The ride is getting smoother on the Sara-Placid Highway, but ongoing construction has caused some frustration among commuters.
Motorists have reported delays of up to 90 minutes on state Route 86 between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid this week. The 8-mile stretch of highway is one of the most heavily traveled roads in the Adirondack Park, and July is one of the busiest months of the year for the area's tourist-based economy.
That's led some business owners to question the project's timing.
Work on state Route 86 is scheduled to continue through next week, although some motorists have asked why this sign, seen here on Thursday, says construction will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. when crews have often left the highway much earlier in the day.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"It was an ill-considered judgment to pave a road, the busiest stretch of road in the Adirondacks, at the absolute pinnacle - the apex - of the tourist season," said Mark Coleman, owner of Ampersound in Saranac Lake. "Our biggest windfall is based on tourism.
"I'm sure they have all kinds of reasons for doing it when they do it. But this is an overwhelming concern in this area at this time. Other things should take a back seat."
Carol Breen, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said her agency tries as hard as possible to work with communities when it schedules projects.
"Especially in this area," she said. "We understand between Memorial Day and Labor Day, that's one of the busiest seasons for tourism. We do try to schedule things for the spring and fall months. In this case, it ended up just not being possible."
Breen said DOT asked the contractor, N.J. Brunell and Son of Plattsburgh, to do the work in the spring to avoid long travel delays in the summer, but they weren't able to do that. She said work was further delayed because of "the contractor's equipment issues."
"The crews are working hard to move traffic along as quickly as possible, but with no nearby parallel routes to detour traffic onto, this is proving difficult," Breen said. "Motorists should plan extra time when traveling through this area and should find alternate routes around the area when possible. We ask the community for their continued patience during this important safety project."
David Nester is branch manager of Curtis Lamber on Route 86 in Ray Brook. He said the construction work hasn't impacted business, but it has made it difficult getting supplies into the building.
"There's frustration on my retail customers' part," he said. "They're still coming, but it's the amount of time it takes to get here and getting out of here."
Nester noted that electronic signs on the highway indicate that motorists should expect delays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., although paving has frequently stopped well before 7 p.m. even when the weather has been good.
"But we're here, and we understand this is a means to a better road when it's all said and done," he said. "The condition of the road before was horrible. Everything takes time. The ends justify the means."
Other business owners and local officials expressed that same sentiment. John Van Anden is owner of Lakeview Deli on River Street in Saranac Lake, which makes daily deliveries to Ray Brook businesses as well as the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Park Agency and New York State Police. He said the construction holds up his drivers a "little bit.
"But I'm certainly happy to have progress on the streets," Van Anden said. "You grin and bear it. We're only dealing with food. It's not like it's an emergency situation."
Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said he hasn't heard his constituents expressing much outrage or frustration over the delays, but he said his contracting business, Rabideau Corp., has suffered some setbacks because he has projects in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, which means he and his crews spend more time on the road and less time working.
"Anybody like me that has crews in both communities is hurting," Rabideau said.
"I haven't had a lot of commentary from the community about the road project," Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall said, "other than one of my employees at my own lodging property, who lives in Vermontville. She indicated it took her about an hour and 40 minutes to get from the railroad tracks to work. She wasn't complaining. She just says, 'The road is so much better, I don't know how anyone could complain.'"
Jim McKenna of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid said his staff has been backed up some by the work.
"But overall, we're pretty psyched it's being done, because we've had a challenge with our cycling community wanting to get to those roads in Saranac Lake," he said. "The end result is it's going to be good for tourism. We're glad to wait."
Adrienne Relyea of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce said she hasn't heard any big complaints, although some people have expressed frustration in passing.
Kathy Ford of Saranac Lake, who works at Adworkshop in Lake Placid, said she wishes there was some way the contractor or DOT could notify commuters about anticipated time delays.
"Sometimes I've waited 5 minutes," she said in an electronic message on Wednesday, "other times, like today, over an hour!"
Coleman noted that when the village of Saranac Lake overhauled its downtown sidewalks earlier this summer, the Community Development Office sent out three or four emails a day to keep business owners and residents up to date on construction. He said the village hosted two meetings with business owners to answer questions and outline work schedules.
"We were in the loop," Coleman said. "It seems like that's what government should be doing. It was a great example of how the government works."
Breen asked motorists to be patient just a little longer.
"We'll be out of there by the end of next week hopefully," she said. "If motorists can bear with us until the end of next week, we'll have a great new road."