Village opposes LIRR plan to extend track

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A $36-million project to replace a deteriorating 114-year-old automobile bridge in the Village of Thomaston and also extend a nearby "pocket track" for trains on the LIRR's Port Washington branch is raising concerns of the village mayor and some affected residents.

A large part of the project, to be detailed today at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board's meeting in Manhattan, is aimed at replacing the Colonial Road Bridge, which carries vehicles over the tracks east of the Long Island Rail Road's Great Neck station.

Thomaston residents and public officials have long called for replacing the steel bridge, which was built in 1897, because it has low weight restrictions and has been deemed "structurally deficient" by the state Department of Transportation.

But some villagers who live on Colonial Road and nearby residential streets are lining up against the plan to lengthen an existing pocket track, a parallel track where trains can pull off and idle, by 1,200 feet - the equivalent of four football fields placed end to end.

"I wouldn't want to tell the railroad how to run their business, but I know what noise sounds like," said Thomaston Mayor Robert Stern, who lives on Shadow Lane across from the LIRR's right-of-way and is concerned that LIRR train cars will be idling on the pocket track. He said he has gathered 75 signatures of affected homeowners objecting to the work.

LIRR President Helena Williams, in an interview Friday, said the project "is a critical infrastructure improvement that will benefit all of the riders of the Port Washington branch."

The lengthened pocket track would allow the LIRR to stage some trains near Great Neck before their runs, so the railroad could have more trains originate at Great Neck and have more express trains. More importantly, the pocket track would give the LIRR capacity for service to Grand Central Terminal beginning around 2016.

LIRR officials said trains would not be kept on the pocket track overnight.

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The old bridge abuts a neighborhood of hilly streets south of the tracks where residents such as Barbara Bartner say they endure constant metallic clanks from vehicles passing over open grating on the aging overpass as well as railroad noise.

While she and other neighbors want the bridge replaced, they don't want the extended track and the idling train engines they believe would come with it.

"I'll sign a petition to dynamite the bridge if we have to," said Bartner, who has lived there since 1962. "But what they are doing is substituting for a different noise. . . . We need the bridge replaced without the trains added."

Steven Hirsch, 45, a computer programmer whose backyard is by the track's edge, wrote to his congressman to make the point that the pocket track's extension is not wanted or needed near those homes.

"The pocket track is really the bone of contention. The population is not growing here," Hirsch said, questioning the need for the extension. "As it is, it's like having an airplane taking off outside sometimes."

Stern said that with some changes, including creation of a sound-reducing wall, he and other residents could get onboard with the plan. "If they come up with a first-class program, nobody is going to object," he said.

LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone said the railroad already has agreed to plant "extensive new vegetation" as a barrier between the track and the homes and "will consider" Stern's suggestion for a sound barrier as part of the project's environmental review, which is scheduled to begin later this year.

Organizations representing construction workers and developers have spoken in favor of the project.

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"This is the type of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure repair Long Island is supposed to pursue for its transportation system," said Marc Herbst, director of the Long Island Contractors Association, a Hauppauge group that represents more than 5,000 construction employees, including bridge builders.

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