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DOT exec on Sound crossing: Too early to rule anything out

Ron Epstein, executive deputy commissioner of the NYSDOT,

Ron Epstein, executive deputy commissioner of the NYSDOT, speaks during a meeting of the Long Island Association in Melville Monday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The state hasn’t ruled out building a bridge across Long Island Sound or linking Connecticut with Long Island, despite Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s talk of a tunnel to Westchester County, a top transportation official said Monday.

Ron Epstein, executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said it’s too early in the planning of a proposed Sound crossing to eliminate any options. The department commissioned a feasibility study that was released in January and now is seeking input from engineers, planners and financial experts.

He told a meeting of the Long Island Association business group that a cross-Sound tunnel, bridge or tunnel-bridge combination could cost “a lot less” than the $55.4 billion estimated by the Montreal-based consulting firm WSP in the 87-page feasibility study.

Epstein acknowledged a Sound crossing from the Island’s north shore to Westchester or Connecticut has been debated since 1938, when the first proposal was made. Every plan so far has been scuttled by fierce community opposition on both sides of the Sound.

Since DOT released the feasibility study, State Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan, (R-East Northport) and town supervisors in Oyster Bay and Smithtown have each promised a fight, saying a crossing would damage the environment, increase traffic congestion and boost state debt.

“Long Island Sound is really a precious resource, and we don't want to do anything that would adversely impact the Sound or the people who make their livelihood on the Sound,” Epstein told about 50 business executives at the Melville meeting. “The goal is to improve the quality of life, economic growth and jobs.”

The feasibility study, paid for with $5 million in the 2016-17 state budget, found that a Sound crossing is only practical from Oyster Bay Town or Kings Park. Its authors examined nine proposals, finding that five merit further consideration by the state: a tunnel, or tunnel/bridge combination, between Oyster Bay and the Westchester communities of Rye and Port Chester; a bridge linking Kings Park to Bridgeport, Connecticut; and a bridge/tunnel combination between Kings Park and Bridgeport or Devon, Connecticut.

The authors dismissed proposals to link Wading River to either New Haven or Branford, Connecticut, saying they would not foster economic development and would be too expensive. They also dismissed the possibility of only bridges between Oyster Bay and Rye/Port Chester and between Kings Park and Devon.

Still, Epstein said Monday that DOT was open to all ideas.

“We aren’t there yet,” he said, when asked about the often-discussed Oyster Bay-Westchester linkage. “When we did the feasibility analysis...the Western Alignment (Oyster Bay to Westchester) probably had the strongest return on investment, but that doesn't mean that it is the preferred alternative at this point...All options remain on the table.”

Epstein, who grew up in Massapequa, said the state would probably look to partner with businesses to construct the Sound crossing “to reduce our exposure in terms of cost.” He said it would be easier to obtain government funding if the crossing is within New York State.  

The study estimated more than 86,000 vehicles would use an Oyster Bay or Kings Park crossing per day. Together, drivers would pay about $500 million in tolls per year, if the fee were $20 or $25 per trip.

“It's not outside the realm of where we are today,” said Epstein, referring to tolls on existing crossings in the metropolitan area and elsewhere.

April 2 is the deadline for experts to offer ideas to DOT. After reviewing the submissions with Empire State Development, the state’s primary business-aid agency, DOT and other agencies will conduct environmental and financial studies of a crossing.

Asked what would happen to Long Island traffic without a Sound linkage, Epstein said, “It’s just going to become more congested and harder to conduct commerce.”

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