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Transportation a big issue for Suffolk County legislators

Natalie Wright, Suffolk County's acting commissioner of economic

Natalie Wright, Suffolk County's acting commissioner of economic development, at a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Transportation was one of the biggest issues for Suffolk County legislators and residents Wednesday at the last full legislature meeting before Election Day, when all 18 legislators are up for re-election.

School officials urged the county to add cameras to school buses to catch drivers who illegally pass stopped buses. Legislators approved allowing bike-share stations on county land and funding studies that would review bus schedules and methods to improve overall county transportation. Legislators also voted to examine waiving fees in a controversial red-light camera program.

School board officials from Longwood and Middle Country Central school districts said cars illegally passing school buses posed serious safety concerns. In the Longwood school district, one of the biggest on Long Island at 53 square miles, that happens about 96 times a day, a survey found.

“Our kids are at tremendous risk, there’s no question about it,” Longwood school board member Daniel Tomaszewski said. “We’re very concerned every single day.”

In the Middle Country district, the school buses already have cameras and notices to drivers who illegally pass buses go through the state capitol, which is less effective, board member Dawn Sharrock said. But she said she did not want the bill to be seen as a “money grab,” like the red-light camera program.

Violators would be fined $250 for a first offense and up to $300 for subsequent ones under the bill proposed by Legis. Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley).

Meanwhile, legislators approved a study looking into waiving the $30 administrative fee for first-time offenders who are caught on camera running a red light and then take a defensive driving course. Bill sponsor William J. Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) said the study would examine whether doing so would be possible without creating an administrative "nightmare," including by ensuring the state would allow the practice. 

Legislators last month reapproved the red-light camera program while pledging to amend it. A bill that would have given the legislature authority to approve the program vendor contract was sent back to be reworked in committee after the county attorney's office raised concerns about whether the legislature had the power to approve contracts — which the legislature's counsel said it did. 

But legislators approved creating awareness campaigns on distracted driving and stopping for school buses. 

They also accepted two grants to fund two transportation studies: a $150,000 review of bus schedules and $350,000 to look into improving transportation overall, including potentially through bike-share programs and pedestrian improvements. The approval came after legislators raised concerns that the studies could be redundant and would use outside consultants, which cost more than having county employees do them.

Natalie Wright, acting commissioner of economic development, said the bus study would improve the system’s reliability for customers before transportation overall would be improved through the Mobility Implementation Plan.

Also Wednesday:

•More than a dozen advocates called on the legislature to pass a “Ban the Box” bill that would eliminate a common box on job applications asking about criminal history. They said people who had been convicted deserve a second chance but the box prevented them from finding employment. The bill, which has stalled in the legislature repeatedly, was tabled again as some legislators raised concerns that the bill would create more difficulties for employers.

•Legislators approved $200,000 to develop a coastal resiliency plan in the face of climate change.

•Before the meeting, the Republican caucus, joined by county comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., who is running against Steve Bellone for Suffolk County executive, raised concerns about the county’s finances. They said the findings of a state comptroller report released last week — that Suffolk had the most fiscal stress of any county in the state for the second year in a row — were “alarming,” especially during a good economy and increasing fees and sales tax revenue.

“We are approaching municipal collapse and mayhem,” Kennedy said.

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