Crumbling Nassau Expressway seen as threat to hurricane evacuation

On April 24, 2014, Atlantic Beach Mayor Stephen Mahler talks about the dilapidation of the Nassau Expressway and calls for county and city officials to come together to figure out how to improve conditions on this major roadway.  (Credit: Barry Sloan)

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Lawmakers and residents who have waited decades for the state to repair a crumbling, congested stretch on a key evacuation route for about 400,000 people on Long Island's South Shore are angry over yet another delay in the project -- now scheduled for completion by 2025 at the earliest.

The postponement of the work along a sixth-tenths of a mile stretch of the Nassau Expressway has prompted safety concerns as another hurricane season approaches.

"In a normal rush hour, it's impassable," said Nassau County Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), who represents the area. "If there's an evacuation, it cannot be done."

The state most recently delayed the project in 2012 because engineers found that repairing the road would be more complex than originally anticipated because of soil conditions and nearby tidal wetlands.

Complicating the repairs, that stretch of roadway flooded during superstorm Sandy, prompting the New York State Department of Transportation to consider improving the resiliency of this low-lying area of the Nassau Expressway between Burnside Avenue and Rockaway Boulevard, known locally as the bypass. That also could affect the project's timetable, the department said.

Because the curvy roadway is on an emergency evacuation route and is a heavily used commuter connector between southwestern Nassau and Queens, repairing it is a necessity, lawmakers and residents said.

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"This whole area was impacted by Sandy . . . This is [an] . . . evacuation route," Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), who represents the area, said in an interview. "What if we have an evacuation? What if we have to get an ambulance through?"

Unaware of delays

Kopel, Weisenberg and other local lawmakers and civic groups said they were unaware that the work to repair the evacuation route for residents of the Five Towns area, portions of Long Beach and Atlantic Beach had been postponed.

"This thing was supposed to be done a couple of years ago," Weisenberg said.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Stephen Mahler, who drives the area daily to his law practice in Queens, said: "It's just a joke to call it an evacuation route. It floods with a normal rainfall. It's a nightmare of an evacuation route."

A spokesman for Senate GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre said in a statement, "This project remains a priority" and he hopes the state will fund it in the future.

Michael Gliner, owner of a local print shop and president of the Inwood Civic Association, representing homeowners just east and south of the area, said neither he nor anyone in his group had been informed by DOT officials of the change in completion date.

"I'm very disappointed that it is going to be postponed again, but with the lack of money, we're lucky to get what we got," Roy Meserole, owner of a local funeral home and past president of the Inwood civic group, referring to the construction of the expressway from Burnside Avenue south to the Atlantic Beach Bridge in the late 1980s. "It's always a mess around rush hour, and it's a mess all the time in the summer."

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Plagued by potholes

The bypass is a gritty area marred by potholes and cracked asphalt where the road abuts commercial properties without sidewalks. When it rains, large puddles form because of a lack of drainage.

During Sandy, the Costco store on Rockaway Turnpike and its entire parking lot were under water, Meserole said. "Our evacuation route is underwater," he said. "Fixing this is a necessity."

The state had delayed the work for decades, but officials said in 2008 that the project was back on track, that construction would start by the summer of 2011 and that it would be completed by the fall of 2013.

However, after engineers looked at the road, "they discovered the work was more challenging and expensive" than first thought, DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said.

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"This roadway, in close proximity to the water, sits on a highly compressible, wet organic layer of silt, which is the root cause of the issues that currently exist with the condition of the roadway," Duffy said.

Because of those concerns, in September 2012, a month before Sandy hit, the state again delayed the project, this time until 2025. And the estimated cost ballooned to $61 million from $24.9 million, officials said.

Making the roadway more resistant to future storms could drive up the bypass project's cost even more, officials said.

The Transportation Department has split the work into two phases, the first phase is still estimated at $24.9 million. The cost of the new second phase is put at $36.1 million.

Duffy said that he could not identify which part of the work would be finished first because "many factors will decide how the work will be divided, including cost, available funding, construction staging, and work zone traffic control requirements."

State officials told Newsday in 2008 when the project was restarted that it would cost at least $30 million. The stretch of road was laid as "an interim roadway" in the early 1970s.

Duffy said that inflation was not taken into account when the cost was first estimated, and that the current estimate is "in future dollars."

While the cost of the project has changed, there are conflicting accounts of how much has been spent to date.

Victor S. Teglasi, a former DOT project manager with access to agency documents, wrote a 2012 master's thesis, "Why Transportation Mega-Projects (Often) Fail" while at Columbia University. In his thesis, he referenced the project to improve the road and that the Transportation Department had signed a $1.275 million contract in late 2009 with Stantec, a Canada-based engineering firm that did an environmental assessment on the overall project in 1981 when the firm was known as Vollmer Associates.

Duffy originally said in an email that the department had signed a $625,000 contract with Stantec in 2007 and that $617,884.70 of the money had been spent. After the state comptroller's office could find no record of that contract, Duffy said in another email that the $625,000 was part of a previously approved $1.992 million contract with Stantec to be on standby for projects as they came in.

Other projects prioritized

Even as the project stalled, tens of millions of dollars of state roadwork was being performed in recent years in other areas of Long Island, from bike lanes along the Wantagh State Parkway to the multiyear program to add lanes to Route 347 in and around Smithtown that is expected to cost $600 million by the time it is completed in 2031.

In 2008, the state broke ground on a $60 million rehab of Nassau Expressway in Queens, linking Kennedy Airport, the Van Wyck Expressway and the JFK Expressway. That project has since been completed.

Asked why some projects proceed and other do not, Duffy said that priorities were set for projects "based on safety considerations, road-bridge conditions, smart asset management strategies, state, regional local priorities and funding availability."

Regarding the project, he said a draft Project Scoping Report had been prepared, but he called that "an engineering work in progress, [that] was prepared but never finalized."

"[It] contains outdated information from 2007, including alternatives that are no longer valid or under consideration. Therefore it has not been made available to the public," Duffy said.

Years in the making

The idea for the Nassau Expressway dates to the 1940s and the Robert Moses era, Teglasi said.

The Nassau Expressway "was originally intended to support recreational travel to the beaches at the Rockaways and Atlantic Beach," he wrote in this thesis. "Later, development of permanent year-round residential areas in the Five Towns and the Rockaways added increased pressure to provide better access."

It languished until the 1960s, when money became available from the Highway Trust Fund, established in the 1950s to pay for an interstate highway system, Teglasi said.

The project was delayed again after new environmental regulations were imposed by the federal government in 1969, and again in 1974, he said.

The original project was a 10-mile roadway from Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens to the Atlantic Beach Bridge. Only some sections were built over the years, and the bypass area was laid as "an interim roadway" in the early 1970s, and has had little upgrade since then," according to a project history on the DOT website.

A project decades in the making

1946: New York State, with a push from master builder Robert Moses, lays out roadway plans, including a road linking southern Queens to the southwestern corner of Nassau County.

1956: Creation of the federal Highway Trust Fund provides financing for states to build interstate highways.

1962: Dozens of homeowners and renters in Inwood are forced out through eminent domain after the state seizes land to clear the way for the Inwood to Atlantic Beach Bridge segment of the roadway.

1969-1974: Many highway projects are delayed as local officials seek to meet new federal environmental rules on construction projects.

1970: The bypass between Burnside Avenue and Rockaway Parkway is built as an "interim" roadway.

April 1974: Federal government rejects New York State request for federal funding for the entire Queens-to-Atlantic Beach Bridge project.

September 1979: A draft environmental impact statement warns that traffic will worsen if the entire project is not built.

June 1981: State transportation officials announce they will seek $250 million in federal funding for the entire roadway, from Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens to the Atlantic Bridge.

June 17, 2008: NYSDOT holds an informational meeting for the public at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst to present its latest plans for the bypass, calling for completion of the project by fall 2013.

Sept. 10, 2008: Ground is broken for a $61 million project to rehabilitate six miles of the Nassau Expressway in Queens.

September 2012: NYSDOT updates the bypass project on its website to push the completion date to 2025, at the earliest. A second phase, first placed on the website in 2007, is delayed until 2027.

Sources: NYSDOT, Newsday library, "Why Transportation Mega-Projects (Often) Fail," by Victor Teglasi

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