Press-Republican

September 24, 2013

Veteran's Memorial Highway needs work

By KIM SMITH DEDAM Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — WILMINGTON — With fall foliage colors emerging fast, the Whiteface Veteran’s Memorial Highway is a busy road.

But officials here remain concerned about the highway’s condition.

Stretches of the paved roadway are pocked with holes, others riddled with warped asphalt that looks like a series of moguls — bumps that are welcome on ski trails but not so great for cars.

Town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston pointed to the trouble spots on a recent ride-along with the Press-Republican.

With nearly 70,000 paid trips each year, he says, the drive up Whiteface is a critical source of tourism revenue for the region, both in his town and in Essex County.

“If anything happened to close it, it would be economically devastating to the area,” Preston said. “We need to maintain this before we lose it.”

JURISDICTIONAL TANGLE

The road is owned by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, which does not have a budget for road repairs. 

The State Department of Transportation did engineering studies of the road two years ago, coming up with a repair cost of almost $5 million.

The Olympic Regional Development Authority manages the highway tolls and runs the restaurant and gift shop in the Castle at the top of the mountain.

“But ORDA was never meant to be in the highway business,” Preston said, explaining the jurisdictional Catch-22 that chases funding for Memorial Highway repairs in circles.

ORDA does not have the budget for roadwork, he said. 

‘SAFETY ISSUES

Several years ago, Wilmington town planners applied for federal transportation funds to restore the site but were turned down.

The Memorial Highway was listed on National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 10, 2008, but it is owned by New York state.

“The state owns this road, and the state needs to do something about it,” Preston said.

He believes, after years of advocacy, lobbying and many discussions, that the only way to secure funding for road repairs is with a line item in the state budget.

“This isn’t going to be an easy fix,” Preston said. “And I’m concerned there are safety issues.”

He has urged the North Country Regional Economic Development Council to make Memorial Highway restoration a priority next year.

HOLES IN THE ROAD

Preston stopped to show a deep hole in the shoulder in a lower portion of the road.

There, a culvert appears to be giving way beneath the engineered surface, built on a massive wall of dry-laid stone. Most of the major areas of disrepair are located at or around the culvert system, which was designed when the road was commissioned in 1929.

“It’s drainage,” Preston said of engineering reports on the road. “The 2011 DOT engineering study found drainage was a huge part of the problem.”

Some of the holes have been pumped full of concrete. 

Along another half-mile stretch near the hairpin Wilmington Turn, the shoulder was rebuilt and the barrier boulders reset.

“ORDA spent $125,000 to rebuild the shoulder,” Preston explained as he drove slowly up the historic road.

“And we’re supposed to be honoring our veterans with this?”

INTERRUPTED BY IRENE

Preston believes the Band-Aid approach to Memorial Highway repairs has to end.

“It’s been 50 years since any major work has been done on this (road),” he said. “There was supposed to be an agreement for repairs made between DOT and DEC.”

The discussion apparently stalled as the state was forced to focus on roads damaged by Tropical Storm Irene two years ago.

The first 180-degree turn, called the Lake Placid Turn, has a fresh asphalt patch where the road did wash out during Irene and was repaired. 

BROKEN WALLS

The hand-laid walls of Whiteface anorthosite — igneous rock older than a billion years — are also crumbling.

The walls form a barrier at the road’s edge.

“On the Wilmington Turn, the wall itself is just coming apart,” Preston said.

At the top, the final stretch of shoulder is heaving toward the steep mountain’s edge.

Preston stood and watched cars veer to the center of the road, crossing over the yellow line to move away from that edge.

“They all move away from that side,” he said.

CASTLE WORK

The Castle is also in need of major repairs, Preston explained. The cost estimate to have the elevator reconditioned, separate from road repairs, came in at over $1 million.

“And that’s the only way handicapped people get to the summit,” he said, reiterating the purpose of road access to the top of Whiteface.

The Veteran’s Memorial Highway was commissioned by Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929 and dedicated on July 20, 1935, after he became president.

It encompasses 5 miles of ascending roadway, climbing about 450 feet every mile. Highway proprietorship has long been passed from one state agency to another, caught in a tangle of ownership regulation since the year it opened.

“It’s owned by the state of New York,” Preston said. “Then it would fall to the governor to make this happen. It would take an item in the budget to accomplish this.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com