WILMINGTON - Time and weather are taking a toll on the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway.
The five-mile paved road to the summit of the 4,867-foot peak, battered by decades of frost heave and the traffic of thousands of vehicles a year, is in need of a major overhaul. The Castle and the Round House at the summit of Whiteface have also deteriorated and need to be repaired.
A coalition of stakeholders has recently come together to spearhead an estimated $6.3 million in improvements and restoration work to the veterans highway complex. The group includes the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the highway as a tourist attraction, the town of Wilmington, Essex County, the state Department of Transportation and Adirondack Architectural Heritage.
The five-mile Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, seen here Monday, winds its way up to a parking area just below the summit of the 4,867-foot peak. A group of stakeholders are looking to raise funds to pay for much-needed restoration of the road and the buildings on the mountain’s summit.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"The magnitude of the project is really overwhelming, and that's why this group was formed," said Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston. "This is probably going to be a several-year endeavor to try and come up with some funding to do this work."
The group has drafted a brochure to drum up funding and support for the repair and restoration work. It describes in detail what needs to be done "to ensure the continued and safe use of the complex by the general public."
The Castle and the Round House at the summit of Whiteface both have leaky roofs, which has caused extensive interior water damage to the two buildings. The cost of roof replacement on both buildings is estimated at $132,000.
The support structure housing the elevator that takes visitors to the top of Whiteface has rusted extensively and needs to be sandblasted and repainted to prevent further corrosion. The restoration work could cost $500,000.
Repair and restoration of the stone masonry on the Castle, the Round House and the highway's retaining walls, which has deteriorated, could cost $198,000.
The water and sewer systems for the Castle and the Summit House don't comply with state and local regulations. Replacement of those systems could cost approximately $81,000.
The large stone guardrails along the road have settled over the years, resulting in movement and sliding of the stones away from the roadway. Repairs have been estimated at roughly $442,000.
The most costly project involves reconstruction of the road and clearing its culverts, which has been estimated at roughly $5 million. Large cracks are visible in the pavement along with waves and bumps, sinkholes and rocks popping up through the surface. The highway's culverts have become overgrown or clogged with debris, and most are only "marginally functional."
Whiteface Manager Bruce McCulley admits there's no shortage of work to do.
"All these things are just long-term, rather large items," he said. "The focus is the buildings first and then planning and engineering for some of the infrastructure needs such as road shoulders and culverts, the water system and the septic system."
Since 1991, maintenance of the veterans highway has been the responsibility of ORDA, which also runs Whiteface and Gore Mountain ski centers and the Winter Olympic venues in Lake Placid. Previously the road was maintained by the state DOT. While sections of the highway have been repaired and repaved over the years, "a comprehensive and routine maintenance program" hasn't taken place since 1983.
Preston called the condition of the highway "a shame."
"I understand it's tough for ORDA to manage all those venues, and their money keeps getting cut and cut," he said. "But this is critical infrastructure. It's really, truly a shame because if you've been up there on a nice day, the view is absolutely magnificent."
Only a small percentage of the revenue generated by the fees ORDA charges tourists to drive the road is used to maintain and repair it. The rest goes to support Whiteface Mountain Ski Center and the other Olympic venues.
To pay for the more than $6 million in improvements and restoration, the group is seeking funding through state and federal grant programs. An application for $700,000 through the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures grant program was recently submitted. Grant money is also being sought through the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the state DOT.
If funding is received by the end of the year, McCulley said some restoration work could begin in the spring. He acknowledged, however, that the grants will only pay for a portion of the work.
"To resurface the whole road is way beyond the scope of the grants we're looking at," McCulley said.
Preston said he thinks federal money is the group's best bet, given the current fiscal crisis in the state. He wants U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to take a drive up the highway and see first-hand what condition it's in.
"We need their help," he said. "I know we can't, at this point, count on the state."
ORDA has already had to absorb a $3 million reduction in its state allocation over the last two years, and more cuts could be coming next year. At a meeting last month, members of the ORDA Board of Directors said any additional cuts in state funding could lead to venue closures.
Preston said he doesn't want the veterans highway to end up on the chopping block. Although McCulley described it as a "centerpiece for the whole region," Preston says it doesn't get the attention that other ORDA venues get.
"A lot of people know it's there, but it's not really in the limelight," Preston said. "To me it's extremely important. We're hoping that if we focus on what needs to be done there, maybe we can pull something off."
The Veterans Memorial Highway opened to the public in 1935 after four years of construction. It was dedicated to World War I veterans by Franklin D. Roosevelt - who was there for its groundbreaking as New York governor and again for its completion as president - and later rededicated in memory of veterans of all wars by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1985. The highway was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.