Wildlife groups oppose Route 30 DOT plan

TUPPER LAKE — Starting today, the state Department of Transportation will undertake replacing a culvert under state Route 30 between Long Lake and Tupper Lake, and plans to reroute traffic onto a side road while the work shuts down the main artery for the next month.

But some wildlife advocates say the plan has not faced any public scrutiny and puts wildlife and tourism-related businesses at risk. The Northern New York Audubon Society says such a move puts rare birds and wildlife in danger from increased traffic. Other people, especially residents of the small hamlet of Long Lake, say the detour will be a danger and a hassle as they commute to and from work and errands.

Construction will start today and is expected to end before Memorial Day weekend. According to DOT spokesperson Jim Piccola, the contractor, Slate Hill Constructors of Warners, will work 12-hour days, seven days a week to end the project as soon as possible.

DOT plans to replace a 42-inch culvert, and traffic will be routed onto Sabattis Circle Road, which leads to Little Tupper Lake and the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area.

The culvert has been under supervision since bridge inspectors noticed the embankment’s gradual deterioration in November of last year, according to the DOT spokesman. He said a rumor that the DOT accidentally damaged the culvert while dynamiting a beaver dam is not true.

DOT inspectors determined that the frozen ground would bridge the culvert’s flaw for the winter and inspected the damage weekly. Now that the ground is thawing, they will excavate the area, replace the culvert, fill in the dirt and lay new asphalt.

The DOT had two options for construction: open-cutting the road across both lanes of traffic and rerouting traffic, or boring under one side and open-cutting the other, with a lag wall to maintain one-lane traffic. They chose the latter.

“If the current DOT plan for detouring Route 30 highway traffic on Sabattis Circle Road proceeds, it will threaten wildlife, permanently enhance this wilderness backroad allowing vehicles to travel faster, negatively affect tourism (including cancelation of the Adirondack Birding Festival field trip along this road),” Joan Collins wrote to DOT on behalf of NNYAS. “There is a designated Audubon New York Important Bird Area (IBA) in the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area along Sabattis Circle Road, a site which hosts many at-risk species including American Black Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Rusty Blackbird, Palm Warbler and Canada Warbler.”

“We are very aware of the wildlife in that area, and we are taking every precaution to let our folks know, also the people who use that detour,” Piccola said.

Collins, who lives in Long Lake, said over the phone on Tuesday that she was not only concerned about the wildlife but about a large increase in traffic, including tractor-trailers, on Sabattis Circle Road, and that ambulances would face an additional 20 minutes on their way from Long Lake to the hospital in Saranac Lake.

Piccola said the DOT will add 1,200 feet of guardrail along Sabattis Circle Road, signs lower the speed limit to 40 mph and add warning signs for curves and wildlife. Collins said the DOT originally told her the speed would be limited to 30 or 35 miles per hour.

After the project is completed, the speed limit signs will be removed but all the other additions will stay.

The shoulders of the thin road will also be patched before construction. The road’s 6-ton weight limit will be lifted, and the edges will be monitored for damage. A bridge on the road will also be reduced to an alternating one lane with signals.

NNYAS recommended in its letter that DOT install a temporary traffic light and allow one-lane travel on Route 30 rather than the detour.

Jack Carney said he and other Long Lake residents only learned of the project when they saw road signs on April 18.

“Everyone I spoke to expressed dismay when I shared what I had learned from the construction supervisor,” he wrote in a Guest Commentary published in Tuesday’s Enterprise. “They knew Sabattis Circle Drive and feared for the safety of family members and friends who would be obliged to share the narrow, curve-filled road with two-way traffic, large 18-wheelers and unwary wildlife, including deer and moose.” He said he had shared these concerns with the DOT and sent copies to the state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Why weren’t we informed in a timely manner that this was to happen?” he wrote. “Why was there no public hearing? No opportunity to discuss options, contingencies?”

Michale Glennon of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack office in Saranac Lake also wrote to the DOT about concerns WCS has with DOT’s plan, noting that WCS has conducted extensive studies in the area.

“We have collectively referred to this habitat as the Adirondack lowland boreal and have surveyed, studied, and written extensively on the plant and bird communities,” Glennon wrote. “These boreal wetland communities, such as sub-boreal spruce flats and acidic basin fens and swamps, contain some of the rarest birds in the state.

“The ecological impacts of roads are difficult to overstate. Though the road in question already exists, additional activity along it is likely exacerbate existing impacts, especially given increased traffic rates.”

Glennon went on to explain that if DOT must use the detour, the project would have less of a negative impact on wildlife if construction occurs in the fall instead of now.

Piccola said the DOT wants to complete this culvert replacement as soon as possible for the safety of drivers, adding that driver safety comes foremost for the department.

If the project stays on schedule, it should not interfere with the Adirondack Birding Festival field trip.