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Bellone: Suffolk needs cyclists -- and safety upgrades

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a press conference in Hauppauge on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Bicyclists, runners and motorcyclists take note: Suffolk County wants you.

That's the message from County Executive Steve Bellone, who, thankfully, outranks county Legis. Thomas Barraga, who ignited a firestorm across the nation by saying otherwise.

"Tom is known for being direct and saying what is on his mind," Bellone said in an interview Friday. "You can agree or disagree with him, but I would rather have a politician who talks straight than who does otherwise."

But while Bellone, a Democrat from Babylon, respects Barraga, a Republican from West Islip, he disagrees with the lawmaker.

"Bikers, runners and motorcyclists are welcome in Suffolk," Bellone said. "These are important activities, for health, for tourism and for the county's economic development."

But Bellone acknowledges that Barraga has a point too.

"He may have put it indelicately, but we do have a challenge in making roads, and not just in Suffolk but in suburbs around the nation, safe for alternative methods of transportation," Bellone said.

Which is why Suffolk, Nassau and eight other Long Island communities have signed on to a so-called Safe Streets initiative.

The idea is to make roadways more inclusive, that is, make them safe for drivers, bicyclists, runners, skaters, pedestrians and riders waiting for buses alongside the road.

"There's been a big change in how communities think about roads," said Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, which advocates for smart-growth initiatives, including building housing near train stations.

"There's been a move away from the car as king, although there are still some planners who see it that way."

Barraga, who made his comments in a letter to a 17-year-old high school student whose bicyclist mother was struck and injured by a van, would appear to be old school.

"My personal feeling is that no one who lives in our hamlet or for that matter in Suffolk County should ever ride a bicycle or motorcycle," Barraga wrote Matthew Cutrone, a student at West Islip High School.

One reason? "Suffolk County is a suburban automobile community -- drivers expect to see other drivers on the road, not bicyclists or motorcyclists," he wrote.

Barraga was slammed, personally and for his position, as stories about the letter went viral. Since then, however, he's -- sorry for the pun -- backpedaled a bit, saying that he's not against bikes only that he's concerned about safety.

And he's right on that. Long Island has one of the highest rates of accidents involving bicycles in the state. But the answer isn't to ban bicycling, or motorcycling, or -- as Barraga also mentioned in his letter -- running.

The answer is to build safety in as a priority. And, the time is ripe to begin doing that now.

New York State two years ago adopted a Safe Streets program, which means that planning for new or renovated roadways incorporate ways to safely include activities other than driving motor vehicles.

And -- get this -- there are county, state and federal monies available for the effort. Some solutions, such as painting in bike lanes, are relatively easy and cheap; others, such as adding medians or circles, are more expensive.

And then there is education, for drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and others on how to share the road -- with penalties for those who endanger others.

The concept of safe streets becomes even more essential because Long Island is aging; and because, as Bellone points out, pulling Suffolk's hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes into a web that would link the regions enviable richness of recreational areas will help lure -- or maybe keep -- more young people.

Bellone said he hasn't talked to Barraga since his comments on bicycles bubbled into a brouhaha. "But I welcome working with him on addressing some of his concerns," Bellone said. "We have a challenge and it's got to be met."

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