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Port Jefferson Station Superfund site eyed for new LIRR yard

An eastbound train on the Long Island Rail

An eastbound train on the Long Island Rail Road's Port Jefferson branch passes the entrance to the former Lawrence Aviation plant off Sheep Pasture Road in Port Jefferson Station on Feb. 18, 2016. Officials are considering building a new rail yard for the LIRR on the property. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

A new rail yard for storage of trains along the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Jefferson line — a key step in allowing the railroad to eliminate overcrowding on that branch — could be built at a Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station, under a plan being considered by state and Long Island leaders.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials, including LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski, met last month at Brookhaven Town Hall with town, Suffolk County, state and other leaders to discuss constructing a rail yard at the Lawrence Aviation site, which contains a former aircraft-parts manufacturing company on 126 acres abutting the LIRR tracks, according to people who attended.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the site under its Superfund program in 2000, after federal and state officials said Lawrence Aviation spent years dumping toxic chemicals into the ground, contaminating soil on part of the property and creating a toxic plume in groundwater.

LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said Nowakowski described the meeting as “very exploratory.”

Several proposed rail yard locations along the line have been soundly rejected in the past by residents in the suggested communities.

This time around, the LIRR has said it is leaving it up to municipalities to come up with a suitable location for the facility. MTA board member Mitchell Pally said the Lawrence Aviation site is the only location that has been proposed so far.

“This is what the local governments in that area want us to consider, so we’ll consider it,” he said.

Pally said the local officials proposed the idea to build a rail yard at the Lawrence Aviation site as part of an ultimate plan to electrify the tracks to Port Jefferson from Huntington — a goal long sought by the Village of Port Jefferson and Town of Brookhaven, which both passed resolutions last year in support of electrification.

“There were a lot of issues discussed. Nobody made any agreement to do anything other than to say this is something everybody would like to look at,” he said. “The railroad will look at that and see what may or may not be possible.”

A new yard would allow the LIRR to run more trains on the Port Jefferson branch in the morning because they then could be stored overnight near the end of the line. The additional capacity would help address crowding issues on the branch’s morning trains.

The MTA’s Capital Needs Assessment for 2015 to 2034 also discussed the need for a new yard on the line to accommodate an “expanded fleet” of trains needed for future ridership growth, as well as the beginning of LIRR service into Grand Central Terminal as part of the system’s East Side Access project, scheduled for completion in 2022.

While any type of trains could be stored at this yard, LIRR officials have said they want to electrify the entire Port Jefferson line because it can boost economic development and property values around stations and eliminate the need for passengers to transfer. They also note electric trains are more dependable than the diesel and dual-mode locomotives the line currently uses.

“Electric service is more reliable,” MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said. “For the very same reason, when we electrified out to Ronkonkoma [in 1987], we had an increase in ridership — because of the reliability of service.”

The LIRR on Feb. 22 released figures on its fleet reliability that illustrated some of the differences between the railroad’s electric and diesel service. Overall, LIRR trains traveled about 208,000 miles between breakdowns last year — a modern record.

But electric trains went about four times farther than diesels before failing, about 488,000 miles as compared with 120,000 miles.

The LIRR’s dual-mode locomotives, which can switch between diesel and electric power, fared even worse, making it just 25,000 miles between breakdowns.

Pally said the Lawrence Aviation site presents some advantages over other locations, including being surrounded by wooded areas that would provide a natural buffer to neighboring communities.

The MTA has included $8 million in its proposed $26 billion capital program, covering 2015-2019, to begin development of a new yard — including by potentially hiring a consultant to conduct an environmental study.

But, Pally said, the LIRR would not likely take on construction of such a project until after it completes other major infrastructure projects currently under way, including East Side Access.

Pally acknowledged that building a rail yard and electrification on the branch would be a major undertaking. The LIRR has said electrifying its tracks costs about $18 million a mile, and the tracks between Huntington and Port Jefferson span more than 20 miles.

“We can’t pay for it now. We’re not building it now,” Pally said. “This is a long-term process with long-term goals. You can’t end it until you start it.”

Pally and other MTA board members long have pushed for the construction of a new yard on the Huntington/Port Jefferson line, which carries more than 18 million riders a year — 500,000 of those annually between the Huntington and Port Jefferson stations.

While the entire system could benefit from electrification, the LIRR has noted it has had to prioritize which areas should get electrified first due to the cost.

More trains on the Huntington line not only would increase the number of one-seat rides to and from Port Jefferson — because riders wouldn’t have to transfer at Huntington to make the switch between electric and diesel service — it also would reduce the number of standees.

In December, the Huntington line had the second-highest number of people without seats, according to the MTA’s January 2016 standee report. The first was Port Washington.

Several who were at the meeting, including the host, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, cautioned that the gathering was simply the beginning of exploring the option of using the site.

“We took a first step,” Romaine said. “That’s all it was. It was a meeting to explore what our options are and if we can move forward with this.”

Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said there is still a vast amount of investigation needed before the idea becomes a reality.

“It’s an idea in all of our heads as something that could happen,” said Hahn, who was at the meeting. “It’s exciting to think it could, but all the details have to be worked out.”

Lawrence Aviation had manufactured titanium sheeting for the aeronautics industry since the company was founded in 1959.

About 42 acres on the southwest corner of the property is occupied by Lawrence Aviation facilities, while the rest has remained largely wooded.

Various chemicals, including volatile organic compounds such as tetrachloroethylene, “acid wastes, oils, sludge, metals and other industrial plant wastes” were dumped at the property, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA added the site to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 2000, and the company ceased manufacturing operations in 2003.

The EPA has been conducting a multimillion-dollar cleanup at the site, in which contaminated soil was excavated and removed from the site, while contaminated groundwater at and around the site still is being pumped and treated.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation also conducted its own cleanup of lubricating oil from machine pits and leaking machinery at the site, which was completed in December.

EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said his agency was not involved in the recent discussions about locating the yard at Lawrence Aviation.

But, he said, “any nonresidential land use” that complies with future building restrictions and zoning “could be considered a possibility.”

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) said the property seemed well-suited for a rail yard, especially as it would be buffered by existing wooded areas.

“This would be out of sight, out of hearing and it would be a tremendous benefit to the environment and to the quality of life of the community,” said Englebright, also in attendance at the meeting. “There’s no downside to it.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, county and town officials agreed to supply the LIRR with more information on the site, including details on what areas are contaminated, Pally said.

The LIRR will use that information to consider whether and how a yard could fit in that space, including how many tracks could be built.

Pally said it was unclear how the LIRR would go about acquiring the property.

“In the end, the railroad would have to end up with the property. How it gets to the railroad I would leave up to the town or the county,” Pally said.

The 126 acres are divided into several tax parcels — some owned by Gerald Cohen of St. James, the owner and president of Lawrence Aviation Industries. Others are owned by the company itself.

Eight of the parcels have a total of nearly $11.5 million in tax liens on them, and Romaine has pushed for the county to take possession because of the unpaid taxes. There also is a lien against the site for the cost of the EPA cleanup.

Cohen did not respond to a request for comment.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, whose district includes the Lawrence Aviation site, said those at the meeting agreed to gather more information and meet again in the next few months before presenting the idea to the community.

Because there are limited future uses for the site, “when we look at the potential of having a rail yard, it looks like it might fit well there,” she said.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant, who has led the campaign to electrify the LIRR’s tracks all the way to her village, said everyone at the meeting agreed that “there really is no downside” to the proposal.

“The political will around the table was unanimous that this would be a regional game-changer,” Garant said. “We feel we have all the right ingredients.”

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