You’re a Long Islander, you’re making a car trip, you know what that means.
Unless you have the time for a ferry to Bridgeport or New London, there’s only one way out of here — through New York City. That’s life on the giant cul-de-sac that is Long Island. It’s an image apropos for our suburban dream. But it’s a nightmare as a description of our transportation network.
Whether you’re visiting a college in Boston or vacationing upstate in Cooperstown, Niagara Falls or the Adirondacks, chances are at some point you’ve asked yourself the same question that’s vexed generations of Long Islanders:
Why do I have to go west to go east? Or to go north?
That’s made you build in extra time, even if you know all the alternates in case traffic shuts down your route. Or forced you to leave by 5 a.m. to get through the bottleneck before the rest of humanity hits the road.
It’s also underscored this reality: For as long as people have settled on Long Island, they’ve also been looking for another way to get off it.
This eternal quest has new legs, thanks to the recent release of a study from the state Department of Transportation on the feasibility of a cross-Long Island Sound connection. It was requested by New York’s modern master builder, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose interest was piqued by the region’s business community, some enlightened Long Islanders, and his own appetite for big infrastructure.
The 87-page report evaluates bridge, tunnel and combo connections from Oyster Bay, Kings Park and Wading River across and/or under the Sound to Rye-Port Chester, New York, and Bridgeport, Devon, New Haven and Branford in Connecticut. The data are voluminous, the maps and charts informative, and the conclusions instructive (a tunnel is more expensive but more environmentally friendly than a bridge and would result, for the Oyster Bay route, in no taking of private property).
It’s an invitation to dream big. And it’s suffused with the bittersweet whiff of déjà vu.
The idea started 80 years ago with a U.S. senator from New York named Royal S. Copeland. A homeopathic physician, Copeland’s diagnosis for Long Island’s ills was a 1938 proposal for an 18-mile bridge from Orient Point. It would have passed across Plum, Gull and Fishers islands and landed in Groton, Connecticut, or Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Copeland, chairman of the Senate’s Commerce Committee, even managed to get engineering surveys started. But he died that same year, and his idea did not survive him.
Even Copeland was predated, in a way — by the Long Island Rail Road. Way back in the 1830s, the LIRR’s first track was laid out to Greenport to let New York City residents catch a ferry over to Stonington, Conn., and then hop on another train to Boston, cutting hours off that trip.
It took nearly 20 years from Copeland’s death for the next stab at making it easier to get off the Island. Charles H. Sells, a former state superintendent of public works, stepped forward in 1957 with a two-bridge proposal — Orient Point to Watch Hill and the first incarnation of the Oyster Bay to Rye-Port Chester connection. Gov. W. Averell Harriman didn’t swing at that pitch, but other proposals followed over the next two decades.
All were bridges, and most were variations on Sells’ theme. Most prominent was the 1966 plan from original master builder Robert Moses — a $100 million-to-$150 million Oyster Bay-Port Chester bridge that he intended to be part of a beltway around New York City. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller liked it, then didn’t as community opposition mounted and Moses’ influence waned.
In 1979, Gov. Hugh Carey got in on the act with a tristate commission that looked at five bridges leaving from Wading River, Riverhead, East Marion, Orient Point and Port Jefferson, the top choice. But the report concluded that expanding ferry service would be better.
A tunnel was first pitched seriously in 2007 by late Garden City developer Vincent Polimeni, who suggested a privately funded $13 billion 16-mile link from Route 135 in Syosset to the intersection of I-95 and I-287 in Rye. Like most of its predecessors, politics derailed it.
Let’s face it. Long Island has been talking about this for decades. The idea never goes away — because it has merit. So let’s really talk about it this time. Let’s do the required environmental analysis and let the process play out. Let’s keep an open mind.
Let’s talk about what could be a $55 billion price tag — and about cleaner air, less congestion, less stress on roads, less time in our cars. Let’s talk about shifting truck traffic to overnight hours by reducing tolls then, and adding a rail component. Let’s talk about the potential inconvenience for homeowners near a tunnel — and the dire need for another way off the Island in an emergency like a catastrophic storm, the 2009 fire on the Throgs Neck Bridge that became a traffic horror show, or worse.
And after 80 years of talking, let’s all listen.