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EDITORIAL: Can we defeat potholes?

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THE TOWNS OF CANAAN AND NEW LEBANON have flexed their political muscle and convinced the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to fix the lunar landscape known as state Route 22. Or at least 3.5 miles of it.

The method used by the two small, David-like towns to bend the DOT Goliath to their will is no secret. And now at least one other town is pursuing a similar strategy. Kinderhook residents who live along, or frequently travel on the stretch of state Route 203 between the Village of Valatie and Niverville may soon be asked to sign petitions that call on the state to repair that section of the busy highway.

The success of these efforts depends on support from elected officials at the town, county and state levels. And there’s a media component too. For the Canaan and New Lebanon case it was exposure on an Albany TV station plus social media (for those who have internet service), and coverage in a “legacy” media platform, otherwise known as The Columbia Paper.

The ability of New Lebanon and Canaan to persuade the DOT to allocate its scarce resources to a small but important temporary improvement of Route 22 is also evidence that democratic self-  government can accomplish tasks that benefit people not obviously connected to the levers of political power.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the DOT hasn’t said what other projects won’t receive funding because an estimated $500,000 will be spent here in Columbia County. There are winners and losers.

The big picture is that the current state budget calls for a $150-billion investment in “infrastructure” over the next five years. But there will be plenty competition for those funds. The governor’s executive budget has $29.3 billion this year for the state Transportation Capital Plan, which includes roads and bridges… but it also funds airports and rail facilities, etc. Thinking smaller, there’s a program called PAVE NY, which has $100 million. Sounds like a lot of money except, if every mile of repaired road costs as much as the Canaan-New Lebanon project, the state can repair about 3% of the road miles in “poor condition.”

The state is taking some steps toward investing in infrastructure but there isn’t enough money available to fix the infrastructure we have. There are Route 22-type roads all over the state. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives each state a periodic report card with letter grades for types of infrastructure, says New York State gets a “D-” for both roads and bridges.

But what if crumbling infrastructure is good for us? Seriously. We demand the roads that allow us to drive swiftly, smoothly, safely and reliably wherever four wheels can take us. But it can be inefficient or just plain wasteful and it contributes to raising the temperature of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. And while we’d like somebody to do something about climate change, we don’t want it to inconvenience us.

So, what if it comes down to good roads or clean water?

We probably won’t face such clear-cut choices. We’ll depend on government at all levels to decide how to distribute our tax money, especially in times of hardship. That’s the job of elected officials. But the notion that we two-legged creatures will always get around in personal vehicles with wheels doesn’t look promising when you consider the devastation in the Midwest. Roads are under water, some bridges may no longer be safe. Climate change is no hoax.

Plenty of people in rural areas like this county won’t easily abandon personal vehicles, unless technology renders them obsolete. An electric vehicle operated by a artificial intelligence device would easily avoid the potholes on Route 22 as it takes us from home to destination and back again. We’d have to pay for that service, but we’d avoid the average cost of $509 a year we now pay in damages to our cars from bad roads, not to mention the costs of car ownership.

What sounds like a science fiction future lies a few years ahead. For now we’ll rely on conventional motor vehicles that need safe roads. So congratulations to the leaders and others in the Towns of Canaan and New Lebanon for a significant victory and good luck to the folks in Kinderhook pursuing a similar effort on a different road.

Just remember: the problem is not the roads and their potholes. It’s the traffic. Having so many vehicles travel on so many rural highways is a luxury we may no longer be able to afford.

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