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Experts: Growth of truck traffic adds stress to LIE

Trucks head east on the LIE near exit

Trucks head east on the LIE near exit 40. (Jan. 27, 2010) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

No wonder it seems trucks are everywhere.

One in every nine vehicles on the congested Long Island Expressway is a truck, often carrying tons of freight, from produce to furniture. That's 20,000 trucks rumbling along the LIE crossing onto and off Long Island each day.

VIDEO: Truck drivers talk about LI motorists, driving on the LIE

More than 90 percent of all goods delivered to Long Island come by truck. With no major ports by sea or air and a skeletal freight rail system, the Island belongs to a metropolitan area more dependent on trucks - and less on railways - than almost any other in the nation, say regional transportation planners.

And the number of trucks is expected to increase as demand for goods and the volume of commodities moved through the region rises. By 2030, the amount of trucked goods on Long Island is expected to go from 92 million to 173 million tons annually, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council.

The LIE, the Island's major east-west artery, will take the brunt of the anticipated surge. In a reminder of the potential perils, a tanker truck filled with gasoline exploded on the state roadway Jan. 23, killing the driver and halting traffic in eastbound lanes for almost 24 hours.

PHOTOS: Deadly fuel tanker crash on LIE

Big problems seen in future

Chris Jones, vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association, said if nothing is done, the rise in truck traffic will have a huge impact on the Island's already stressed roadways and the drivers who rely on them.

"It's a huge issue and one that is often under the radar screen," Jones said. "There's just been tremendous growth in truck traffic both on Long Island and throughout the New York region. If projections come anywhere close to reality, this is going to get considerably worse."

The heavy truck traffic on the LIE is part of an overall driving experience that is quick to draw complaints. "The LIE is brutal," said Don Wildman, 48, a commercial builder from Mastic parked near Exit 49 one evening last week. "No respect on the road. Everybody is in a hurry."

Since 2002, while the total number of crashes has fluctuated, the percentage on the LIE that involved trucks has nearly doubled, from 5.9 percent to 10.8 percent in 2008. With analysis of last year's numbers almost complete, the DOT is on track to conclude that 12 percent of all crashes involved trucks.

Looking forward, the situation isn't sustainable, say politicians, planners, and even trucking industry officials. The region, including the LIE, just can't absorb the projected level of truck traffic. "If we do not act," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), "a future of hypercongested parkways and streets with rampant pollution is inevitable for New York City, Long Island and the region beyond."

Nadler has long fought to build a rail tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn. According to the state Department of Transportation, 1 percent of goods delivered to Long Island arrive by rail, compared to the national average of 15 percent. A key reason: The nearest track link between the Island's freight rail system and the rest of the nation's is 160 miles away in Albany.

The fortunes of Nadler's $2.3- billion project, which aims to get trucks off roads by moving more goods by train, have waxed and waned. Currently, the Port Authority is doing an environmental study and has some funds set aside for land purchases.

Transportation hub stalled

On Long Island, planners have for more than a decade envisioned a transportation hub to reduce truck traffic. The most recent site proposed for the hub is on the former grounds of Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood.

At the hub, trucks could pick up cargo from freight trains. This would let them make shorter trips to drop-off locations.

Despite support from the DOT and the governor, the plan ran into strong community opposition and is now at a "dead end," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who said the state is looking at other locations but the project is "a long ways off."

With both the tunnel and transportation hub still distant objectives, the vast bulk of Long Islands goods will continue to come by truck on the LIE.

"It's one of the problems that planners have been talking about for quite some time," said Levy of the overwhelming reliance on trucks. More than 95 percent of goods are brought into Suffolk on surface roads.

Jones said one potential solution tried by some states is dedicated truck lanes. "The first thing you want to do is try to get as many trucks off the road as you can. And those you can't, you try to manage the highway network to ease the flow."

The projected increases in the volume of goods coming to the Island worries Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association. There's hardly enough money available now, she said, to keep the road fit to handle the load it's already carrying.

Adams said she's not against plans to improve the freight rail system on Long Island, but she cautioned that nothing proposed is going to eliminate trucks entirely from area roads.

"In certain areas of Long Island, you are still going to have heavy truck traffic," Adams said. "It's just not going to go away."

With Alfonso Castillo

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VIDEO: Truck drivers talk about LI motorists, driving on the LIE

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