Governor commits $12M to fix Whiteface highway (update)

WILMINGTON – Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that the state will invest $12 million to repair Whiteface Mountain Veterans’ Memorial Highway, a major tourist attraction for the region.

The money will also be used to repair the toll house at the road’s base, the castle at its top, near the mountain’s summit, and an elevator inside the mountain, leading to its peak. The funds will come from NY Works, the governor’s infrastructure program.

Cuomo made the announcement during a press conference at the Lake Placid Conference Center, attended by a couple hundred people including many local and state officials. The event came right after Cuomo took a trip up the mountain with smaller group of local and state officials.

He said there were three reasons the money is going to Whiteface highway repairs: safety, tourism and its legacy.

“It really is dangerous,” Cuomo told the audience in Lake Placid. “The wall is literally down in some areas.”

He called the highway “a beautiful piece of history and a beautiful piece of our legacy.

“That was FDR at his best,” Cuomo said, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who as New York governor dedicated construction on the highway in 1929 and as U.S. president dedicated its opening in 1935.

Construction is expected to start in the spring and take one or two construction seasons to complete. The scenic toll road is expected to remain open during that time.

“We’re looking to get in early before the tourist season really starts to make a real push for it, then we’re going to be working so that we can keep the traffic flowing and keep the project going at the same time,” said Ted Blazer, CEO and President of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which manages the toll road.

The announcement to repair the road comes less than two months after the Essex County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the state – including Cuomo, Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec – to fund the project in the state budget.

Since the highway’s opening 78 years ago, it and the stone castle, summit building and road walls have endured landslides, heavy rains and earthquakes, in addition to the region’s harsh weather, high winds and freezing conditions. The roadway surface is bumpy and cracked, and an outdated drainage system has allowed conditions to deteriorate at a faster rate. The highway has not had major resurfacing since the early 1960s.

Despite the lack of repairs, the highway up the 4,867-foot mountain remains a big tourism draw. Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston has told the Enterprise in the past that it attracts about 70,000 visitors annually. More than 28,500 vehicles and numerous cyclists, cross-country skiers and hikers travel on the 8-mile scenic roadway, according to the state. In October 2008, the complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We did some research material for Wilmington four or five year ago, and the number one attraction for Wilmington was clearly the highway in all the responses we got from visitors,” said Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna. “I think there’s some real long-term benefit for this.”

Preston said he has been trying to get funding for the highway since he was first elected in 2007, although he did back off for the period the state was recovering from recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Irene. Recently, he began pushing again for funding.

“For anyone who has not been up that mountain, you have no idea what you’ve been missing,” Preston said. “It is a truly, truly, magical spot. It is just a breathtaking view. It’s a national treasure. I got up there many times a year. Sometimes I just go up there to have lunch, and I don’t get tired of that.

“That $12 million is going to preserve a treasure for us and for everybody in this state for years and years to come.”

Dedicated to the veterans of World War I by Gov. Roosevelt, the highway cost $1.2 million to construct.

In 1985, Gov. Mario Cuomo rededicated the highway to veterans of all wars. Today, memorial plaques can be found mounted on the north side of the Whiteface Castle.

“The highway, it’s just the most gorgeous spot in the world,” state Sen. Little said. “I think it’s as good as Niagara Falls as far as sights to see and places to go, and it will be in tip-top shape.”