Press-Republican

September 23, 2012

Whiteface facilities in bad shape

Roadwork, drainage, other repairs will total $7 million

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — WILMINGTON — The long, winding road to the top of Whiteface Mountain was last paved in 1963, nearly 50 years ago.

The elevator that lifts visitors 26 stories to the summit needs restoration estimated at $1 million or more.

A group of state and local officials met at the castle on top Friday to discuss cost and logistics.

Aaron Kellet, newly named general manager at Whiteface, presented a history and facts about the road, the tourism operation and costs associated with mandatory repairs.

“We have a lot of new visitors every year,” he said. “If they have one complaint, it is the condition of the road.”

$7 MILLION TOTAL

An estimate — two years ago — put road repair and drainage reinforcement at $4.5 million.

That doesn’t include the $1 million or so for the elevator. And there is lead paint inside the elevator shaft, beyond the lift enclosure.

Water lines, masonry work and toll-house repairs are estimated at nearly a half million dollars more.

The total figure comes close to $7 million for the 5-mile Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway and its tourist facility. 

MAKING STRATEGY

The road leads to steps that rise to a scientific-station complex housing a critical weather collection and public-safety radio equipment.

The entire facility is managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a state organization that avowedly is not geared up for paving and road repair.

Town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston and Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas called officials together for Friday’s visit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation, the State Department of Transportation, the Adirondack Park Agency and the Governor’s Office to formulate long-term stewardship and financing strategy.

They are looking to Albany for priority funding status.

The Whiteface Memorial Highway is already counted as a top priority by the North Country Regional Economic Council, which is in contention for millions in state money for projects such as this.

‘A SACRED PLACE’

All of the leaders had driven up the highway, which is marked with a 25 mph speed limit. 

And traffic was busy Friday; the parking lot at the top was full.

Summers, the roadway is shared with hundreds of bicyclists taking the strenuous trek.

“In 1983, the state stopped any work on all institutional property,” Preston explained of the disconnect in proper road maintenance.

That stoppage included upkeep on the Memorial Highway, a site listed on the state’s Historic Registry.

“This is a sacred place in the state of New York,” Supervisor Roby Politi (R-North Elba) said.

“The roadblocks stop in Albany. This is the type of project that’s out of state (legislature), out of mind. But this (place) is important for everyone. Everyone,” Politi emphasized. “Everyone that can walk, everyone that is challenged. I don’t believe there was ever the intent for ORDA to have to fix these roads. 

“We need to get over that.”

‘NOT ORDA’S JOB’

“If we do nothing, one day a hole is going to open up (in road), and we’re going to be out of business,” Preston said.

DEC Region 5 Director Robert Stegemann said he had met with the Governor’s Office Thursday.

“(Cuomo) is very much of the same mind,” he offered.

“This is as much of a state site as Niagara Falls is,” Senator Betty Little (R-Queensbury) mused aloud.

“This should not be ORDA’s job (to pave roads). We need to go to work with legislation that makes it a state (DOT) or DEC operation.”

WHO PAYS?

ORDA CEO/President Ted Blazer said DEC owns the property, and major work was previously coordinated by that state agency.

“We have been working with them to assess the condition of the road.”

And two years ago, DOT engineers completed in-kind work to come up with the repair estimate, Preston said.

Cooperation in force has not netted certainty about which organization pays for the work, and local leaders are exasperated.

Stegemann said they are revisiting a Memorandum of Understanding with DOT that would cooperate to complete maintenance.

But memorandums don’t contract for paving equipment.

Preston said the toll road does not generate income to complete the repairs.

MAJOR INVESTMENT

The road had some repair this summer, Kellet explained.

New rip-rap was set to stabilize one steep bank, and some 100 feet of a stretch between the two hairpin turns on top was paved.

ORDA is able to contribute work to the effort.

But a major investment is needed to preserve the road, the elevator and the historic castle’s infrastructure.

“We’re not going to be able to get this (prioritized) ahead of the Tappan Zee Bridge,” Little said.

“But to us, it is that important.”

Douglas said he understands the daunting challenge faced by ORDA. But it is really a point of concern for all communities and state agencies in the Adirondack Park, he said.

“I’m the one who put this meeting together,” the Jay supervisor said. “They (ORDA) don’t have the money to do this.

Kellet said they would not have to close the road to repair it. 

At present, there are five major race events that also bring visitors to Whiteface during the summer.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:  kdedam@pressrepublican.com