ONEONTA _ A massive highway reconstruction project on Oneonta's Southside designed to alleviate congestion and improve safety could be at least seven years away, DOT officials said Monday night.

The state Department of Transportation has no funding dedicated for the work until at least 2015 and no construction date has been set, project manager Bill Naylor said prior to a public hearing at Oneonta High School that attracted about 30 people.

The project was at one time slated for completion in 2006, but was delayed due to a slope repair project on state Route 23, the flood of June 2006 and lack of funding, DOT officials previously said.

However, the design phase is continuing as scheduled in case funding does become available, Naylor said.

Naylor cited the impact recent state budgets have had on the DOT's construction queue.

Gov. David Paterson is projecting that the state is running a $47 billion budget deficit over the next three years.

"We can't do every project that we want to do," Naylor said.

Naylor said the DOT must address its core responsibilities such as plowing, bridge repair and other efforts to keep the system operating safely.

"The project does not fall into the core responsibilities of the DOT," Naylor said.

The DOT is proposing a widening of the Southside retail corridor with up to five lanes of traffic and new amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists. The project also includes Lettis and Foster highways, as well as Main Street from the viaduct south to state Route 28.

The DOT is considering two versions of the project: one with roundabouts and traditional traffic lights and one with only traffic lights.

Roundabouts, which are smaller than traffic circles, are designed to slow traffic down at intersections but improve traffic flow. They are the preferred option, Naylor said.

Traffic on Southside is often bumper-to-bumper, especially on Friday afternoons and weekends.

Naylor said the DOT, when faced with a situation where it can't immediately start a highway improvement project, would typically do interim work to "keep things going."

"We have already done a lot of that interim work," Naylor said. "There is no clear-cut, inexpensive fix left."

Naylor said the DOT's project budget is continually evaluated.

"Let me assure you, Oneonta is important to the Department of Transportation," Naylor said. "We will try and reinstate the project as soon as possible."

The latest cost estimates are $15.5 million for the roundabout option and $14.5 million for signalized intersection.

The project would involve the acquisition of mainly strips of land from 27 properties along Rt. 23 and Rt. 28, but it would not involve the displacement of residences or businesses or a loss of parking.

There were mixed feelings at the public hearing, at which about 10 people spoke, regarding both roundabouts and sidewalks on Southside.

A contingent of representatives of the Southside Mall said a roundabout planned for the mall's entrance could have such a detrimental effect that they may be forced out of business.

Alan Pope of State Route 23 Associates, which owns the mall, said roundabouts would make it difficult for customers to leave the mall because eastbound traffic would prevent them from entering the roundabout.

Shoppers who are unfamiliar with roundabouts may pass right by the mall, said mall manager Jessica Dombrowski.

"I'm at the property every day and no one knows more than me about the traffic problems that exist there," she said.

But Dombrowski said some of the tenants at the mall have specific language in their leases about prohibit changes to the entrance of the mall. If a roundabout goes in, these tenants, which are national chains, could decide to leave and create a domino effect among the remaining tenants, she said.

Others, including Oneonta Mayor John Nader, said they were in favor of the roundabouts because they would improve safety and traffic flow.

Roundabouts are also planned for the Main Street intersection and Lettis/Foster Highway intersections with the Southside corridor.

Nader and several others said they were encouraged the DOT was planning for better pedestrian and bicycle access.

However, Eugene Bettiol, a developer of the Southside area, questioned who would maintain sidewalks once they are constructed. Bettiol also said roundabouts were a bad idea due to the amount of truck traffic going through Southside, as well as the large number of visitors in the summer and fall who might be unfamiliar with the area.

Roundabouts have proven to be much safer than signalized intersections and have shown to allow traffic to move more freely, according to information provided by the DOT.

Design approval for the project is expected in February.

The DOT will accept public comments until Dec. 29.

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