The Route 17 Improvement Dilemma

Ramsay Adams for the Times Herald-Record

The NY State Department of Transportation recently completed a study on the proposed widening of Route 17 from two to three lanes on the 47-mile stretch between the Harriman interchange and Liberty under the guise of easing congestion and promoting economic development.

Catskill Mountainkeeper commented on the draft phase of this report, which is seriously misguided and should be reconsidered. Widening Route 17 in this area will likely increase traffic and congestion, and will certainly contribute to local air pollution while deepening New York’s dependence on climate-destroying fossil fuels. This unnecessary project will contribute to sprawl and does not address the problem of transportation inequity. Click "read more" to check out the entire op-ed.

First and most importantly, it is crucial to understand that Route 17 is not slated to become Interstate 86, now or in the likely future. For years, advocates who support dramatically expanding the highway have waved the promise of Route 17 turning into a federal highway as a reason for the build-out. But in reality, the obstacles to turning Route 17 into Interstate 86 – including federally mandated sight lines and bridge capacity – are insurmountable. Therefore Route 17 will, for the foreseeable future, remain a state highway.  

So, whatever infrastructure New York state builds out on Route 17 will need to be maintained by the state. As a result, adding more lanes means New York taxpayers will have to bear the increased costs of repair, repaving and snow removal, which already require a major investment of labor and resources. And we’ll have done all of this in service of cars and diesel trucks at a time when 36 percent of New York’s climate pollution comes from transportation — and that figure is growing.

Well, one might ask, if it solves a traffic congestion problem, isn’t widening the lanes worth it to ease congestion? The answer may surprise you. Study after study has concluded that adding lanes does not reduce congestion, and in fact often increases traffic by encouraging more trucks and long haulers to use the route. Furthermore, the only two congestion points of note on Route 17 right now, according to the DOT’s own study, are at the eastern end of the road near Kiryas Joel and by the mall in Middletown. Adding lanes all along a 47-mile stretch of the highway won’t solve those location-specific congestion problems; smart solutions like exit improvements and highway improvements in those areas will. 

Dramatically expanding the size of this highway by adding lanes is not only unnecessary, but also a bad use of funds. Instead we should look at ways to improve and repair Route 17 from Liberty to Harriman, and target the problem areas identified in the report with smart solutions that will address identified problems without causing new ones.

Ramsay Adams is the executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper and lives in Livingston Manor.

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