The state says maintaining the flagpoles is unsafe — but at least one local veteran isn't buying it

ROCHESTER — Thousands of veterans will come to Rochester next week for a statewide American Legion conference, but they won’t see American flags flying on the highway on their way.

After local veterans complained that the New York State Department of Transportation wasn’t keeping up with raising the stars and stripes, instead of fixing the problem, NYSDOT took down the flagpoles along Interstate 490 on Friday. 

“Disgusted, totally disgusted” — that’s how Jerry Lamb, a Vietnam veteran and area leader in the American Legion, felt on Friday when he heard the news.

"It was pride in the city, you would see the stars and stripes, you'd see the Vietnam vets' POW/MIA flag flying also, and then they put a horse in there with the stars and stripes on it and now, without getting too carried away, only the horse is left … it's like Rochester has a horse's a--. That's all they have right now, that's what they've become,” Lamb said.

Veterans earlier had expressed frustration that the state wasn’t keeping up with raising the flag on I-490 both near Cobbs Hill Park and further down by the I-390 split in Gates.

Steve McAlpin, a local veteran who served in Afghanistan, said he has been going around and around with NYSDOT over its maintenance of the site. “Our founders would be embarrassed that our flag isn't flying, and I see it as my responsibility as a veteran and an American to make sure this flag is flying,” he said at the time. 

But now, there’s nowhere to raise those flags, as NYSDOT crew removed flagploes on Friday.

NYSDOT Spokesman Jordan Guerrein said via email the poles were all experiencing rigging and lighting issues and were unable to fly the flags in an appropriate manner.  

So, why not fix or replace them?

“We have discussed the possibility of having an outside entity or veterans’ organization take over the maintenance of these flagpoles in our right-of-way; however, it’s been determined that it would be too dangerous to do so. Like every decision we make here at NYSDOT, this boils down to the safety of not only our maintenance crews, but the traveling public,” Guerrein said. 

Lamb doesn’t buy it.

He says if it’s not too dangerous for people to adopt-a-highway (a program in which area groups commit to picking up garbage along state routes), it’s not too dangerous for people to help raise a flag there. 

He called NYSDOT himself on Friday and was told, “Drive by a DOT office anytime and you'll see the American flag flying proudly so it's no disrespect to the veterans."

"I don't know where a DOT office is and I'm not going to drive by just to see your flag," Lamb added. "I'm talking about going into Rochester New York, there's no flags flying anyplace now.”

He also wonders why the state is prioritizing the removal of these flagpoles when it is supposed to be taking down hundreds of “I Love New York” signs, signs that have cost taxpayers more than $8 million. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been warned if those signs aren’t down by the end of summer, the federal government will pull $14 million in funding.

“He (Cuomo) sort of turns his cheek as to what he's being told by the federal government that they were put up illegally to begin with,” Lamb says.

The offices of Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren both said they were not given prior notice that the flagpoles would be removed. The mayor’s office says she will encourage NYSDOT to reconsider installing new flagpoles.