The Long Island Rail Road's $430 million plan to build a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma will require 20 crossing gates to be down more often at several Suffolk intersections, raising concerns about increased traffic jams.
The Double Track project will construct a second rail line along an 18-mile single-track stretch in Western Suffolk, allowing the LIRR to run more trains on the Ronkonkoma line, one of the agency's most heavily used.
Some residents and elected officials fear that those extra trains mean more waiting time for motorists. But, the LIRR concluded in its recently published environmental assessment that vehicle backups at affected crossings won't worsen. The overall impact will be minimal after adjustments to traffic lights and increased waits at three crossings would not be excessive, the study concluded.
"Their assertion that there's not going to be an impact is totally ludicrous," said Suffolk Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who has pushed for further study of the Double Track project's impact on traffic. "No one in the community is saying, 'Stop this project.' But we're all saying, 'Tread cautiously here and let's work together to address the concerns that exist.' "
Other factors studied in the assessment were the impact on parking, noise levels and aesthetics. The report found "no significant environmental impacts" from Double Track, which is to be completed in 2018. The first phase, which costs $140 million, is fully funded and work could be underway by the end of the year.
LIRR officials said the project, which has broad political support from federal, state and local officials of both parties, will improve service reliability on the Ronkonkoma line, where a disabled train in single-track territory can cause major disruptions. It also will allow for increased off-peak service, including to Long Island MacArthur Airport, officials said.
The project could even reduce traffic because some drivers would take advantage of the increased train service, according to the study.
Adjusting timing of lights
LIRR officials said adjusting the timing of some traffic lights to move more cars through intersections should eliminate any major delays from crossing gates being down more often.
The railroad also wants to add a turning lane at one crossing in Deer Park to help move cars along.
"We have acknowledged that there will be some impact," LIRR Customer Service vice president Joseph Calderone said. "But we're not walking away. We're saying that we're more than willing, and intend to work with local and state governments, to do what we can to try to mitigate any traffic issues."
After adjusting the lights and adding the turning lane, only three crossings would be likely to experience measurable increases in delays, officials said.
At Lowell Avenue and Spruce Street near the Central Islip Station, officials predicted new delays of as much as 15 seconds in the morning. Vehicles would be slowed 10 seconds more at Little East Neck Road and Long Island Avenue in Wyandanch and at Islip Avenue and Brightside Avenue in Central Islip, according to the LIRR.
Those projected delays are considered minimal and "acceptable," according to the Transportation Research Board standards used by the LIRR.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone rejected the need for more traffic studies.
"Our federal and state representatives have worked hard to secure funding for the Double Track project and I would not want to see that funding jeopardized due to additional requirements of traffic studies," he said.
'We have to do it smart'
Ted Imbasciani, president of the Ronkonkoma Civic Association, said that traffic congestion near some crossings already is unacceptable. Chief among those is the crossing at Ocean Avenue and Easton Street in Ronkonkoma. Traversed by 32,000 cars a day, its level of delays is rated as "poor" by the LIRR.
"You're looking at 10 to 15 minutes stuck there," said Imbasciani, who wants an independent traffic study to be conducted, but who also supports the Double Track project. "We definitely want it, because we know our commuters need it. But we have to do it smart and we have to figure out Ocean Avenue."
Others have proposed a more radical solution to deal with troublesome crossings: Eliminate them.
Islip Planning Board member Joseph DeVincent said he's been studying the problem of crowded LIRR crossings for years and believes elevating roadways above some crossings would alleviate congestion and reduce the risk of a train striking a car. DeVincent said he'd like the state and county to include such "ramp-up" projects in their long-term capital plans.
"Nobody expects that these things are going to disappear overnight," DeVincent said. "They don't have to fix every grade crossing, but they have to resolve some of them so that the traffic can get through."
Calderone said eliminating grade crossings is the state's responsibility and could cost around $100 million per crossing. They would also probably require building on private property, he said.