In this aerial view looking east, the former Lawrence Aviation...

In this aerial view looking east, the former Lawrence Aviation site in Port Jefferson Station is shown on Friday, March 23, 2024. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

How do you take even a small step forward when an enormous roadblock suddenly falls in your path?

How do you think big when your goals seem more elusive than they were just a couple of weeks ago?

It's not easy. But when it comes to the Lawrence Aviation Industries site in Port Jefferson Station, no one — thankfully — is ready to give up yet on either the small steps or the larger goals.

In that resilience is a lesson for those of us who see the end of congestion pricing as a death knell for both short-term and long-term thinking on public transit. That lesson: We still need to do what we can now, so we can continue to hope later.

Suffolk County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Suffolk County Landbank, a nonprofit focused on distressed properties, are this close to closing a deal on Lawrence Aviation that would allow the MTA to use a third of the 126-acre site for a rail yard necessary for storage, increased capacity, and the eventual electrification of the Port Jefferson line, along with potentially moving the Long Island Rail Road station to the site. 

In this case, money isn't the problem. The MTA can buy the land for just $10.

Even without congestion pricing revenue, the authority can afford that price tag. But Gov. Kathy Hochul's decision to “pause” the tolling program has made it significantly tougher to get the Lawrence Aviation deal over the finish line.

It's a key Long Island project that isn't getting much attention in the fallout from Hochul's decision. The pause has been distracting, leaving no room for attention to anything else. And now the ultimate goal of electrification is more uncertain, making even the smallest step seem potentially pointless.

Still, we need to take those small steps, even when we don't know whether the big ones will follow. Otherwise, progress won't have a chance.

“I feel like we're at the 1-yard line and we're about to see this project just tank,” one longtime advocate said. “But if they don't have the property, they're not even in the game.” 

To close on the Lawrence Aviation deal, the MTA needs to come to an agreement with the state Department of Transportation regarding a state-owned greenway trail, which must be diverted to make room for the rail yard. The DOT wants to preserve the current path in case it needs to build a highway there at some point — though that's unlikely to ever happen.

The DOT and MTA have until June 30 to reach a deal, according to existing contract terms. 

That's not enough time, especially when MTA officials are preoccupied with how to handle a $15 billion hole in their capital budget. The MTA expects to extend the agreement's expiration until December. That would at least leave a door open when so many others seem to be closing.

“I can't be cynical. We're dealing with major existential crises we have to face right now,” said MTA board member Sammy Chu, who has worked on a Lawrence Aviation deal for years. “But that doesn't mean we should completely give up on all of these aspirational projects that need to happen for regional growth and health.” 

So, we start with an empty stretch of land in Port Jefferson Station. Then we take one small step. Then another. One day, perhaps, we'll be able to return to the big plans — and we'll be ready.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.


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