Orange County Partnership - News

Push for Expanded Route 17 Gaining Momentum

WALLKILL—Approximately 100 business and community leaders from Orange and Sullivan counties gathered recently to discuss current and future development in the region and the need to improve mobility on the heavily-traveled Route 17 that spans Orange and Sullivan counties.


The event entitled: “Driving Our Region’s Prosperity: Mobility as a Catalyst for Economic Development” at West Hills Country Club in the Town of Wallkill was hosted in early March 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.”


He noted that coalition’s efforts to have the state spend $500 million to build the third lane on Route 17 is in high gear as discussions with the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo go on in earnest during budget negotiations.


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 region.


“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.”


Days after the program, 17-Forward 86 officials expressed some concern about the possible impacts of the Novel Coronavirus on the state budget and funds that might be appropriated for the Route 17 expansion.


At the West Hills event, Halahan pointed to LEGOLAND New York, which is building a $350-million theme park off Route 17 in the Town of Goshen. The project is now expected to open sometime in 2021.


Also in Goshen, Amy’s Kitchen is constructing a 390,000-square-foot factory where the organic, vegetarian food maker plans to employ approximately 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.


Halahan noted that some communities that are seeing increased traffic are beginning to look at building moratoriums as a means to put the brakes on commercial growth in their communities.


She noted that there are a lot of people who want to stop growth. “Without this road under construction going forward, we are going to see moratoriums,” Halahan said, noting that at present there are 52 hotels in Orange County, seven of which are under construction, six of which are being built from Woodbury Common in Central Valley to the Sullivan County line.


Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus spoke to the assemblage about the critical importance of expanding Route 17 and noted that the project has not been acted on despite decades of discussion by federal and state politicians.


“I think that the elected officials have not prioritized this otherwise it would have happened by now,” Neuhaus said. He later noted, “Every year we kick this down the road and it gets more expensive.”


The County Executive pressed business leaders to continue to advocate for the third lane on Route 17. He believes that the governor will agree to move forward with the project and expects after the November election that a federal infrastructure bill will be enacted by Congress.


Having the Route 17 expansion approved and prioritized by New York State will only benefit the project and keep the momentum going for the project and the economic development the expansion will bring to the region, he noted.


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.” He noted that in addition to its growing tourism sector with the Resorts World Catskills casino resort, Kartrite Resort and Indoor Water Park and Bethel Woods, there are currently five or six inquiries from developers looking to locate major distribution facilities in Sullivan County,


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 increased 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. “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 have 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 to undertake the review. 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.