Who Determines Public Interest?
December 5th 2011 · 1 Comment
A short time ago, WKTV quoted Mayor Roefaro as saying, “Mr. Zecca, you are putting the arterial project in jeopardy,” claiming that Common Councilman Jim Zecca may put that project in jeopardy if he goes through with a request to get the state to reconsider the current plans. Over the weekend the Observer-Dispatch awarded Mr. Zecca and County Legislator-elect Harmony Speciale a “BAD” in its “Good, Bad, and Ugly” column for “their Eleventh Hour effort to amend the design for the bridge” because “the project has been publicly vetted and the DOT has proposed the best and safest design.”
Both the Mayor and the O-D need to get their facts straight.
Far from the “Eleventh Hour,” Mr. Zecca and many members of the public have been calling for a Boulevard replacement for the Arterial for years, practically from when the design process was first made public. NYSDOT has treated all these comments equally: by ignoring them. And Why Not? NYSDOT has a friend in the Roefaro Administration which has been supportive of NYSDOT’s constantly changing proposals, even to the point of keeping a N-S Arterial Boulevard out of the Utica Master Plan after it had been requested several times by collaborators.
Both the Mayor and the O-D need a course in civics.
The NYSDOT is going to do what it believes to be best from its perspective. It needs to move a large amount of traffic safely and designs a road to the requirement. That’s great. Although Utica needs this, too, Utica needs so much more to create an environment where people within the city are supported in their day-to-day activities. People LIVE here and they WORK here. DOT can try to understand these needs, but it can never achieve the level of understanding of those who are both responsible for meeting the needs of city residents and engaged in dialogue with them. Neither the Mayor, nor the O-D, should assume that what DOT has produced “works” for city residents. Somebody needs to look at what DOT has produced and determine whether it is in the “public interest” for all affected.
The O-D presumes to know what is in the “public interest.” The Mayor usurps the authority to determine what is in the “public interest.”
Under the State Highway Law, when the State, as here, proposes to acquire properties outside the boundaries of the current highway system within a city, “public interest” is determined by the “governing body” of the city, which is the Common Council. Not the Mayor. Not the NYSDOT. Not the local newspaper. (Highway Law Sec. 349-c (2.5)).
Far from a mere “technicality” as some have called it, this provision of the Highway Law contemplates a back-and-forth process between the NYSDOT commissioner and the city’s governing body. The commissioner starts the process by formally submitting first general, then specific, plans to the governing body. The governing body then has 60-day periods after each submission to approve, disapprove, or request modifications to those plans. The governing body’s actions are via formal resolutions, copies of which are transmitted by the City Clerk to NYSDOT. If the governing body fails to act within the 60 day periods, the plans are deemed approved. If the governing body disapproves, or no agreement is reached with the commissioner on requested revisions, the law restricts the commissioner to working “within and confined to the existing width of the pavement,” essentially giving the Council veto power over the State’s use of eminent domain within the city for arterial purposes.
This process cannot begin until the plans are properly sent to the governing body as required by the law. From the information currently available, plans were only sent to the mayor, not the council, thereby cutting the city’s law-makers — the only ones with legal authority to leverage changes to the project — out of the planning process.
Much has been made of the “wall,” street cut-offs, and property takings. Without doubt, major changes will be imposed on the functioning of the City’s transportation network. The City Council needs to pass judgment on whether these changes unduly burden city residents, particularly those that live closest to the proposed project. For example, the State proposes to cut Lincoln Ave., a city street, off from Court St., another city street, and reroute Lincoln Avenue’s considerable traffic over a block of Roberts Street, which is barely 2 lanes wide and restricts parking to one side. Roberts street was never intended to convey such traffic. Is this fair to the property owners along that block? Shouldn’t the Council have a veto over this if it sees fit?
Rethinking the State’s plans at the “Eleventh Hour” probably will jeopardize Federal Funding in this cycle for the project. But the fault is not Mr. Zecca’s, nor Ms. Speciale’s. They are only doing what they were elected to do which is to look out for the best interests of their constituents. The fault lies with the project’s proponents who failed to follow proper procedures, perhaps hoping to cut the “people’s representatives” — who have the legal authority to leverage changes — out of the process.
Contrary to the O-D’s assertion, this project appears to have never been properly vetted, because it was not vetted by the body charged by law with doing the vetting.
The public should not have this project shoved down its throat just because someone failed to follow the rules. The public should not have to keep its fingers crossed for the next 75 years, hoping that the DOT got it right.
By Mark Ziobro