50 years of the LIE: Love or hate, it's 'hard to imagine' Long Island without it

Babies have been born on it.

Far too many, some famous — think folk singer Harry Chapin and Hollywood director Alan J. Pakula — have died on it.

A comedian might suggest lives have even gone start-to-finish on the Long Island Expressway, the sometimes-slow road to shaping present-day and future Long Island.

After all, Alan King once dubbed it "The World's Longest Parking Lot." And Newsday columnist Mike McGrady wrote about drivers exchanging everything from cigarette lights to phone numbers while stuck in traffic on it the day this paper chronicled its official completion to Riverhead in 1972 — 50 years ago this weekend, 11 years and $80 million over its original $200 million budget.

A Newsday editorial noted: "No celebration is scheduled and it's understandable."

Perhaps prophetically, it added: "The LIE is indeed a highway of paradox. It has brought people to the Island, but it has also brought pollution. It is a model of highway engineering at the Riverhead end, but the Queens section is worn, overused and in places dangerous. It has given life to whole new towns, but it has also destroyed the character of quiet communities that happened to be near its path."

'It's a traffic jam, period.'

-Former Shelter Island Supervisor Evans Griffing

Photo: The Long Island Expressway at night in 1969. Credit: Newsday/Harvey Weber

"It's a traffic jam, period," was how one-time Shelter Island Supervisor Evans Griffing described it then.

Or, as current Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said of it last week: "I view it as a tremendous impact on the Island, positive in terms of transport but negative for the lack of imagination for what comes with it."

Transforming Long Island forever

The impact of the expressway on the development of Nassau and Suffolk counties cannot be overstated, according to Stony Brook University Adjunct Professor Richard Murdocco.

"The LIE fundamentally reshaped Long Island," said Murdocco, an expert on land use, waste management, economic development and planning. "At the time of its completion it was monumental, earth-shattering in its impact. It allowed for the complete overhaul of both the natural and built environment: commercial development, shopping malls, strip malls, office parks, housing … It also led to sprawl; the suburbanization of Suffolk County, maybe the urbanization."

Builder Richard Silbert points out construction work along the Long...

Builder Richard Silbert points out construction work along the Long Island Expressway near Lake Success to Ed McGinnes, an assistant chief engineer for the state's Department of Public Works, on July 29, 1958. Credit: Bill Sullivan

The reason, experts like retired AAA traffic engineer Mark Kulewicz said, is because the LIE allowed hundreds of thousands of drivers — millions, really — to get there from here.

Or, vice versa.

It was a straight shot from Queens to the East End, from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to Riverhead and roads traversing the North and South Forks.

It's hard to imagine the Long Island we live in today … without the LIE.

-Retired AAA traffic engineer Mark Kulewicz

"It's hard to imagine the Long Island we live in today — for the most part, a great place to live — without the LIE," Kulewicz said. Though, he also noted: "It has as many advocates for the benefits it provides as it does those who think it's caused more harm than good."

The LIE allowed Long Islanders to fill in the gaps between the previously unconnected towns, villages and hamlets, the patchwork quilt that was and, in many ways still is, Long Island — connecting them, Murdocco noted, even when they didn't want to be.

Murdocco, who studied under the late Long Island Regional Planning Board [now Council] czar and transportation visionary Lee Koppelman, said: "The LIE was purpose-driven for commerce and commutation. But the tensions? You saw that first explored when Newsday did those stories on the road's completion back in 1972, what type of changes would this bring … Policy couldn't keep up with the economic push to develop."

Only the urging of Koppelman and his board led to the protection of the pine barrens and groundwater resources and a host of other environmental necessities, Murdocco said.

But, Murdocco said, "It's been a real razor's edge."

A long road to completion

Controversial master builder Robert Moses said he first envisioned an express road that could connect Manhattan to Riverhead in 1924, when Nassau and Suffolk had a combined population of less than 350,000 — a far cry from the some 2.92 million who live here today, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

In fact, the current 7.889 million population of geographic Long Island, which also consists of Brooklyn and Queens, means it has more people than  the islands of Ireland,  Jamaica and Hokkaido, Japan.

Much of that thanks, or not, to the LIE.

Though Alfred E. Smith was governor when Moses said he first thought to part this Island, it wasn't until after World War II and war in Korea that any formal plans were approved.

That was 1954, under Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

The initial speed limit was to be 35 mph, and no more than 40.

The first projected completion date for the road — which is 71, 73 or 81 miles long, depending on whose mileage figures you believe — was 1957, then 1958, then 1961.

The LIE construction had extended to Exit 65 by 1969. Credit: Newsday/Cliff De Bear

A 1972 Newsday story headlined "Expressway History" noted that by 1958, when the LIE had still yet to cross from Queens into Nassau, officials projected the completion to be 1970. Then-Gov. W. Averell Harriman, on a campaign stop in Garden City, told the crowd: "Whoever did [promise a completion date] was an irresponsible politician looking for votes. I never did."

That story added: Four months later, Gov. Harriman was former Gov. Harriman.

As happens with projects of such scope, the LIE was marred by scandal, including the owner of a Hicksville construction firm conspiring to defraud the state by stealing topsoil to use in the building of private home sites.

And, Newsday noted, there were landslides, floods, cave-ins, buckling concrete and the building of the 1964 World's Fair site at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park that all led to delays.

At one point in 1970 a group of Adelphi students, protesting President Richard M. Nixon sending troops into Cambodia, staged a sit-in on the road in Lake Success. Which snarled traffic.

When it was finally completed — and, this means the original 1950s design, not the later overhaul to upgrade the roadway with high-occupancy vehicle lanes to Exit 64 in Medford — construction had taken 500 billion pounds of cement and 5 billion pounds of gravel, as well as 2,180 streetlights in Queens and none in either Nassau or Suffolk.

It moved 160,000 cars, buses and trucks daily, double the planned capacity of 80,000. Which meant the design was already technically obsolete.

The final phase of construction,  culminating in 1972, took the road from a terminus at William Floyd Parkway, Exit 68, in Yaphank, to Exit 73, County Route 58, on the Calverton-Riverhead border just west of Riverhead Raceway and the current Tanger Outlets.

By then it was also Interstate 495 — I-495 — and had gone from being called the Queens-Midtown Expressway and Horace Harding Expressway in Queens and the Long Island Expressway in Nassau and Suffolk to being called the LIE for its entire length.

Tanger Outlets and Riverhead near exit 73 of the LIE...

Tanger Outlets and Riverhead near exit 73 of the LIE on June 23. Credit: Chris Ware

'Not the panacea we thought it was going to be'

It also led to the transformation of both forks, including the move to create vineyards and tourism destinations, especially on the North Fork, where there once was only farmland.

“There is no question that the LIE has allowed businesses to locate and expand on eastern Long Island, bringing jobs and economic development opportunities with them," Long Island Association president and CEO Matt Cohen said. "The LIE is a critical corridor, but throughout the decades there has been continuing efforts to alleviate traffic and sprawl, and the LIA continues to support development around train stations and increased freight rail options to limit these impacts.”

Kulewicz, 67, of Greenlawn, said his family first moved from Queens to Deer Park in 1958 because of the promise of the LIE.

"I remember going on the expressway," he said, "though we mostly were only going west, because all our relatives were still in the city or Nassau — though, that changed over time."

Murdocco, 35, grew up in Setauket and now lives in Commack, his family having moved to Suffolk because of the LIE. 

In between birth in the 1950s and now, the LIE has been covered in burning fuel and spilled hot tar. Snow drifts from blizzards have shut down its entire length, and mayonnaise from an overturned delivery truck has poured onto its pavement.

The LIE was closed to all but emergency personnel at the Queens-Midtown Tunnel immediately following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and police enforced a single-occupancy vehicle ban at checkpoints for months after. 

Just this week, two gone-wild horses forced the closure of the LIE service road near Exit 62 in Holtsville, until police could round up those escaped steeds.

Chapin, the Grammy-winning folk singer and humanitarian whose hits "Taxi," "W.O.L.D." and "Cat's in the Cradle" brought international stardom, died July 16, 1981, in a fiery crash with a tractor trailer on the LIE in Jericho en route to a concert at Eisenhower Park.

The filmmaker Pakula, nominated for Academy Awards for movies like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "All the President's Men" was killed on the LIE on Nov. 19, 1998, in Melville, when a metal pipe, fallen off a truck, went through his windshield, striking him in the head.

Still, the LIE, and its drivers, have persevered. Improvements to the road have been made. In addition to the HOV lane, lighting has been added to its length, though construction seems never-ending. Go out east, around Medford, and the road is dangerously potholed.

Murdocco noted the last time he drove the LIE he blew out a tire on his BMW. And dented three rims. He won't drive the road any more if he can avoid it.

Romaine, 75, said his family moved to Bayport before the LIE. But, he said, many of his own moves — from North Massapequa to Calverton and then to Center Moriches — were due to the road.

He taught a dozen years in middle school in Hauppauge. The LIE meant he could commute. 

The Expressway is a strength and we've weakened it, the railroad is a strength and we've weakened it.

-Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine

Romaine said that while the LIE isn't solely responsible for the growth of Long Island — the railroad, the New York City Transit subway system and regional bus service all have played a huge role — he believes failure to connect the dots between all these transportation modes has created foreseeable problems.

He thinks the LIRR needs to modernize from diesel to electric eastward, that more freight needs to be delivered by rail, that transit needs to be better connected — all, to deliver on the promise of the LIE. The promise, as he sees it, that is still untapped and disregarded five decades after the fact.

"The LIE is not the panacea we thought it was going to be 50 years ago," he said. "Roads help in the beginning, but at some point new roads are not helpful. Vision is. There's no unified vision. All these years later we're still two county executives, two county legislatures, 13 town supervisors and two city mayors — and we need to think of this Island with a different vision."

"A vision that accounts for all transportation and for all land use," he added. "The expressway is a strength and we've weakened it, the railroad is a strength and we've weakened it. The buses are a strength that we've weakened by insufficient routes. If there's anything we should learn is we need to work for a more-unified vision.

"Write that when you write about the LIE."