Restoring the Whiteface Highway

WILMINGTON – Restoration work has begun on the iconic Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, stretching 8 miles long up the 4,867-foot-high peak.

Surveyors from Rifenburg Construction began to scope out the road this week. There will be around 30 workers involved in the repairs. The state Department of Transportation is setting up a field office to make inspections and watch the project’s progress. The $11.2 million project, funded through the state’s NY Works program, is expected to be finished next year in June. Work being done this year will finish in October. A majority of the work will be completed this year.

Russell Huta, Rifenburg Construction’s project manager, said his company is very excited.

“We are going to focus on the top of the mountain first,” Huta said. “Our goal would be to get the road paved on the toll road portion by the wintertime.”

Sam Zhou, the DOT region 1 director, and Geoff Wood, the project’s designer, have been working on it over the past two months. It’s a fast-paced time frame for a restoration of this size.

Rough roads and repairs

The highway has had patch jobs and shoulder work done by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the toll road, although the road is owned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“It’s a bumpy ride,” Wood said. “There are some frost heaves and ditches. It’s been an issue, particularly for motorcyclists and bicyclists.”

There are a total of 14 stone walls along the edge of the highway from Wilmington to the top. In many places the walls have deteriorated and are crumbling.

“Obviously it would make people nervous to see that,” Wood said. “But (the walls) are structurally strong.”

Wood said the walls are a prominent feature of the highway, shown in many photos.

“Those walls are all historic,” Wood said. “They are one of the reasons the road is listed on the National Historic Register.”

Wood said the stones used to replace and repair the walls will all match what’s there now, following guidelines set for historic restorations. The type of stone is called Whiteface anorthosite.

“It’s available from local quarries,” Wood said. “They can’t just use any old rock.”

Also to be repaired are guide rails referred to as “quarry stone barrier stones.”

“They’re boulders that would hopefully prevent cars from driving off the mountain,” Wood said. “According to the history that’s never happened, by the way.”

There are a total of 60 some culverts, pipes that let water flow under a roadway. Some will be fixed; the ones in worse condition will be completely replaced. Poor drainage, road deterioration and some of the dips in the highway are due to the culverts’ disrepair.

“They are made out of sections of concrete pipe and they get separated underground,” Wood said. “Things get stuck in them. When the water gets backed up, it can loosen the strength of the pavement.”

A brand-new septic tank and water main will be constructed at the castle. There are also historic markers that will be replaced.

Road closures

Huta said his company had a pre-construction meeting sorting out the details of the restoration with all the state agencies involved in the project, including the DOT, DEC, Adirondack Park Agency and Olympic Regional Development Authority. One detail that has not yet been completely finalized is a schedule of road closures. A completed work schedule should be available on ORDA’s website by the end of next week.

“There are certain days that the road has to be open this year and certain days the toll road has to be open next year,” Wood said.

In May and June, the highway has to be open on weekends, and in July and August the toll road has to be open Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each week, according to DOT. Huta said in the contract they are able to work seven days a week in July and August.

“We would work at night if we needed to,” Huta said.

Wood said the public will not be allowed to travel on the toll road when construction is underway.

“When the road is open to the public, it will be two lanes completely open,” Wood said. “That doesn’t mean the contractor won’t be out there doing some minor work out of the way.”

The portion of the highway leading up to the toll-road may be a different story, however. Because it is wider, Wood said motorists can be flagged around the roadwork.

Town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said the work has to be done even though it creates potential problems for local tourism.

“The biggest thing that is going to hurt us is if people drive a long distance and the road is closed,” Preston said. “We need to bite the bullet. We can’t have a project that size without some days being closed.”

Preston said the schedule of road closures appears to have been done in a logical way.

“The sooner we can get this done, the better it will be for everybody,” Preston said.

Cuomo’s promise

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been instrumental in getting the highway project done in such a short time. After a visit here in November 2013, Cuomo promised $12 million for the roadway, which he called a major North Country attraction.

“It was full speed ahead from that point forward,” Zhou said. “We submitted our final plans in the middle of January. Essentially, we designed the project in two months.”

Wood said usually a project this size, with environmental considerations, would take around two to three years.

“Under Geoff’s leadership, we were able to get it done in two months, which is unprecedented,” Zhou said.

Preston said Cuomo cut through bureaucratic red tape to get the project going.

“It moved along so fast because Governor Cuomo said to do it,” Preston said. “The minute he saw the state of repair of the highway, he said to do it, and I’ve never seen any project move so fast in the seven years I’ve been in office.”

Preston said the state agencies stopped maintaining the road several years ago.

“It’s a mess, and that’s why it took so long to get done until now,” Preston said. “The fact that there were so many fingers in the pie made it even more complicated.”

Wood said it is unusual for the DEC and ORDA to operate a road.

Scenic gem

Around 27,000 people take the ride up New York’s fifth-highest peak each summer. Many people ride bicycles on the highway to enjoy the beautiful views of the Adirondack Park. There are nine areas along the toll road to park and take in the view.

“It’s a huge draw, not only to Wilmington but the entire Adirondack region,” Preston said. “Anyone who has been up there on a nice day knows it’s unbelievable; it’s absolutely breathtaking.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor when he dedicated the highway’s groundbreaking in 1929, and he was president of the United States when he returned for its opening in 1935.

“What I have seen today in this wonderful drive makes me more enthusiastic about four little words than I ever have been before,” Roosevelt said at the opening ceremony. “Those four short words are these: It can be done.”