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Long Island’s best bet to get trucks off our congested roads

Credit: John Roca

The region’s highways endure the constant rumble of trucks and tractor-trailers loaded with lumber and steel, household appliances and furniture, and cargo of all shapes and sizes. As the traffic and condition of our roads worsen, the region’s economy, environment and quality of life suffer, too.

Slowly, local officials are recognizing it’s a smart move to get some trucks and tractor-trailers — and the freight they carry — off the roads. To do that, the greater metro area needs a coordinated network of alternative pathways — particularly on rail and water.

The region, including New Jersey and parts of Connecticut, moves about 1 billion tons of freight each year, a number likely to grow as high as 1.4 billion tons in the coming years. In Brooklyn, Queens and on Long Island, nearly 95 percent of that freight moves via truck, according to estimates from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

No wonder we’re stuck in traffic.

The impact is enormous, costing the broader regional economy $20 billion a year, according to The Partnership for New York City, which represents large private sector businesses. Long Island residents lose $360 million a year in wages and other costs to commuting delays, the Partnership found. Something has to change.

But while Long Island has taken small steps toward alternatives, especially in trying to expand the Brookhaven Rail Terminal, there’s a lot more to do. Solutions will need far more attention and funding. Among the big ideas: a proposed New Jersey-to-Brooklyn cross-harbor rail tunnel and the long-discussed deepwater port in Shoreham.

Last month, New York City introduced a serious plan called Freight NYC; it would allow the city to shift more freight to waterways and rails. The city proposes building barge terminals at Hunts Point in the Bronx, now the site of a wholesale food market and distribution center, and at South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, and suggests using inland waterways like Newtown Creek between Queens and Brooklyn, too. And city officials would increase their focus on rail by building distribution facilities in those two boroughs along existing tracks.

These are modest but important steps that could move the region toward less reliance on tractor-trailers and more on trains, boats and barges. On their own, those improvements could create 5,000 jobs in 10 years, according to city estimates, while cutting 40 million truck miles a year. And they expand upon existing infrastructure, like Red Hook’s container terminal, where importers bring in everything from bananas to building supplies.

There’s also the possibility of looking inland. City officials plan to evaluate several locations for a rail port farther from the coastline, but along existing rails, to help move and distribute cargo without using trucks.

Then there’s the long-sought rail tunnel across New York Harbor from New Jersey to Brooklyn. It would be large enough to hold a double stack of containers, and two tracks side by side. The Port Authority is preparing to start further environmental studies, while also considering the alternative of moving freight via an expanded railcar “float” system that potentially could carry as many as 75,000 rail cars a year. From Brooklyn, those cars would head out directly to Long Island, a welcome alternative to the trucks that otherwise would travel from New Jersey via bridges, tunnels and then highways.

By taking thousands of trucks off the road, a rail- and water-based freight system could protect the environment, save businesses and residents time and money, create jobs, and improve an economy that slows as the traffic does.

Long Island officials, and those at the state level, should prioritize the issue in a more full-throated way. Long Island has a model in the Brookhaven Rail Terminal. In June, the terminal accepted more than 1,300 rail cars of freight — lumber, stone, soybean oil for biofuel and more. Terminal officials say one rail car has the capacity of four 18-wheelers. So, in just one month, the terminal took more than 5,000 trucks off the roads. That’s before the terminal’s planned expansion, which will triple its size and allow the site to not only take freight in, but send waste out.

But the Island could do more. The clearest example: a deepwater port in Shoreham, where the benefits would be tremendous.

Critics are quick to point out that rail and water don’t eliminate all trucks. They’re right. So, state and local officials have to tackle what’s often called the “last mile” — how trucks carry goods from terminals and barges to warehouses and stores. The other challenge, of course, will seem familiar: Each time New York City or Long Island officials want to try something new, they must convince and work with communities and residents. On Long Island, it was an uphill battle to establish the Brookhaven Rail Terminal and allow its expansion, with legal disputes with the town over approvals and regulations, and community concerns about noise and more. Since it opened, terminal officials say area residents haven’t raised further objections, but the experience is illustrative of questions any port or rail terminal might face.

Nonetheless, the benefits of growing rail and water freight travel would be worth the effort.

All aboard.