MIDDLETOWN, NY — Close to 100 business and community leaders from Orange and Sullivan counties gathered to discuss current and future development in the region and the need to improve mobility for enhanced safety and economic stability. The Feb. 26 event, “Driving Our Region’s Prosperity: Mobility as a Catalyst for Economic Development” at West Hills Country Club was hosted by 17-Forward-86, a coalition advocating for a third lane east and west on Route 17 to enable future designation as Interstate 86.
“We’re so pleased to have so many of our colleagues join us today,” said Michael Lawler, director of 17-Forward-86 and partner of Checkmate Strategies. “This impressive showing demonstrates the growing support for widening Route 17, to ensure our infrastructure is able to handle the added capacity from the many significant investments in our region.”
Lawler moderated a diverse panel with representatives of business, economic development, health care and law enforcement who all agreed improving mobility is paramount to the safety, quality of life and economic well-being of the Hudson Valley and Sullivan Catskills.
“With so many exciting developments underway in our region, we simply cannot wait any longer to make this critical upgrade to Route 17,” said Maureen Halahan, president and CEO, Orange County Partnership, and co-chair of 17-Forward-86. “There is tremendous support for this project and we must move forward.”
Halahan pointed to Legoland, which is building a $500 million theme park off Route 17 in the Town of Goshen and is expected to open July 4. Also in Goshen, Amy’s Kitchen is constructing a 390,000-square-foot factory where the organic, vegetarian food maker plans to employ some 700 people. These and other projects in Orange and Sullivan counties are expected to attract millions of visitors to local roads – further necessitating the need for a third lane on Route 17.
Joining Halahan on the panel were Marc Baez, president and CEO, Sullivan County Partnership and co-chair, 17-Forward-86; Scott Batulis, president and CEO, Greater Hudson Valley Health System, Middletown; Chief Deputy Dennis Barry, Orange County Sheriff’s Office; David Kohlasch, general manager, Kartrite Resort and Indoor Water Park, Monticello; and Randy Resnick, owner, Bernie’s Holiday Restaurant, Resnick and Penguin Energy, and Liberty Market, Sullivan County. “This is a crucial point in our campaign to widen Route 17,” said Baez. “We cannot afford to keep kicking this project down the road. This is critical for our region … for our future.”
Batulis pointed to the rapid growth of the health system and expansion plans for Orange Regional Medical Center, noting that “we need the infrastructure to support that growth.” He also cited the importance of mobility on Route 17 for the 100,000 patients who visit the emergency rooms annually. “Every minute counts – there is no time for delay.”
Chief Barry agreed, adding that, as first responders, officers see first-hand the dangers traffic tie-ups pose. “When we’re dealing with life-or-death situations, seconds matter. We need to ensure our first responders are able to move quickly and freely, and improving mobility along Route 17 will help in those efforts.”
The threats of traffic also take a toll on visitors, who continue to flock to the Sullivan Catskills for its beauty and offerings but dread the stop-and-go trip. “At our restaurants, the talk around the table tends to be traffic-related,” said Resnick. “This project is a long time coming. And it’s not just for Orange County – it’s for Sullivan County, too. It’s about two counties working together for a common good. This is our future.”
The Kartrite, which opened in April 2019, has already exceeded expectations in terms of visitors, said Kohlasch. “We’ve hosted 200,000 guests and this year we’ll probably double that,” Kohlasch said. “This project is critical for our long-term success.”
17-Forward-86 members shared details about the growing campaign to widen Route 17 and their efforts to get funding for it. The coalition is seeking $500 million from New York State and has been engaging state legislators to secure funding in the Department of Transportation’s upcoming capital plan to implement recommendations in a 2013 capacity study issued by NYSDOT. The 2013 study, funded with $1 million secured by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, found that congestion on Route 17 will worsen and development in the region necessitates an additional lane/added capacity. The DOT’s next capital plan is expected to begin April 1, 2020 and be funded by state and federal funds.
In May 2019, the DOT issued a request for expressions of interest for an engineering firm to begin a scoping and preliminary review process and later selected the firm WSP. The work is part of a $5 million Planning and Environmental Linkage study (PEL), which includes identifying priority locations and conducting environmental assessments and preliminary engineering. Funding for the PEL study was committed as part of the state’s 2018-2019 budget.
17-Forward-86 was established in August 2018 by a dedicated group of advocates who support the widening of Route 17. The coalition comprises more than 200 members of economic development groups, construction trades, tourism groups and energy companies who share a common vision for expanding the capacity of Route 17 to strengthen the economic well-being of the Hudson Valley and Sullivan Catskills. To learn more, visit http://www.17Forward86.org.