Watchdog: Lane redesign issue on Portion Road

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Tom Shine in Lake Ronkonkoma, where a section Tom Shine in Lake Ronkonkoma, where a section of eastbound Portion Road narrows from two lanes to one. Photo Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

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Judy Cartwright Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column

When Portion Road in Lake Ronkonkoma was redesigned, some sections were widened to four lanes. And some weren't.

And that, Tom Shine of Lake Ronkonkoma told us, has led to some maneuvers that are, well, frightening. As signs warn drivers that the road will narrow, cars in the right lane speed up to pull ahead of traffic to their left.

"So many times I've seen people almost in accidents," Shine said. "I'm just wondering why the road isn't the same width all the way."

His question took us back to the 1990s, when a project to address the needs of Portion Road -- traffic safety, congestion and pedestrian access among them -- got underway. A study by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works concluded that a four-lane road was appropriate, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said. In 2003 the county designated such a plan as "preferred" over the other design options.

But the Lake Ronkonkoma Civic Association protested. One of their concerns, cited on the group's website in 2003, said this: "The number of cars driving through our community could double in three years if two new lanes are added to Portion Road."

The county and the group reached a compromise: Only two sections of roadway, totaling just less than a mile, would be expanded to four lanes. Baird-Streeter said the county agreed to widen only in "areas with the heaviest volume."

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The rest of the 3-plus-mile stretch has one travel lane in each direction and a turn lane down the middle.

"There were definitely compromises, none without reason," civic association president George Schramm told us recently. The association wanted to keep intersections as compact as possible to give pedestrians, including the elderly, enough time to cross the street safely, Schramm said. But the county said intersections needed to be wider -- with left- and right-turn lanes, for example -- to keep traffic moving.

So the group agreed to wider intersections in exchange for pedestrian-crossing signals with countdown clocks. They have been satisfied overall with the roadway, he said, which was completed three years ago.

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Still, Shine's concerns were borne out one recent morning as, in anticipation of the road's narrowing, cars in the right lane sped up to pull ahead of cars to their left.

Baird-Streeter said the road design is not flawed and was based on the state Department of Transportation highway design manual. It "meets current standards for merges," she said.

Portion Road has dozens of intersections, and we asked for accident statistics for three -- Cenacle Road, Hawkins Avenue and Holbrook Road -- within the four-lane sections. The results indicate a positive trend, at least at those locations, where Suffolk police report the total number of accidents has dropped each year: from 75 in 2008 to 18 last year.

But we can't dismiss Shine's concerns about the stretches where some drivers are rushing to be first in line. We can only offer the words of the inimitable Sgt. Esterhaus of TV's "Hill Street Blues": "Let's be careful out there."

A previous version of this column had an incorrect number for the total number of accidents reported by Suffolk police at three Portion Road intersections in 2008. There were 75 accidents, not 754.

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