State shouldn’t wait to fix Whiteface Highway

The Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway is now covered with snow and better suited to nordic skiing than driving, but we hope Cuomo administration officials don’t forget it as they develop their budget for 2014-15.

The road that winds its way up this 4,867-foot mountain peak – New York’s fifth highest – is in serious need of repair. Its outward-facing shoulder and stone walls are crumbling. It’s dangerous, since what stands between cars and thin air isn’t as strong as it used to be, and in a bit longer it’ll be much more hazardous, especially as the deterioration of the road’s shoulder edges into the roadway itself.

There hasn’t been any major work on it since the 1960s, according to Randy Preston, supervisor of the town of Wilmington and an advocate for the road’s rehabilitation. This is much more than a patch job; Mr. Preston has said it would likely cost $6 million. That’s beyond the capability of the town or the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, even with the tolls it collects for the road’s maintenance.

New York is full of old roads and bridges that need upgrading, and the state Department of Transportation never has enough money to redo very many of them. But few present such a distinct danger of cars falling down a mountainside.

Also, few have such broad economic importance.

This isn’t just a local concern. The North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which represents seven northern New York counties, highlighted fixing the Whiteface highway as a regional priority in its 2013 Progress Report. Also this fall, the 18-member Essex County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the state to repair the road.

The highway is an icon, New York’s answer to the roads up Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Pikes Peak in Colorado. It required an amendment to Article 14 of the state Constitution (which protects the Adirondack Forest Preserve as “forever wild”), and voters statewide approved that in 1927. Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided over the groundbreaking in 1929, when he was governor, and returned as president in 1935 to dedicate the finished product.

That was quite a commitment by the state, and it included an obligation to keep paying the bills. It would be unwise to bail on that responsibility now, fewer than 80 years later, especially as the Adirondack economy has been forced to rely more on tourism in the void left by other industries.

So this is about safety, economy and keeping promises. About 72,000 visitors a year, in 28,500 vehicles, depend on the highway being safe and sound. So do the local residents who depend on those visits. One car falling down the mountainside would be a disaster – both personal and economic – which New York is obliged to prevent.