Suffolk lawmakers approved borrowing $8.82 million for a "rail-to-trail" bike and jogging path from Port Jefferson to Wading River, a project that had been stalled amid a partisan dispute about bonding.
Dozens of bicycle riders and civic leaders testified at the Suffolk Legislature in Hauppauge that the 14-mile project would provide a safe place to bicycle, jog and walk while also boosting North Shore businesses by drawing tourists.
Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said after the vote she was "relieved and grateful for support... for an ultimately smooth path, this has been an incredibly bumpy ride." The funding for the project had to be approved by Aug. 31, or the county risked losing about $8.3 million in federal reimbursement for the project, which will ultimately cost about $10 million, Anker said.
Lawmakers voted on a host of bonding projects on Tuesday that had been stalled by a fight between Republicans and Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Bellone had decided to bundle together bonding for projects after Republicans earlier this year blocked borrowing for some projects.
Democrats hold a 11-7 majority in the legislature, but need 12 votes to borrow for projects. Bellone announced last week he would agree to let lawmakers vote separately on bonding resolutions.
The Suffolk Legislature on Tuesday also approved funding for a new Smith Point Bridge and work on Commack and Crooked Hill Roads, all of which get significant state and federal funding, as well as $2 million for an app to improve communication between police and school workers in the event of an active shooter incident or emergency.
A measure to bond for the $150,000 cost to design a new K-9 police facility was defeated when all Republicans voted against it, arguing the work should be done in-house by county engineers.
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the Republican minority leader, noted the number of bonds that passed. "This was never about politics for us. The County Executive made it political," he said.
Republicans also blocked $4.68 million in borrowing for a dozen bundled public safety projects, including the purchase of heavy-duty police equipment, the replacement of a marine patrol boat and renovation of bathrooms in police headquarters. Cilmi said he had told Bellone before the meeting to unbundle the projects.
The meeting was packed with bicycle activists, including some in spandex with their bicycles chained outside, who said there weren't enough safe places to ride bikes in Suffolk County.
Norman Samuels, 73 of East Setauket, said, " I can say Robert Moses probably never rode a bike. There are too many roads."
Martin Buchman, who owns a Stony Brook bed-and-breakfast catering to cyclists, called the trail "a refuge from endless stripmalls of Route 347 and 25A."
The project has been envisioned for decades on the former Long Island Rail Road right of way which is now owned by LIPA, but has faced opposition, including from those living next to the would-be trail.
Mary Anne Gladysz, a Rocky Point homeowner whose house backs up to the trail, said she had safety and privacy concerns and contended the county would be liable for accidents along the trail.
"To literally pave through people’s backyard is a little crazy," she said.
Suffolk legislators voted 17-0, with Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) abstaining.
"I got a lot of 'no’s' from my district, because it’s a waste of money. But it’s a safety issue, so I’m torn," Kennedy said.
Anker said final approval from the state Department of Transportation is still needed, as is the signature of Bellone, who has been supportive of the project. Final design completion is expected to be done in 2018, with construction to begin in 2019. Anker said she hopes the project will open up in 2020.