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Owens, Doheny diverge on Interstate 81

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When it comes to highways in the north country, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and his Nov. 6 opponent, Republican Matthew A. Doheny, Watertown, are on opposite sides of the road.

Mr. Owens still sees an east-west interstate as a viable and worthwhile idea, while Mr. Doheny said that the federal government should focus on fixing up Route 11.

“I want to make sure Route 11 is a major corridor,” Mr. Doheny said while attending a belly-flop contest Saturday in Alexandria Bay. “We’re going to make sure we use the funds to continue to improve Route 11.”

But Mr. Owens said it’s still worthwhile for the government to study the possibility of an interstate highway in the north country — even if it’s not feasible now. The idea most recently has been dubbed Interstate 98.

“I think I-98 is a worthwhile investment,” Mr. Owens said at a ceremonial opening of a campaign office in Watertown.“In the short term, do I think the federal government is going to do that investment? I don’t, honestly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pushing for it.”

The split between the candidates mirrors a rift among some in the north country. For decades, economic development workers, especially those in St. Lawrence County, have pushed for an interstate highway stretching from Watertown to Rouses Point. In some versions, the interstate would travel along the path of Route 11.

If the project were approved, it could cost billions, but advocates say it would bring untold economic benefits. There is now no four-lane interstate that connects east and west anywhere north of Interstate 90.

Opponents of building an east-west interstate object because, among other reasons, it would cost too much. Mr. Doheny pointed to the price tag, which he estimated was between $5 billion and $8 billion.

Mr. Owens, too, said he’s concerned about the costs of the project, but said the federal government could find an unusual way to fund it. For example, President Obama has proposed a so-called infrastructure bank, which exists in other countries. An infrastructure bank would use a combination of public and private dollars to pay for massive projects. Mr. Owens said that big north country projects — the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge, for example, needs as much as $100 million in repairs — might consider using tolls to pay off future costs.

Both candidates agreed that the federal government doesn’t spend enough money on roads, bridges and other forms of infrastructure. Mr. Owens said he supported the Senate’s version of a transportation bill that included more funding than the House version that ended up passing his chamber.

And Mr. Doheny, who bills himself as a staunch fiscal conservative, said the federal government should put more money into expanding cellular telephone service and broadband Internet. (Mr. Owens also mentioned cellphones and broadband.)

“You’re going to get sick of me talking about it after I win,” Mr. Doheny said.

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