Clockwise from above, an aerial view of the Long Island...

Clockwise from above, an aerial view of the Long Island Expressway at the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway in Plainview on June 21, 1972; signs for exits 72 and 73, the end of the LIE, seen on June 15, 1972;  a crane moves into place on the new Riverhead section the same day; and workmen clean up the LIE underpass near River Road in Riverhead on June 15, 1972, getting ready for the opening of the last section of the expressway on June 28, 1972.  Credit: Newsday/Bob Luckey

Five years before the final stretch of the Long Island Expressway was completed, The New York Times Magazine predicted that Riverhead, “after it is linked to the Expressway, may be transformed into the industrial hub of a new Northeast coastal network of air, high-speed rail and highway transportation.”

This week, 50 years after the LIE opened a final two-mile stretch of road to exit 73, little of that fabulous vision has appeared, in Riverhead or anywhere on Long Island. The LIE, also called I-495, is often despised by the residents and business owners who depend on it most.

That’s unfair. The LIE, as much as we curse it, has never been Long Island’s shortcoming. The problem is that the Expressway was only part of the grand solution for future growth. Other crucial pieces of the equation were never built.

Today, the needs of the Island still demand additional answers, in transportation and industry and housing, if the region is to remain desirable and vital. That means more, better public transportation. It means alternative shipping by rail and sea, lightening the burden on roads. And it means committing to new economic engines, like a “blue economy” that uses our waters for agriculture, energy production, recreation and other commerce. 

OTHER PLANS DIED

Over the past 70 years, plans to improve mass transportation to and on Long Island have often been given serious consideration. Subways, additional railroad tracks or light railways (including down the median of I-495 or on its shoulders), a second deck for the Expressway, ferry service, express bus lanes, and new freeways have been workshopped and planned. 

But they’ve never been built. Neither have desperately needed north/south transportation options, the lack of which clusters so much activity near the Island’s Expressway spine.

And neither have touted extensions of the LIE to Connecticut, to easily move people and goods to New England, a tunnel or a Long Island Sound Link from the Oyster Bay area to Westchester County or Connecticut, or high-speed rail connecting New York City to New Haven through Long Island.   

At every point of the iconic roadway’s development, canny planners understood the LIE would become congested no matter how many lanes it included, and that enormous growth was the Island’s destiny. So much open space, so close to the density of New York City, so beautifully arrayed between beaches, would not go unused.

When master builder Robert Moses first imagined the highway in 1924, he envisioned four lanes each way from Manhattan to Riverhead, though just 330,000 people lived in Nassau and Suffolk counties combined.

Even today, though, it is four lanes only in certain areas. Most stages of the LIE’s construction were inadequate and obsolete practically before they opened, because the road has been asked to do too much.

The 1953 design presumed the LIE would handle 80,000 cars daily. By the time the road reached exit 73, it was carrying 160,000 vehicles a day in the busiest areas. About 10% were trucks, delivering 90% of all goods that came to the Island. And experts, even during construction, argued widening wouldn't help because lower traffic density would attract more drivers until it was congested again.

In 1972, Lee Koppleman, then executive director of the Bicounty Planning Board, said, “If six lanes are saturated, what about eight, or 10? Yes, they would be, too.” He was right.

DEVELOPMENT SPUR

As the LIE crept across the Island, reaching exit 49 in 1962, exit 53 in 1963, exit 57 in 1964, and exit 61 in 1966, massive expansions of industrial, commercial and residential development followed. Factories, office buildings, shopping centers and housing developments mushroomed at breakneck pace. By 1972, developers estimated 75% of commercial growth on Long Island over the previous 15 years was engendered by the LIE. Often, construction of infrastructure, schools, and secondary and tertiary roads, along with sewers and accommodations to protect the environment and safeguard the water in our sole-source aquifer and our bays and harbors, did not keep up. 

Much of it has never caught up. That’s impeded the Island’s economic and residential growth, but so has the reality that many residents don’t want business and population growth if it means more traffic, expense and frustration.

In 1972, the population of Long Island was projected to reach 3.3 million by 1985. It has never reached 3 million, yet traffic congestion reigns from Queens to Riverhead.

This spit of land has been called a “slender, riotous island.” The LIE is its slender, riotous core. But if our home is to maintain, and even improve, its livability and prosperity, the LIE will need help, and the industries and patterns of living the Expressway engendered must evolve to become less environmentally destructive, more self-sustaining, and more opportunistically focused on the water that surrounds us than the road that both infuriates and defines us.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.