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Long IslandTransportation

Experts: New transportation solutions needed on LI

Evening rush-hour traffic heads eastbound on the Long

Evening rush-hour traffic heads eastbound on the Long Island Expressway near Exit 40 in Jericho. (March 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Twenty-five years from now, if the experts are correct, nearly every major roadway on Long Island - from Yaphank to the Queens line - will be at or beyond capacity during the morning and evening rush hours.

And Nassau and Suffolk drivers shouldn't expect any relief from construction of new roads. No land is available for that, or money either.

Case in point: the Long Island Expressway, the road drivers love to hate. Its design capacity, like other expressways in the state, is 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour. The LIE often hits that level now during rush hour.

State officials say they'll squeeze 10 percent more vehicles on the LIE by 2035. But the state expects traffic to almost double by then.

So, Long Islanders will spend a lot of time listening to their radios and books on tape while they crawl to and from work.

In 25 years, the number of hours that drivers sit in traffic will climb by 26 percent in Nassau, and by 59.1 percent in Suffolk, according to the The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. Drivers in both counties will be delayed a combined 474,897 hours.

"Long Island is going to continue to expand economically," DOT spokeswoman Eileen Peters said. "And highway congestion is a byproduct of success."

But Long Island can only stand so much of this "success," planners agree.

Looking to the future, experts envision transportation planning that accomplishes three major goals: The Long Island Rail Road pushes more people west - into the city - and more people east, beyond Ronkonkoma. The bus system lays down strong north-south links to fill the gaps left by the trains. And trucks are taken off the clogged LIE by freight-rail yards, where trains deliver shipping containers for final delivery by trucks on local roads.

More broadly, they suggest that decreasing vehicle traffic volume on Long Island requires no less than a fundamental cultural change. Cars and the construction of new single-family homes - two fundamentals of the Long Island postwar rise - must be de-emphasized.

At the same time, planners favor a shift in development that nurtures downtowns built around train stations - just as early 20th-century Long Island clustered around them - and integrates megaprojects such as the Lighthouse that can become key mass transit destinations.

"What happened in the suburban pattern is that you just make roads and then development follows the roads," said Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a Huntington-based smart-growth planning group. "We need to reverse-engineer the thinking. It's land use first, and the transportation planning second."

The challenges are relatively simple to identify but far more difficult to solve. Government and transit agencies wrestling with an economic crisis struggle to maintain the mass transportation system already in place even as they advocate to expand it.

"I'm not optimistic or pessimistic about the railroad," said LIRR Commuter Council chairwoman Maureen Michaels. "What you see is what you're going to get."

The Island's political will to change is also not powerful enough to make enough of a difference, some transportation experts say. One recent example: the halting progress through the local government-approval process of the proposed Lighthouse development at the Nassau Coliseum.

"The problem we have is that Long Island needs better transportation . . . but every time we try to do something out here, there's opposition to it," said Long Island Association Transportation chairman Larry Austin. "We are our own worst enemy."

Interviews with everyday Long Islanders confirm the inadequacy of the current system and the hopes for the future.

For laid-off carpenter Anthony De Jesus, the future of transportation on Long Island must somehow include an expansion of bus service while keeping fares affordable.

"I have to scrounge up quarters for the bus every day," said De Jesus, 43, of Freeport, as he waited for a bus at the Hempstead transit station to take him to his nurse's aide class. "People like me who don't have a job, it's hard to get around."

Merrick resident Ray Guarino says the overwhelming number of vehicles on Long Island's roadways must be reduced. "There are just too many cars and commercial vehicles and not enough roads," said Guarino, 52.

And Connie Monteforte, 62, of Southold, says the Long Island Rail Road must be brought up to the standard of the "beautifully run train systems" she has visited in Japan and Hong Kong.

"And we cannot afford to run the LIRR [meaning its electric cars] past Ronkonkoma? . . . Give me a break," said the lifelong Long Islander.

Of all the options, the LIRR has the most potential to move people en masse - and perhaps to reshape Long Island's transportation future. The LIRR predicts ridership will climb nearly 20 percent in the next 10 years, and 36 percent in 20 years. To accommodate the increases, the LIRR is planning a number of improvements during the next decade.

The most immediate project - the East Side Access project - is pegged for completion in 2016 and will connect the railroad to Manhattan's Upper East Side via tunnels between Queens and Grand Central Terminal.

Other improvements include a $1.5-billion third track on 10 miles of the LIRR's Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville; and a $138-million second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma stations, a stretch of 17.9 miles.

Combined, those projects help to address the needs of reverse commuters and intra-Long Island commuters - populations predicted to grow substantially in the future, transit advocates say.

But LIRR president Helena Williams warned that some transit advocates are getting ahead of themselves. Before the LIRR shifts from its longtime mission of taking Long Island commuters to New York City and back, more has to be done to make Long Island an economic and commercial destination.

"It may be very important to Long Island's future," Williams said of reverse and intra-Island commuting. "But right now we don't have cities on Long Island that people want to come to."

At least some of those commuters could be traveling to new developments that offer an alternative to suburban sprawl - initiatives such as the Lighthouse in Uniondale and the Heartland Town Square in Brentwood.

"People and government are recognizing that stopping the sprawl is an opportunity to make sense of better connections between transportation and land use," said Michael White, executive director of the Long Island Planning Council.

Because putting new LIRR tracks where they don't now exist on Long Island is nearly an impossibility, transit experts expect an expanded and improved bus system to play a critical role in moving people around Long Island - particularly through north-south corridors. They could serve as better connectors between LIRR lines on the North and South shore.

But all experts agreed that no amount of improvements to the region's public transportation system will ever persuade many Long Islanders to get out of their cars. And so a 21st century transportation network must look to improve the flow of automobile traffic.

Reducing the number of trucks on the LIE is paramount, most experts agree. New infrastructure that would support moving freight by train rather than by truck could make a big difference, and is being studied by state transportation officials.

Long Island may be past the era of epochal infrastructure projects such as those seen through by Robert Moses, the visionary former state official who became the master builder of the metropolitan area in the 20th century. Instead, several smaller projects can combine to make a big difference, many experts say.

A third track on the LIRR's Main Line might take a few cars off the LIE. A better bus system might take off a few more. A tunnel off Long Island could whisk away even more.

"There is no panacea," said Jeff Zupan, senior transportation fellow for the Regional Plan Association. "If we accept what there is and say, 'Well, this is the way it is,' then that's what we're going to get. If we want to think a little bit out of the box - but not too much - we can start to address some of the problems."

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