The $20.2 million Welcome Center on the eastbound Long Island Expressway between Exits 51 and 52 is set to open as early as this week, state officials said, providing a stop for motorists but pushing truckers farther east.
Residents had long opposed expanding what had been a pullout area with no services because of concerns over pollution from idling trucks and quality-of-life issues such as noise and crime.
As a compromise with residents and local officials, state Department of Transportation officials have banned tractor trailers and buses at the new welcome center in exchange for the community agreeing not to sue or impede sewer and water district approvals for the project.
Alternate rest areas for trucks and buses have been set up farther east — one on the westbound side of Exit 56 and another eastbound between Exits 65 and 66. Those stops have been renovated with improved lighting and portable restroom facilities, DOT officials said.
On a recent afternoon at the Exit 56 rest area, long-haul truck drivers said they had mixed feelings about the new setup, which requires them to turn around from the eastbound side to get to the rest stop on the westbound side or drive another 20 minutes east — longer in traffic.
Bruce Maze, of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, said he has avoided driving to Long Island during his 36-year career because it’s not very accommodating for truckers. He said the new stops are an improvement, but there has to be give and take from residents as well as drivers to make it work.
“I understand residents’ concerns,” Maze said. “But at the same time, businesses need supplies, and truckers need and want a safe, well-lit area to pull over.”
Rick Caetano, who has been driving for more than 20 years, called the need to turn back west to use the rest area a “hassle,” and said he would prefer to be able to use the Welcome Center. But he wondered how long it will be before truck drivers facing federally mandated rest time start to attempt to use the new center’s parking area.
“That will definitely happen,” he said. “How are they going to enforce that?” State officials have not addressed how the restriction will be enforced.
Some residents have questioned the legality of banning trucks, citing federal law that precludes states from enacting or enforcing any law denying large trucks access to facilities for food, fuel or rest on the national network of highways. The Long Island Expressway is a state road.
State Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll has said no federal law requires a rest area to accommodate trucks and buses.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, in a statement, referred to another part of federal law that says states or local governments can impose “any reasonable restriction, based on safety considerations, on access to points of loading and unloading.”
Kendra Hems, president of New York Trucking Association, said her group has been working for months to let truck drivers know about the changes.
“Anytime there is parking that’s currently allowed and then suddenly it’s prohibited there are always concerns that come along with that,” she said.
Long Island Expressway Welcome Center
-- 15,200-square-foot “low slung” LEED certified building
-- Lighted parking for 135 vehicles
-- Round-the-clock access to 30 toilets and vending machines
-- Continuous video monitoring and on-site law enforcement.
-- Taste New York food store and a multipurpose room. It has not been annouced what will be sold in the Taste New York food store.