access points will help keep traffic moving. It is true that the Baghdad Road and Judson St. Roads are becoming de facto bypasses to Rt.11, and many people saw that one coming. But it the larger scheme of things there are communities where the traffic is 5 or 10,000 cars an hour or more, and those communities should rightfully be getting highway dollars.

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  17. cement says:

    utter waste of money. and some of those towns on Rt. 11 will die a slow death.

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  18. TomL says:

    David, the report you link to predicts 3,800 jobs (see page 6-14)… a far, far cry from 27,000 permanent jobs. I have tried to find a a written source of the 27,000 job figure, with no luck. I have asked Jason Clark, who often touts it, for a copy of a document that is the origin of the figure, and he has been unable to produce. The SLC Planning Office doesn’t know the source. I don’t believe it exists. It is a real shame that the North Country news media keeps quoting the number, without bothering to investigate the veracity of it.

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  19. Bret4207 says:

    I’ve often wished for a bypass around Canton. Run it from the railroad overpass west of town and bring it out by the overpass east of town. The cool part is could go right smack dab through the center of St Lawrence U!!!

    The highway idea is a waste of time and money.

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  20. TomL says:

    I figured out once that if you take the average width of a rural interstate right-of-way (about 100 feet), and assume the Rooftop will go along a rural route (reasonable – if you ran along Route 11, you would have to remove every roadside house and business from LeRay to Rouses Point) then you would convert to interstate the equivalent of (minimally) 27 average size farms. What is the economic impact of that? That figure doesn’t include off-ramps, spurs etc.

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  21. DWK says:

    As as somewhat young person and life long resident, of course I’d enjoy having an interstate close by, but in the end, its not worth the money. Its not like we have plenty of companies that have said “hey, we’ll open a plant up there, awww, but no interstate, too bad”. No company is going to build a factory up here due to the taxes and fees our great retarded state charges so it can support its southern half. Route 11 is not congested enough to start plowing a wide path through the countryside and wasting money. There are only a few key points on Route 11 where it gets bad, namely the Canton and Potsdam area, how about a new highway or something between the two or bypasses around the two villages, Canton especially that’s the worse of them all. Besides that Route 11 isn’t usually full of traffic, I just drove Canton to Gov and barely saw any other vehicles, the main thing you get is people doing 70+. So I mean, lets spend 4 to 6 billion because two towns up here have a stupid level of traffic between them, and yes I drive Bangor, Brushton and Moria in the mornings sometime, its never horrid or congested, might be a touch heavy but most people call that a morning commute.

    Take that 4 to 6 billion, spend it on fixing the decaying bridges, build some bypasses or widen some parts of Route 11, and if we’re concerned about industry, how about investing in the rail service which we’re probably about to lose cause of CSX. Yeah the line isn’t horribly used because the line is decaying like everything else, I know people who work those rails, they said half the time the trains can’t go past 10 mph because of the condition of the rails.

    But yeah, an interstate from Watertown to Rouses Point, like there’s anything along that route that really needs a 4 lane highway, I’m sure the farmers in Ellensburgh would be happy to have a bigger road to drive their tractors on.

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  22. foothillshaven says:

    Bret, you are on the $….perfect solution to our HUGE downtown Canton problem! Perhaps we could use another couple of extra ‘turn lanes ‘on 11 thru our little towns. The old military Russell Turnpike led from Plattsburgh to Utica, or beyond? It still transports us hillbillies from hub to hub. (Help me with my history here, someone! ) I don’t think the ‘ole boys and girls’ from any of these peaceful little hamlets along the Turnpike want to be listening to the roar of 70 mile per hour traffic thru a spot that used to hear nothing but coyotes, crickets, birds, deer snorting, and an occassional snowmobile or Harley, along with a few citizens cruizing past. Do we?? Huge waste of my tax $ that could go to better causes! I think we should spend a few tax $ on getting rid of the idiots benefitting from most of our tax $ _ during their flights, vacation homes and lavish lifestyles…or the other set, who don’t plan anything except how to live FOR NOTHING! I think Ellen hit the nail on the head. I still can’t get high speed internet in Pierrepont, but I do almost all of my shopping on line!!! (If only we had a grocery store on line with cheap prices ….!!!!) You GO, GIRL!! Within a few years, even our bus drivers won’t be transporting students to school! Some of us will have no reason to travel those roads! The teachers are being trained to present all lessons online as we write………….

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  23. mervel says:

    I find it kind of absurd that anyone would oppose a major investment in infrastructure. This is what government should be doing making long term investments in our capacity. Interstates bring business and development, that is not really a debatable fact in the world of economic development. Sure if you already have resources and moved up here to get away from all of that I can understand the position of opposing all development to keep the playground open, but it just is not just nor fair particularly in an area as poor as the North Country.

    What I don’t understand is why are we fixated on Hw11?

    Hwy 37 already has bypasses around Ogdensburg and Massena and there would be less environmental and individual impacts along that route.

    As far as local businesses go compare villages with bypasses with those without and you will see that clogged, slow truck traffic in the middle of the village does little for business.

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  24. DBW says:

    Mervel -NY DOT is planning a Northern Tier Expressway that combine 4 lanes, bypasses and passing lanes, but the I-98 crowd prefers the more expensive Interstate option. We also need other forms of infrastructure such as broadband and we need to expand rail function. These may be more important than a highway to our future. The recent curtailment of CSX rail service to lower levels should have been a major concern for every economic development in the region. Interstates tend to bring development to terminal points, in our case I-98 would help Watertown and Plattsburgh or Rouses Point, more than Ellenburg, Malone, Potsdam, Canton or Gouverneur. Extending the interstate from St.Johnsbury to the Canadian border has not really transformed the Northeast Kingdom in Vt. It is still the same old poor place it was 30 years ago.

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  25. Mayme Trumble says:

    I think infrastructure money would be so much better spent on railways!

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  26. Bret4207 says:

    Mervel, the problem with 37 is it goes through the Rez. ‘Nuff said.

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  27. Bret4207 says:

    On the larger subject of infrastructure development. Wonderful idea. The problem is that make work projects are simply a waste of tax payer dollars. If you want to do this smart you need to put the money where you get the most bang for your (our) bucks. That isn’t Northen NY.

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  28. TurdSandwich says:

    37 is the key. Developing bypasses around Potsdam and Canton is a waste of time. A four lane highway down 37 would help ogdensburg, massena, malone and plattsburgh. I agree with your point Brett and I thought about a solution. Why wouldn’t the casino benefit from a new highway? Maybe even a second casino.

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    One would think this is the perfect opportunity for U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Bill Owens to move forward with legislation to fund, plan and build the Interstate 98 project.
    Now they can deliver on their big promises.

    We’ve heard many times about their strong support and the Northern Corridor Transportation Group has endorsed them and assured us all now is the time this project actually gets done.

    So, let’s see everybody put the federal government’s money where the politicians’ and local officials’ mouths have been.

    It’s a lame duck Democrat Congress in a federal government under complete control by their party. Sen. Schumer is the No. 2 man in the U.S. Senate, and Sen. Gillibrand has assured us that she’s got more clout than a typical inside party appointee.

    It’s time to deliver on the hype: move I-98 to the front burner, get it funded and start to build it. Assure us you mean what you say. Don’t disappoint us again.

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  30. mervel says:

    Maybe the word Interstate is the problem? There are many solutions to developing our transportation capacity. For example that little stretch they are building in Watertown, looking at a four lane between and around Canton and Potsdam. Looking at extending the four lane 37 beyond Massena across Franklin County, etc.

    I think the Tribe would be for an intestate for a variety of reasons!

    Given the numerous economic development boards and agencies at the village, town and county level it would seem we should have enough paid experts in the area to figure this out?

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  31. verplanck says:


    The deficit commission yesterday just came out with a broad-brush proposal to lower our national debt, which came with drastic cuts to Social Security, defense, and the elimination of long-standing tax deductions (e.g. the mortgage interest deduction). The Democrats have been defeated in the midterms; Bill Owens is in the minority party now, and the Senate is a quagmire that requires 60 votes to do anything. How the heck is this the “perfect” time to fund a $4 billion dollar project that serves such a small population?

    BTW, “Democrat Congress” is a pejorative term adopted by Republicans. If you’re begging our DemocratIC congresspeople for money, you should at least use the proper term.

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  32. Gee, Verplanck, I didn’t know referring to one party was “pejorative”. Maybe I should have used “Democratic”? Sorry for the insult.

    And your timing’s off. Bill Owens and the Democrats are still in control until Jan. 1 and they just announced their agenda for next week’s lame duck session. Surprise, surprise…it includes “earmarks,” the exact kind of pork barrel spending that gets projects like I-98 approved.

    Surely you don’t think the leopard has changed his spots over the course of 10 days, even with a substantial election loss.

    Billions will be doled out next just so they can get their parting shots in before they leave office. We need to start screaming and demand our share of the “bacon.”

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  33. tootightmike says:

    Please think a little farther ahead when talking about infrastructure spending. There are people in this county who drive 40 or 50 miles to work. They don’t need a highway, they need a different house. It’s environmentally irresponsible, and economically insane to commute forever like that. If our economy recovers in the near future, gas will creep back up to $5 a gallon. We haven’t invested in anything that will reduce our transportation costs, and we haven’t created any new energy sources.
    The North Country needs a passenger rail service, connecting to the airport and railways in Syracuse, and the highway and railway just across the border. Travel in and out of the cold frozen North would be a dream.

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  34. Bret4207 says:

    Gee Joe, what an altruistic attitude. “Screw everyone else, where’s mines?!!” I thin New Orleans could use you.

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  35. Nope Bret, I don’t want to screw anyone. I actually think the federal, state and local governments should stop spending, but I doubt they will. So if Congress is going to slop the hogs anyway (and you and I know they will), we should get our share. That’s all.

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  36. mervel says:

    The reason this is a good time to fund a needed interstate is that it is the type of government spending that most people agree with. We keep talking about infrastructure and investment in our national capital, well that is what this is plus it is a real jobs program it employs real people doing a needed job.

    I would much rather see something real and lasting get built with my tax dollars than give another cost of living increase to overpiad government pensions, or give another stimulas package to the states so they can make sure that they keep paying current state employees bloated paychecks and pensions.

    This actually will have a positive long term benefit to the nation and the north country.

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  37. verplanck says:


    While you hope to build shiny new infrastructure, our existing bridges and road turn to rust and dust. It isn’t sexy, but it’s essential that we spend billions on fixing what our parents and grandparents built. It would also be something ‘real and lasting’. I find it interesting that you think that paying state workers is wasteful, but a 4 lane highway across a rural landscape isn’t.

    Joe – I can think of many, many more things that $4 billion could help with other than a rooftop highway. Tootightmike’s suggestion of rail service is one of them; how about modernizing the line between montreal and albany? Or subsides to green industry in the area to improve insulation and electrical efficiency in homes across the region? That would work towards conserving resources, instead of promoting the further waste of them.

    Massena and the north country should definitely get as much federal $ as possible, but on a new road? no way.

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  38. Bret4207 says:

    Let me ask the simple, basic question- what is the benefit to this proposed highway? What will it do to improve the North Country? No matter how nice a road you build that fact it this area has nothing requiring such a highway. What is there is in Watertown or Syracuse that needs to get to Plattsburgh? Anything going from Watertown, Ogdensburg, Massena can easily cross the border in Canada and hit 4 lanes to Montreal/Plattsburgh. What is produced or could be produced in the North Country that would benefit from such a road? There’s a river and ports for large bulk shipments (although the ports are abysmal) and rail service exists over much of the area (again, abysmal). The timber industry is kaput, the mining industry about the same, agriculture isn’t hurting from lack of high speed highways but rather from an artificial system that has to make up it’s mind and either offer real support and quotas or to leave it entirely alone. Tourism? This isn’t the tourist mecca so many try and make it. In 1920-50, yeah, but this isn’t 90 years ago. We don’t even get the low cost power we produce. So just what is it that such a highway will do?

    If you want make work projects for all the union construction workers then work on the current highways, build some nuclear plants and hydro dams, massive solar projects in the deserts, build some of those gigundous airports to take the load off the current biggies. Spending money on this project is just another bridge to nowhere.

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  39. verplanck says:


    Agree 100% with what you said.

    (figured it was worth posting over, maybe the first time we’ve agreed 100% on anything!)

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  40. Stu Harvey says:

    Apparently there’s a lot of concern about this highway, and from the looks of things most of it is negative.
    Most of the negative comments seem to focus around the new road not being needed and that Route 11 is not that crowded.
    I used to drive on Route 11 AND Route 37 from Watertown to Malone on a regular basis and let me tell you if there was an Interstate in between the 2 for truckers and business folks traveling across the state daily, it would get a TON of use.
    And I can think of one business that would greatly appreciate it… Kinney Drugs!! Think of how much time and money they would save running their trucks to and from their hub in Governeur, not having to slow down for that Amish horse and buggy or the tractor or the traffic light or train crossing, school bus, and so on. And that savings can make them more competitive with Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and other stores of that nature.
    People said the same thing about the Arsenal Street/Route 81 overpass expansion project years ago and because they kept putting it off it created a nightmare for years!! Now you can ‘sail’ down thru there.
    Look towards the future people, by remembering the past… everywhere they built a railroad or highway, little towns sprang up and prospered. Sure they may now turn into Las Vegas, but this project will certainly benefit the area… now and for years to come!!

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  41. Oldsalt65 says:

    Oh Children, please listen to someone who understands how this works. In my 30 years in southeast Virginia (Hampton Roads) I have observed explosive growth driven by the expansion of the Military-Industrial complex. The lesson is this: infrastructure does not bring economic growth. Economic growth brings infrastructure. But only after years of traffic gridlock and miserable commutes averaging speeds of 15 mph or less will the transportation authorities invest in widening existing roads and building new I-XXX routes to ease the pain. Ecomomic development will come by beginning at the beginning. Rezone empty R-1 areas to commercial zones. Stop fighting wind farms. Stop begging our representatives for highway money but rather ask them to guide federal projects and contracts our way. Why aren’t we developing/building predator drone guidance systems? How about medical research? The fact is, federal spending is, for now defense oriented. Bring some of that in and you’re off to a good start. Other industries will follow. Then, when all 723 houses for sale in St Lawrence county have been sold. And new housing development are replacing failing dairy farms everywhere. And routes 11, 37, and 56 are parking lots, then and only then will you get your lovely I-98. And I will sell my house for 3 to 4 times what I paid for it and move to a nicer, quieter place.
    PS: You all (Y’all) might want to run an up or down referendum (no trick questions) on the I-98 proposal. I have serious doubts about the notion that 2/3s of the population want it.

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