THE BEGINNINGS OF ROUTE 17: The principal route through the Southern Tier region of New York State, Route 17 has been a familiar route for generations of motorists traveling to upstate colleges and mountain resorts. Over the years, the 381-mile-long road has been rated among the most beautiful in the United States.
The original Route 17 was completed in the late 1920's. Beginning at the New York-New Jersey border in Suffern, Rockland County, the original Route 17 ran north to Harriman. then veered northwest through the Catskill Mountain region of Orange, Sullivan and Delaware counties. The route continued west through the cities of the Southern Tier - Binghamton, Elmira, Corning, Olean and Jamestown - before veering northwest to the Lake Erie town of Westfield. Through many towns and cities, the speed was set at 25 miles per hour, a limit that was enforced by ticket-minded officers.
Since there are other sites covering the entire route of the future I-86, this page will focus on the 130-mile-long "Quickway" section of NY 17 between I-81 in Binghamton and I-87 in Harriman. (West of I-81 in Binghamton, NY 17 is known as the "Southern Tier Expressway.")
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE QUICKWAY: The impetus for construction of the Quickway came in the late 1940's and early 1950's, when growing congestion, an inadequate roadway and a series of fatal accidents prompted officials at the New York State Department of Public Works (NYSDPW) to act on a safe, high-speed solution. The proposed expressway along the NY 17 corridor was to be part of a 1,780-mile statewide network of "interstate and interregional" controlled-access highways.
The proposed design for the Quickway called for a four-lane, dual-carriageway route linking the New York State Thruway (I-87) at Harriman with Binghamton. The 36-foot-wide grassed median was designed to allow for an additional lane in each direction. Bypassing towns along the way, the route was to offer grade separation, acceleration and deceleration lanes, paved shoulders, easier curve radii, and improved sight distance over its predecessor. The expressway had a design speed of 65 miles per hour. Parts of the route were to be constructed along old railroad rights-of-way.
From the beginning, the proposed Quickway faced opposition from the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA). Officials at the NYSTA feared that the proposed toll-free Quickway would siphon east-west traffic away from the New York State Thruway, which was just beginning operations along a more northerly route. Later, they also helped block three attempts - by Governor Harriman in 1958, and by Governor Rockefeller in 1962 and 1968 - to have the $500 million project included in the Interstate highway system, which would have made the NY 17 Expressway eligible for 90 percent Federal financing. (The 1968 proposal even included the I-86 designation in anticipation of its approval in the Federal highway aid act, which provided additional mileage to the national Interstate network, and was signed into law that year.)
Despite the failed attempts to obtain Interstate funding, the NYSDPW pressed ahead with construction of the Quickway. The completion of the expressway progressed as follows:
EXIT 118A, Fair Oaks to EXIT 123, Goshen (8.3 miles): July 1951 EXIT 123, Goshen to EXIT 127, Chester (5.6 miles): October 1954 EXIT 127, Chester to I-87 junction, Harriman (8.1 miles): August 1955 EXIT 109, Rock Hill to EXIT 114, Bloomingburg (10.6 miles): December 1956 EXIT 98, Parksville to EXIT 101, Ferndale (5.7 miles): July 1958 EXIT 114, Bloomingburg to EXIT 118A, Fair Oaks (6.2 miles): October 1958 EXIT 105, Monticello to EXIT 109, Rock Hill (5.1 miles): July 1959 EXIT 101, Ferndale to EXIT 105, Monticello (9.6 miles): December 1960
By the end of 1960, motorists could travel non-stop from Manhattan to the heart of Sullivan County over a network of controlled-access highways, including the new Quickway. The 60 miles of new expressway were represented $42 million worth of new construction, the cost of which was evenly divided between the Federal and state governments.
A NEW ROUTE FROM NEW YORK TO BINGHAMTON: Construction of the Quickway continued to progress northwest toward Binghamton. Although the Quickway continued its dual-carriageway design, sections of the highway through Sullivan, Delaware and Broome counties were not constructed to contemporary freeway standards. Intersections with traffic lights, driveway access, and even at-grade railroad crossings were not uncommon in sparsely populated areas.
Ralph Herman, contributor to nycroads.com and misc.transport.road, provides more information on one of the former railroad crossings:
It is important to remember not all of the Orange County section of NY 17 was "freeway grade." There were quite a few at-grade intersections during the 1950's and 1960's in the "expressway grade" sections.
Between EXIT 118A (NY 17M) and EXIT 119 (NY 302) in Middletown, there was a freight siding from the Erie Lackawanna Railroad) that was marked as an exempt crossing. The railroad crossing had an old wooden crossbuck sign. An old style 1950's NYSDPW signal stood guard, with green signals strung on a wire over the roadway between telephone poles. A signal face was suspended above each lane. There were no gates or flashing red lights at the crossing.
When the railroad right-of-way was abandoned in the late 1970's, the NYSDOT removed the signals. The rails remained in the pavement until a resurfacing project in the 1980's. (Today, the former Erie Lackawanna right-of-way is part of the Longspur Trail.)
In February 1969, the last four-lane divided section of the Quickway, which consisted of seven miles between Horton, Delaware County and Roscoe, Sullivan County, opened to traffic. Soon after the Quickway was completed to Binghamton, Michael Strauss wrote the following in The New York Times:
As the Route 17 Quickway continues to grow, so, of course, does the number of motorists who are turning to this time-saving "inside passage" through New York State. The Quickway is a success to old State Route 17, and is a blessing to those who remember taking endless hours to reach their favorite vacation hideout in the Catskills and environs.
Many motorists are already maintaining that the Quickway will be rated as one of the most picturesque routes in the United States. This expressway offers a series of eye-filling vistas that range from wide, rolling pastures in Orange County to deep-green, tree-choked mountain terrain in upper Sullivan and Delaware counties.
Many points of interest lie in proximity to the route. Near the Quickway's southeastern end is the trotting track at Goshen. Middletown, once one of New York's leading rail centers, is only a few miles up the road from Goshen.
At Bloomingburg, at the entrance to Sullivan County, are the Wurtsboro Hills, once the most dreaded section of the old highway. Automobiles traveled up this stretch in low gear, and down it with brakes pressed against floorboards. At the western base of the elevation, it was a common sight to find dozens of cars parked near a creek, alongside the road, their brake drums overheated.
From Wurtsboro, the expressway winds and climbs through the busy Catskills, the site of many resort hotels. Just above Liberty, the Quickway's surroundings begin taking on an unspoiled country look, for the Beaverkill River, one of America's most famous fishing streams, starts to parallel the route. Here, the expressway passes through pretty high mountains for almost 40 miles.
One of the most beautiful stretches of the Quickway is at Deposit, so named in the 19th century's lumbering days. Here, felled trees were sent through sluices into the Delaware River, which passes through the quiet village. Deposit provides a scenic entry into New York's Southern Tier country.
Despite the substandard sections, the new Quickway represented a vast improvement over the existing Route 17. The travel time over the 130 miles of the Quickway was reduced by 50 percent, while accidents were reduced by 70 percent.
These 1999 photos show older sections of the Quickway in Orange County, both constructed in the 1950's. New Federal and state funding will bring these sections up to Interstate standards, in preparation for the new I-86 designation. LEFT: Looking east along the Quickway (NY 17) in Middletown, just east of the I-84 interchange. RIGHT: Eastbound on the Quickway (NY17) near Goshen, the seat of Orange County. (Photos by Steve Anderson.)
"Bring an economic boom? Sounds good, but where do you start? Why, with a name change, of course!" - Mark Kulewicz, director of traffic engineering and safety services, Automobile Club of New York (AAA)
THE NEW I-86: More than four decades after it was first proposed, the Quickway was once again proposed for Interstate designation. The idea for reviving the I-86 proposal along the NY 17 corridor came from Samara Barend, a University of Pennsylvania student who interned for U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The I-86 idea quickly picked up steam among transportation experts and business leaders, and through her contacts, Barend was able to gain important support from local, state and Federal officials.
In June 1997, Roads and Bridges magazine, a leading trade periodical for civil engineering professionals, presented the following case for constructing I-86 from Orange County to northwestern Pennsylvania:
Interstate 86, New York to Erie: This route, much of which already meets Interstate standards, would generally follow NY 17 from I-87 in Orange County, New York, to I-90 in the Erie area. It would provide needed additional capacity from the East Coast to the Midwest. Approximately 100 miles of construction and upgrade would be necessary.
Soon after the 389-mile-long (including eight miles in Pennsylvania), four-lane Route 17 Expressway was completed in March 1998, the NY 17 corridor was designated as "High Priority Corridor 36" under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1997. An amendment to the TEA-21 bill introduced shortly thereafter officially designated "Corridor 36" as I-86. With the passage of TEA-21, the 381 miles of the NY 17 Expressway, comprising both the Quickway and the Southern Tier Expressway, will immediately become I-86 as sections are brought up to Interstate standards.
About 185 miles of NY 17 and PA 17, comprising the section from Corning west to I-90 in Pennsylvania, became I-86 on December 3, 1999 after improvements were made to bring the highway up to Interstate standards. However, officials from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) said that much work is needed on the eastern portion from Corning to the New York State Thruway in Orange County. They expect the I-86 conversion project to be completed by 2012.
Cost estimates for the I-86 conversion range from $550 million to $900 million. According to a study conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates, the upgraded Interstate is expected to bring $3.2 billion in economic benefits to the Southern Tier region.
Communities along the route are meeting the I-86 upgrade with both enthusiasm and anxiety. Local and state officials hope that the Interstate-standard highway will attract new business to an economically depressed part of New York State. At the same time, some roadside businesses fear the potential loss of access that interchanges would bring. From Tim Gilchrist, NYSDOT director of planning and strategy:
It's a potential dilemma for some. They want the Interstate road because of the economic advantage it brings. At the same time, it's going to be an Interstate road with limited access.
There are also concerns from officials representing other regions of New York State, who fear that the I-86 upgrade will siphon transportation funds from their areas.
In Orange County, the Quickway carries approximately 50,000 vehicles per day (AADT). Elsewhere along the new I-86 corridor, traffic volumes range from 6,000 vehicles per day in Delaware County (along the Quickway) and Chautauqua County (along the Southern Tier Expressway), to a high of 70,000 vehicles per day in the Binghamton area (near the I-81 junction). In May 2004, the state raised the speed limit to 65 MPH along the 25 miles of the Quickway through Orange County. Exactly one year later, the state extended the 65 MPH speed limit west into Sullivan County along three segments totaling along 28 miles on the Quickway (from EXIT 94 to EXIT 97; EXIT 99 to EXIT 103; and EXIT 106 to EXIT 112).
INTERSTATE CONVERSION ALONG THE QUICKWAY: In the past few years, new I-86 and "Future I-86" signs have begun to appear along the NY 17 corridor. When it was constructed, the expressway reflected state-of-the-art highway design in the pre-Interstate and early-Interstate era. To bring the Quickway up to Interstate standards, acceleration and deceleration lanes will be lengthened, interchanges will be improved, grades and curve radii will be improved, shoulders will be improved, and in some locations, additional lanes will be added.
In Orange County, evidence of the Interstate conversion project can be found through the Goshen-Chester area. During the late 1990's, the NYSDOT rebuilt the Quickway in the area of EXIT 124 (NY 17A and NY 207) in Goshen. In July 2002, the NYSDOT began a reconstruction project at EXIT 126 (NY 94) in Chester. The project, which is focusing on realigning the ramps to current geometric and speed standards, includes the rerouting of nearby NY 94 through an industrial park. The $15.4 million project was completed in May 2004.
In locations where there are at-grade intersections (specifically in the Hale Eddy-Hancock and Parksville sections), grade separation structures will be constructed. New service roads will be constructed to serve local residences and businesses. These projects are not expected to begin until 2003 or later.
THE END OF ROUTE 17? Once the conversion project is completed, the NY 17 designation will disappear along the new I-86 west of Harriman. The NY 17 designation will only exist for 16.7 miles from Harriman south to Suffern, where the NJ 17 designation continues south to Newark.
This 1999 photo shows the Quickway (NY 17) looking east in Chester, Orange County. In the 1990's, this section was widened and brought up to Interstate standards in preparation for the I-86 designation. Toward the eastern terminus, the Quickway also carries the US 6 designation. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have created uncertainty for state and Federal transportation budgets, leaving funding sources for I-86 in jeopardy. Nevertheless, I-86 remains an important project for the economic health of New York State.
To complete this vital project, jurisdiction over the Quickway-Southern Tier (NY 17) corridor should be handed over from the NYSDOT to the NYSTA. The Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21) of 1998 permits conversion of a free Interstate highway to a toll facility in conjunction with needed reconstruction or rehabilitation that is only possible with the collection of tolls.
The new I-86, which would become part of the New York State Thruway system, would relieve congestion on the New York State Thruway mainline (I-87 and I-90), as well as on the Keystone Shortway (I-80) through Pennsylvania. Combined with high-speed EZ-Pass facilities, the new Thruway section could cut travel time by up to two and one-half hours, and expedite the opening of new markets throughout the state.
Mike Tantillo, contributor to nycroads.com and misc.transport.road, provided the following comments on this idea:
If this could work, I'd be in favor of tolls to expedite construction on I-86. After taking over the existing NY 17, the NYSTA would sell bonds for construction, tear up the old highway, construct the new highway and install tollbooths. Once it is completed, I-86 would revert back to NYSDOT jurisdiction. The only Thruway presence on I-86 would be to run and manage the toll plazas. The NYSDOT would remove snow, repaint the lines, replace fixed signs and perform other maintenance work. Motorists would continue paying tolls until the upgrade costs are recovered, at which time the tolls would be removed. As long as the road is transferred permanently to the NYSTA and tolls are put on the road, it will become a self-perpetuating toll road like the existing Thruway. I'll believe it when I see it that New York State will ever take over an old toll road and make it toll-free.
SOURCES: "Freeways Are Now Urged," The New York Times (12/13/1936); Highway Needs in New York State, New York State Department of Public Works (1949); "First Aid for Sick Route 17" by Lucille Dee Rubin, The New York Times (6/08/1952); "Harriman Opens Route 17 Bypass" by Warren Weaver Jr., The New York Times (7/26/1958); "Paving the Way to the Catskills" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (10/19/1958); "Tired Old Route 17 Is Now a Beautiful Quickway to Binghamton" by Michael Strauss, The New York Times (6/08/1969); "Estimate of the Cost of Completing the National System of Defense Highways in New York," Federal Highway Administration and New York State Department of Transportation (1971); "Interstate 2000," Roads and Bridges (June 1997); "State Submits Application to Designate Route 17 as Interstate," The Olean Times-Herald (2/19/1999); "Plans for I-86 Taking Shape" by John Machachek, The Elmira Star-Gazette (6/22/1999); "Officials Say I-86 Upgrade Will Proceed with Caution" by Don Sbarra, The Binghamton Press (6/22/1999); "In with the Interstate, Out with the Route" by Mark Kulewicz, Car and Travel-Automobile Club of New York (October 1999); "I-86 Worth $3.2 Billion to Area" by Jeff Murray, The Elmira Star-Gazette (1/24/2000); "Long-Awaited Overhaul of Route 17 Exit To Begin" by Brendan Scott, The Times Herald-Record (7/01/2002); "Assemblywoman Young Says I-86 Toll Idea in a No Passing Zone" by Rick Miller, The Olean Times-Herald (2/13/2004); "From 55 MPH to 65 MPH" by Caren Halbfinger and Terry Corcoran, The Journal-News (4/27/2004); New York State Department of Transportation; C.C. Anderson; Jason Bennett; Paul Bryan; Brian Campbell; Andy Field; David J. Greenberger; Ralph Herman; Alex Himel; Jeff Kitsko; Scott Kozel; Dave Morford; Nathan W. Perry; Jeff Saltzman; Paul Schlictman; Mark Sinsabaugh; Steve Summers; Mike Tantillo; J.P. Wing; William F. Yurasko.
I-86, NY 17 and New York State Thruway shields by Ralph Herman.