Casinos in the Catskills: Gamble for traffic on Route 17

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    Although the decision was made more than 50 miles away, the vote by the Sullivan County Legislative earlier this month supporting five gambling casinos will ripple here in southern Orange County. That effect begins with traffic. And the casinos, if they are built, may convert the notorious seasonal traffic congestion along Route 17 from an occasional Sunday afternoon parking lot into a continual state of grid lock. If some projections are correct, this already overburdened artery could face significant new traffic as gamblers from the metropolitan area return to the Catskills. A recent traffic study prepared by the engineering firm of Sam Schwartz Engineering, PLLC, claims that "casino traffic, when added to existing traffic volumes on Route 17, would cause severe delays, backups and additional queuing of vehicles up to 6.7 miles during peak travel times. Development of five casinos in Sullivan County would mean as much as an 87 percent increase in hourly traffic on key stretches of Route 17." "Planting five huge casinos so close together will have an enormous impact on the quality of life in these communities," said Mark Izeman, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council which paid for the Sam Schwartz Engineering study. "The surge in traffic will have a critical effect." These concerns are shared by environmentalists and politicians in Orange County. "One of these taboo subjects is that Route 17 will be so engulfed by casino traffic that our parking problems will be over - no one will be able to move," wrote Michael R. Edelstein, president of Orange Environment Inc. of Goshen, in an article in the Times Herald-Record stating the government agencies reviewing the Mohawk casino ignored his organization's request to explore the traffic impact. More recently, Orange County Legislator Jeffrey Berkman of Middletown authored a resolution requesting the state to provide a dedicated impact fund for traffic control and to monitor air quality. The fund would be for local town and Orange County use. While Sullivan County could receive up to $15 million annually from each casino, Orange County would receive no funds to offset the expected increases in air pollution and traffic congestion. Route 17 is the major east-west thoroughfare linking the New York State Thruway and the proposed new casino location in Sullivan County. The Thruway exit 16 interchange at the Harriman toll plaza is currently a major choke point that channels traffic exiting the Thruway locally to the Woodbury Common shopping complex and to points west along Route 17. This location has been increasing as a major traffic congestion site during summer weekends and the holiday season as shoppers converge on shopping outlet. The New York Thruway Authority's latest published statistics indicate the Harriman interchange processed 18.9 million vehicles in 2003, with a daily record of 68,821 vehicles on July 13, 2003. The Schwartz Engineering study indicates that traffic caused by five casinos in Sullivan County would result in a near standstill condition on Route 17 eastbound at the Harriman New York State Thruway toll plaza. The report states that during peak hours on a Friday, the five casinos would generate an additional 1,264 vehicles, leading to peak hour traffic flows of 4,764 vehicles per hour. This will exceed the capacity of Route 17. In 1999 Gov. George Pataki requested the Federal Highway Commission to designate a major portion of Route 17 as an interstate highway. The newly designated Interstate Route 86 is currently undergoing upgrade from west to east to meet federal standards. The schedule for the Middletown to Harriman section from Exit 122 to 125 is 2006 with a budget of $32.2 million. Orange County Planning Commissioner David Church said casinos could impact the approved upgrade from Route 17 to Interstate 86 but at this time the casinos are a "speculative development" and that it is hard to plan for this considering all the other projects that require huge demands. If there's a bright side, it may be that the spectre of unmanageable traffic at the Harriman interchange may breathe new life into the long-stalled Thruway interchange 15B, proposed for the intersection of Routes 17 and 17A in the Town of Tuxedo. Area residents have been lobbying for the new access and a large development project in Tuxedo has used this as a possible mitigation for their projected traffic additions. They claim an intersection at this location will expedite Greenwood Lake, Warwick and other northerly originating commuter traffic heading for the Thruway by circumventing much of Tuxedo and Sloatsburg. And that could eliminate the current rush hour bottleneck and slower trip south from the Route 17 entry to the Thruway in Suffern. Currently, the 15B interchange is under study. Church said building the casinos may enable the interchange to become a more live project to receive funding. The decision rests with the Thruway Authority and any new exit must be justified with tolls. New York Thruway Authority Assistant Director of Public Affairs Casey Cannistraci stated this is part of the authority's six-year program and, if adopted, the study could begin in 2006. If another reminder was needed that traffic issues in Orange County are growing, consider this: A report issued this week by Clean Air Task Force ranked Orange County 111th out of 3,109 counties nationwide and ninth of the state's 62 counties for health risks associated with diesel emissions from trucks and buses. The national study used data from 1999.