Regional Plan Association Says ‘No’ to Route 17 Third Lane

The Regional Plan Association's report claims there is no three-lane requirement for an interstate highway, citing Interstates I-87 and I-84, which have two lanes in each direction for most of their routes.

Regional Plan Association Says ‘No’ to Route 17 Third Lane
SOURCE: New York State Department of Transportation

NEW YORK—While the New York State Department of Transportation has recently launched the environmental review on what may potentially be a $1-billion “NYS Route 17 Mobility and Access Improvements Project” that could include the construction of a third lane in each direction on sections of Route 17 in Orange and Sullivan counties, the Regional Plan Association is recommending against widening the roadway.

In a report released on Jan. 18, the New York City-based RPA listed a number of reasons why NYSDOT should not move forward with a third lane in the corridor that runs from Harriman in Orange County to Wurtsboro in Sullivan County. Chief among the RPA’s negative views of the roadway widening is that it contends it will not alleviate congestion in the corridor and that such a project would have adverse environmental impacts. One of the chief aims of the “NYS Route 17 Mobility and Access Improvements Project” is to have the sections of Route 17 in Orange and Sullivan counties conform to interstate standards for the eventual conversion of the roadway to I-86.

The report claims there is no three lane requirement for an interstate highway, citing Interstates I-87 and I-84, which have two lanes in each direction for most of their routes. “Nearly 75% of the country’s interstate system consists of highways that are configured exactly as Route 17 currently is, with two lanes in each direction. If you exclude urban highways, the percentage increases to 91%. New York mirrors these national trends, with 75% of the state’s interstate system being two lanes and rising to 98% of non-urban interstates being two lanes.”

RPA report authors Rachel Weinberger, Director Research Strategy & Peter W. Herman Chair for Transportation; Maulin Mehta, New York Director; Sofia Vala, Associate Planner and Nadav Bigelman, New York Advocacy Intern, concluded: “The Route 17 widening project is being planned to address current land use patterns, locking the area into continued car dependency, drawing more traffic and ultimately ruining the beauty and unique character of Sullivan and Orange counties. We all know the pitfalls of auto dependence.”

They added, “To achieve the state’s climate goals, to promote choices across the state, and to ensure a healthy future, we must say no to any highway widening, including along Route 17. Investments in safety, transit, bicycle, and walking infrastructure where appropriate, and commitments to alternative land use patterns are essential. This is the surest path to a future that is more sustainable.”

The RPA report states that NYSDOT should consider other options, including implementing safety enhancements and employing a land use strategy that directs development into existing centers like Middletown, Goshen, Liberty, and Monticello, and creating opportunities for active transport and corridor-level transit.

The report pulled no punches in its criticism of a third-lane option for Route 17, stating, “widening the road could actually be the worst way to achieve the desired improvements in the corridor. Using this project as a case study, this brief provides a primer on the negative impacts of highway widening projects, and why it is critical to assess this project, as NYSDOT is, in the context of an array of mobility and accessibility improvement options.”

The RPA report, while noting that the widening project would benefit the construction trades, noted the “jobs would quickly evaporate” once project work is completed.

The business community has lobbied for improvements to Route 17 for about four decades and has been highly supportive of the project that they say is needed to accommodate the significant growth taking place in both counties.

Daniel Ortega, a founding member of the 17-Forward-86 coalition, stated: “The need for an additional lane on Route 17 has been confirmed by two separate New York State Department of Transportation studies and has bipartisan support at all levels of government. The NYSDOT has been very responsive to local concerns and has addressed considerations ranging from safety, the environment, quality-of-life and projected financial costs. A third lane will not draw more traffic—it will facilitate the existing level moving through the area more expeditiously. It’s common sense.”

Ortega, who also serves as the Community Affairs Chief for Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative Local 825, added, “Orange County has the fourth-fastest growing population in the state, increasing at a rate of more than 9% between 2010 and 2023. Census data shows Sullivan County as one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Many of these people commute along Route 17. The numbers speak for themselves. We cannot ignore the facts. We must ensure our infrastructure can safely handle all travelers. Enhancing mobility on Route 17 is the responsible thing to do for our residents, visitors, environment and region.”

The 17-Forward-86 coalition consists of industry, trade and civic representatives who advocate for the expansion of the capacity of Route 17 to ensure the economic well-being of the Hudson Valley and Sullivan Catskills.

Real Estate In-Depth previously reported that the New York State Department of Transportation hosted public information sessions on Jan. 17 at the Town of Wallkill Community Center and provided updates on the planned massive Route 17 conversion project to I-86, as well as the impending improvement project at the westbound exit 122 on Route 17.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has committed a total of $1 billion for the conversion of Route 17 to I-86. NYSDOT plans to send out a Notice of Intent to the Federal Highway Administration, which will be providing funding for the project, by the winter of this year. The department will also engage in scoping and public scoping sessions in the winter of this year as well and release a project scoping report this spring.

The DOT estimates it will begin preparation of a Draft Design Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement in the summer of this year to be completed by the spring of 2025. At that time NYSDOT plans to release the Draft Design Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement and hold a public hearing and seek public comment on those reports. In the Fall of 2025, NYSDOT expects to prepare and issue a Final Design Report/Final Environmental Impact Statement and register a Record of Decision on the overall project in the fall or by the end of 2025. If those timelines are achieved, work on the project could begin in 2026.

John Jordan

Editor, Real Estate In-Depth

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