WILMINGTON - State officials are pushing an accelerated timeline for the project that would overhaul the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway.
State Department of Transportation Project Manager Geoff Wood hosted a meeting Wednesday night at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center to talk with the public about the DOT's plans to fix the road, a project Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced would get $12 million from his NY Works program.
"It really is a national treasure," Wood said.
The highway is on the National Register of Historic Places. Wood said it's highly unusual for a road to be on the register; it's usually buildings or other structures along a road. This road has historic value in part because Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the groundbreaking when he was governor of New York and attended the opening as president of the U.S.
About 29,000 vehicles use the road over its open season, between May and October, Wood said.
The DOT's portion of the project will overhaul the 8 miles of road that make up state Route 431, starting at its intersection with state Route 86 and proceeding up to the castle near Whiteface Mountain's summit. Wood has been given a $10 million budget for that process.
The other $2 million is set to go to the state Olympic Regional Development Authority to renovate the castle and the toll house that ORDA operates 5 miles from the top of the road.
The DOT intends to redo the shoulders, repave all the paved surfaces along the entire route, and fix the drainage. There is a water line along the road that leads to the castle, and DOT officials plan to replace that and add a septic tank under a grassy area outside the castle. They also plan to add some other touches like replacing signs and installing new picnic tables and bike racks.
Wood said the DOT hopes to have its portion of the project designed by Jan. 16 and ready to advertise to contractors by Feb. 1. According to the current timeline, the DOT would open bids on March 6 and award them April 1, with construction set to begin on April 15. Wood noted that it's likely not much construction work will be able to be done that early in the season, but there are other tasks contractors could do, like set up an office and buy materials so they are ready to go when the weather cooperates.
Officials hope to have construction complete by December 2015.
The high elevation of the highway means there are about a dozen high-elevation plant species along it that are protected by the state, like Alpine goldenrod, Apalachian fur moss, bearberry willow and snowline wintergreen. It's a violation of state Environmental Conservation Law to destroy these plants without permission of the landowner, which in this case is the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Three-and-a-half miles of the toll road are also within the nesting area of the Bicknell's thrush, a rare bird that prefers high elevations.
Another difficulty is that the DOT is dedicated to minimizing the project's impact on users of the road. It plans to close the toll road for certain portions of its open season, Wood said. In the early and late season, the toll road would only be open on weekends and holidays, while during the road's busiest season in the middle of the summer, it would be open Friday through Monday with construction Tuesday through Thursday.
DOT officials said that due to the road's narrowness, it will be difficult enough to maneuver construction vehicles on it, so getting tourist cars around the vehicles isn't ideal. When the road is open during construction, Wood said they plan to always have both lanes open to traffic.
The topography presents problems, with 8 to 10 percent grades the entire distance of the road.
Beyond the toll house, the road is in the state Forest Preserve in an intensive-use area, but it has boundaries on one side that are wilderness and on the other side wild forest, Wood said. Doug Wolfe, who recently retired from the SUNY Atmospheric Research Center on Whiteface after several decades of working there, told Wood there's a right of way there that needs to be taken into consideration, and Wood said he welcomed more information on that.
DOT Regional Director Sam Zhou told the Enterprise after the presentation that DOT has been working closely with DEC, ORDA, the state Adirondack Park Agency and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation on the project. He said they are looking to set an example on how to work together on an accelerated timeline. He said the work that has been done in the last month would normally take two to three years.
He said the DOT officials believe they can overcome all the challenges and stay on schedule.
"With DEC on our side we are confident that we can come up with some measures that make sure not only we get the job done but also we preserve the natural environments," Zhou said.
He said the DEC plans to engage environmental groups in the process and get their input.
Zhou said he thinks a lot of local contractors will be interested in the work.
"So it's great for local businesses; it's great for the local economy," he said.
He noted that the highway is a big economic driver for the region.
Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston, who pushed for this project for a number of years, said what he heard Wednesday night was fantastic.
"I've never seen a plan move this quick," Preston said.
He said he's not concerned about the timeline.
"I think they can do it in two years," Preston said. "I think they're hopeful to get a majority of the work done in 2014, but I'm sure that in two years, we'll be in good shape. And seeing as how it's taken 50 years to get any major work done, I'm pretty happy."
State Assemblyman Dan Stec said he was pleased with what he heard as well. He was surprised that most culverts along the road are in such good shape. He was pleased with the turnout of people at the presentation, and he said Wood's presentation was thorough enough that not many people had questions.
Stec also praised the project's aggressive timeline.
"I'm very pleased that they're going to be able to be ready to go into the ground in April," Stec said. "I mean, that's unheard of for a project like this. And this isn't an easy work site."
He said he's confident the DOT will be able to adhere to the quick schedule.
"They've got good people; their engineering team is very good," Stec said. "I'm not concerned about their ability to be ready for April first. They would know better than me."
He noted that since the highway only leads to the top of the mountain, it won't cause traffic problems to close it a few days a week for construction.
Stec said the slide in Wood's presentation that jumped out for him was the one showing a log of the highway's maintainence history. There were only eight entries starting in 1939.
"It's remarkable that the road is in as good of shape as it is, all things considered," Stec said. "The good news is that they do this, we should be good for another 50 or 60 years without any major work. This is more than just a topping job."
Stec praised all the state agencies working together on this project. He said it's one example of a greater trend he sees of state agencies working well with one another and various interest groups, something he said didn't exist five years ago in the Adirondacks.
"There's been a lot more cooperation on these big issues across the board," Stec said. "We're starting to move together. We're finding that common ground and, 'What can we agree on; let's get things done.'"
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.