A coalition of residents, business groups and civic leaders is demanding a role in the planning of safety improvements for the Sunrise Highway in Nassau -- one of the region's deadliest roadways for pedestrians.
The Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, Vision Long Island and other groups have sent a letter to state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, requesting a meeting to discuss the agency's plans for the 16-mile stretch.
"We're all kind of in the dark," said Julie Marchesella, president of the council, an umbrella group representing about 6,000 local businesses. "We'd like to see what their intentions are before they start construction."
Local mayors and advocates are also seeking input, concerned that planned residential and commercial developments in several South Shore villages could be impacted by changes made to the six-lane highway.
Spurring the push for a voice in the planning process is fear of a repeat of the Hempstead Turnpike project. The state made safety improvements last year to the turnpike in Nassau, but critics said DOT officials failed to engage communities during the design stage, and fencing erected to prevent jaywalking ended up limiting pedestrian access.
There is nothing set up now that provides for community or civic group participation in the planning of the Sunset Highway improvements, DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said.
It's premature to engage the community, he said Friday. The project is still in its preliminary stages, with no cost estimates or timeline set.
The agency is currently analyzing information, including accident data and locations of traffic signals and pedestrian crossings, Duffy said. After a safety study is completed this fall, the agency intends to release recommended improvements, he said.
Those measures may include raising medians to serve as refuges for pedestrians, relocating bus stops closer to crosswalks, improving signs and road markings, and adding fencing to deter jaywalkers.
"Let's wait to see what the recommendations are and then people can weigh in," Duffy said.
A deadly roadway
From 2009 through 2011, 11 pedestrians were killed while attempting to cross the highway, records show. Sunrise Highway has ranked as the second-deadliest road for pedestrians in Nassau for the past five years -- surpassed only by Hempstead Turnpike.
People who live or work near Sunrise Highway expressed frustration Saturday over the dangers they face every day.
Maura Minor, 44, a schoolteacher in Valley Stream whose street intersects with Sunrise Highway, attends a church a few blocks from her home. But because it's on the other side of the highway, she drives every Sunday.
"It's too hairy," she said of crossing the road on foot. "I wouldn't cross with the kids."
As she spoke, a loud crash boomed from the highway, followed by sirens. An SUV had run a red light and smashed into two cars, witnesses said.
Seeing a car kill a pedestrian crossing the highway near her office in Rockville Centre last year left Michele Pandolfo shaken.
"Before I saw the accident I jaywalked," said Pandolfo, 48, of East Islip, who works at a wedding-planning business that faces the highway. "Now I never do."
The Nassau groups seeking an early voice in the Sunrise project worry that the DOT may be intent on simply repeating measures implemented for the turnpike. Barriers in the wrong places could cause access problems, they say.
"We want DOT to work with the communities to help them achieve their vision for a walkable downtown," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit promoting reduced car dependence that also signed the letter to McDonald sent earlier this month. The other groups are the AARP, Old Lindenmere Civic Association of Merrick, Envision Valley Stream, and the Bellmore and Freeport chambers.
Vision Long Island wants transportation officials to work with local governments to ensure that safety improvements are in sync with developments either underway or planned in South Shore villages and hamlets.
"Each area has its own flavor," said Eric Alexander, executive director of the Northport-based smart-growth advocacy group. "What's needed in Freeport is different from Rockville Centre. The state needs to tailor the designs to meet the specific needs in each community."
Concerns in Freeport
Freeport Mayor Robert T. Kennedy said a $30 million residential-commercial project is planned for several acres along the highway that includes 220 apartments, several businesses, a playground and a health club. An upscale hotel is proposed for other property fronting the highway near the train station.
As those projects develop, Kennedy wants the state to take motorists and pedestrians into account. "I'd like to see what they intend to do and see how it might affect the village," he said.
Alexander said other developments are planned along the highway in Valley Stream, Baldwin, Rockville Centre and Lynbrook.
Duffy said DOT worked with a broad coalition of groups, including local officials, on the Hempstead Turnpike project. He couldn't say whether meetings were held with community and business groups before the plan was unveiled.
With Ted Phillips
Annual pedestrian deaths along Sunrise Highway in Nassau County