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Gray wants more openness among transportation advocacy groups

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MASSENA - Supervisor Joseph D. Gray would like to see more openness among groups advocating either for or against the proposed Interstate 98 that would connect Watertown to Plattsburgh.

Mr. Gray published a blog, “What Gov. Cuomo Really Said About 4-Lane Highway,” earlier this month providing his interpretation of Gov. Cuomo’s statements on the proposed I-98 during a visit earlier this month to Potsdam and criticized the reactions by groups such as the Northern Corridor Transportation Group, which backs the proposed I-98, and YesEleven, a group that is in favor of improvements to the existing Route-11 as a way to boost transportation in the north country.

“Both groups were quick to interpret what the Governor said, what they heard the Governor say. But instead of rushing to get out the next press release on what the Governor said, why don’t they work to let the public know what they’re doing?” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Gray feels that neither the NCTG or YesEleven have adequately disclosed their activities to the public, pointing out neither group announces their meetings or activities to the public. He said the NCTG received $18,000 through the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena, an entity that receives funding through the town of Massena.

“They processed a lot of money over the last few years. Where did that money go?” Mr. Gray said. “Nobody asks those questions.”

Jason A. Clark, former executive director of the BDC and a current chair of the NCTG, said his board has always held open meetings, which take place quarterly and are usually held in the county court building at 48 Court Street, Canton. Mr. Clark also said Mr. Gray and Massena Mayor James F. Hidy have been invited to these meetings on numerous occasions, but neither has taken the opportunity to attend.

Both Mr. Hidy and Mr. Gray denied that they’d ever been invited or made aware of the group’s meetings.

Mr. Clark deferred comment on the group’s activities to Wade Davis, executive director of the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, who said NCTG is a nonprofit organization that has worked to push more than 600 resolutions supporting the proposed interstate highway.

“The group is a group of interested parties supporting transportation in the north country. One of our goals is the formation of the I-98,” Mr. Davis said. “Local towns, villages and economic development agencies have been instrumental in moving the process forward.”

In his blog, Mr. Gray criticized YesEleven for what he sees as a lack of definitive action on that group’s part.

“And it’s time for YesEleven to go to the government officials in Potsdam and Canton to commit IN WRITING to bypasses around their congested, travel-time-sucking downtown corridors,” Mr. Gray wrote in his blog. “Maybe then we can get the NYS Department of Transportation to upgrade US Route 11 and NYS Route 12 and make portions of them four-lane so as to relieve some congestion and speed people and commerce on their merry way.”

John Danis, one of the co-coordinators of YesEleven, called their group a “grassroots advocacy organization,” in which the only acting members are himself and fellow spokesman and co-coordinator John Casserly.

On the group’s website, yeseleven.org, visitors may make a donation or sign an online petitions supporting improvements to Route 11 over funding the proposed I-98. So far, 525 visitors have signed that petition.

The website also features a 2002 North Country Transportation Study and a 2008 Northern Tier Expressway Study. The Route-11 upgrades recommended in these studies form the basis of what YesEleven is pushing for, Mr. Danis said.

“If (Mr. Gray) wants to know what we’re doing, he should read those two studies,” Mr. Danis said.

Mr. Danis also said they would like to attend government board meetings and explore the possibility of holding their own public hearings in order to better gauge the concerns of area residents on proposed upgrades to Route 11.

In his blog, Mr. Gray also claimed Gov. Cuomo’s comments suggested there won’t be funding available for the proposed I-98 at any time in the near future.

“I’m not against the (I-98) effort, but I am a realist. The state doesn’t have the money for this, the federal government doesn’t have the money for this,” Mr. Gray said. “At some point we need to step back and say, ‘(I-98) is a great idea but we can’t afford it anytime soon.’”

Potsdam Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis agreed with Mr. Gray’s position, saying investments in Route-11 could provide “more bang for our buck” than constructing a new interstate highway. “I think the hearts of the people who are advertising for I-98 are in the right place, but in this case I disagree with them,” Mr. Yurgartis said. “I’m concerned that we’re chasing a dream and that the I-98 could not actually happen.”

Mr. Gray recommendations for Route-11 upgrades include widening the road to a four-lane highway in between towns and villages to allow for better traffic flow. He also believes travel-time could be reduced significantly if there were more bypasses around points of congestion, such as Potsdam, Canton and Gouverneur.

Although such bypasses would direct traffic away from downtown Potsdam, Mr. Yurgartis supported Mr. Gray’s suggestion. He said the Sandstone Drive bypass, which allows motorists to turn from Route 11 to Route 56 without going through downtown Potsdam, has not hurt business in the area.

Mr. Danis believes the proposed improvements to Route 11 should be a “developmental model” for other county roads that may need improvement. “All these roads have evolved, as local economies grew. Many have been left by the wayside,” he said.

Mr. Clark said the NCTG would like to see improvements to Route 11 in addition to the construction of the I-98. He believes Route 11 needs upgrades to address safety concerns, while the I-98 is needed to stimulate economic growth. He predicted the construction of the interstate would bring 27,000 jobs to the region.

“Really this has been a jobs program; it’s a transportation program, but mostly it’s a jobs program,” Mr. Clark said. “From my experience in economic development, companies generally do not operate in areas more than 35 miles from an interstate highway. They don’t like to develop more than five miles from one, but 35 is out of the question.”

Patricia Spitzley, assistant redevelopment manager for the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, recently said the lack of an interstate highway near the site of the former General Motors Powertain plant has hindered their efforts to find a redeveloper for that site.

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