Editorial: Rail depots can reduce Long Island traffic
One percent. That's how much of the total goods and services now delivered to Long Island arrive here by freight train.
The other 99 percent? Except for what's made or grown on the Island, pretty much all the common items we need to run our lives get here by truck.
Those trucks beat up our roads and bridges, spew diesel fumes, make driving more hazardous and add to our maddening, perpetual traffic jam. As the bridges deteriorate, forcing reductions in each vehicle's maximum allowable weight, larger numbers of trucks with smaller loads will make trucking even more costly and untenable.
Then there's the big What-If. Suppose there were a structural failure on one of the bridges connecting us to the mainland, such as the Whitestone or the Throgs Neck -- or, worse, the George Washington, which leads to both. How would the stuff of our lives reach us?
The long-term answer is trains. Wider use of rail freight would diversify our options, lower costs and increase our security. We clearly need to use it more.
One obstacle to that wider use has been the lack of rail-truck intermodal facilities on the Island. They provide a place for freight trains to arrive and off-load their products onto smaller, less road-busting trucks designed for a short haul, compared with the huge trucks that now rumble on the Expressway.
The good news is that a privately funded intermodal, the Brookhaven Rail Terminal in Yaphank, is flourishing. It opened last year, primarily to bring in crushed stone for construction. Though the economy has slowed construction, that's still the terminal's primary product. But it has begun to branch out, with flour for Wenner Bread of Bayport, and biodiesel -- an alternative fuel made from soybean oil, animal fats and other renewable sources.
Recently, Ultra Green Energy Services had a ceremonial grand opening to showcase its operation at the terminal: bringing in biodiesel on freight trains, and providing a pumping facility where local heating-oil dealers can pick it up by truck and blend it later with standard heating oil. The name for that mix, which burns cleaner than heating oil alone, is Bioheat. Starting Oct. 1, the City of New York will require all heating oil to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel, and Ultra Green will play a role in meeting that demand, as well as supplying the Island.
As successful as the terminal has been, it can do more. On 92 additional acres that it already owns, the operators hope to build a cold storage warehouse. It would store Island products for rail shipment west, such as produce and turf grass. The long-term key to prosperity for intermodals is to ship products both east and west. Though the operators have pledged not to ship garbage west, the only way they'll overcome fears of residents near the tracks is to fill the trains with other products. They've applied for state funding in the second round of awards by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's regional economic development council. It would be a good investment by the state.
This facility alone is not enough. A limited one gearing up in Calverton won't be enough either. A major facility at the former Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, long thought to be dead in the wake of community opposition, may not be quite dead yet. If it can be revived, in a way that doesn't overburden the community, that would be ideal.
There's plenty of capacity for further rail freight. The Long Island Rail Road's priority is -- and should be -- commuters, but it has off-peak slots available for the New York & Atlantic Railway to use its tracks. The capacity is underused, but the LIRR is willing to expand it. There are some obstacles, such as the low height of LIRR bridges, preventing the use of double-decker trains, but that shouldn't prevent us from pushing to expand rail freight as much as possible.
This much is certain: Only rail -- and a deepwater port -- can reduce our unhealthy dependence on trucks.