RAY BROOK - As the Department of Transportation moves forward with plans to rehabilitate the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, another state agency is making sure the project doesn't negatively affect the environment.
State Adirondack Park Agency Regulatory Programs Director Rick Weber told the APA board Thursday that the DOT has completed its design of the highway.
"It's been an unusual process because typically review staff look at a plan after it's formulated," Weber said. "What's unique about this is we were actually working side-by-side with the DOT as they were designing the project. We were providing, interactively as plans were being developed, our comments. We tried to help shape where things needed to be shaped to really be in check with the environment."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, visits the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway in November 2013 and hears from (from left) Assemblyman Dan Stec, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens, Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston and Ted Blazer, president and CEO of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Weber said the result of that process was a solid plan that the DOT used to seek contractors, coupled with a rigorous review of the environmental concerns involved in the project.
"The environmental concerns were wrapped right into the project," Weber said. "It was an unusual but effective process."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Nov. 20 that the state would commit $12 million from his NY Works program to fix the highway.
The DOT's portion of the project will overhaul the 8 miles of road that make up state Route 431, starting at its intersection with state Route 86 in Wilmington and proceeding up to the castle near Whiteface Mountain's summit. A $10 million budget has been allocated for that process.
The other $2 million is set to go to the state Olympic Regional Development Authority to renovate the castle as well as the toll house ORDA operates 5 miles from the top of the road. Those repairs will include installing a new septic system in the castle.
"The environmental stress you would find in such a location - it's been subjected to landslides, earthquakes, very harsh weather, strong winds, intense freeze and thaw cycles, and thin soils," Weber said. "It's a very difficult environment, and the road is deteriorating. The last paving project that occurred there was the late '60s, so it's time for a major reconstruction of the road."
The highway has been paved periodically since the 1960s but not totally resurfaced.
Weber explained that the DOT acted as the project manager and worked with an interdepartmental project team that consisted of members of the APA, DEC, ORDA, state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the Essex County and town of Wilmington boards. The interdepartmental project team held conference calls every Monday from Nov. 26 until Jan. 13 to discuss the plans.
Weber said a contract should be awarded on April 1 and construction is slated to begin April 15. Construction is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 31, 2015.
Kevin Prickett, natural resources planner with the APA, said the entire length of the highway is on the National Register of Historic Places, so all of the work will be done on the roadway's existing footprint. That means there will be a 10-foot travel lane with 2 feet of ditching on either side.
"If you look at the historic record plans and the current record plans, they look primarily the same," Prickett said. "Today's standards will not be applied here as far as width of modern-day roads."
The project will include reconstructing existing roads, clearing ditches and repairing retaining walls and culverts. Those things count as regular maintenance, so they don't require a unit management plan.
Other proposed improvements will require a UMP within the next two years. Those include clearing brush for scenic vistas, relocating the summit's electrical generator and adding interpretive signs, picnic tables, bike racks and garbage cans along the highway.
The project will produce 15,000 cubic square feet of materials, which will be placed near the Kid's Kampus on the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area's property for use in repairing and maintaining service roads and parking lots.
Construction will be mindful of rare species of plants and animals living on the mountain's upper reaches. Morning and evening work will not occur in higher elevations to avoid disturbing the mating and nesting habits of Bicknell's thrush, a bird species under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act that summers on Whiteface and other Adirondack mountains.
Construction that could affect rare, threatened and endangered alpine vegetation will also be avoided.
"We are going to identify where these plants are and try to avoid it," Prickett said. "If a ditch needs to be reshaped where one of those plants is growing, they will take the plant and move it. We will be using National Heritage Foundation folks and their knowledge to help us with this."