Public Hearing for More LIRR Crossings in Tri Hamlet Community
Over 150 residents and elected officials at virtually every level of government turned out for a public hearing last week to testify about the need for additional at grade railroad crossings in the Tri Hamlet peninsula. The hearing was conducted following a 30-year saga of efforts to get the LIRR to build another crossing to lessen volumes of traffic at various intersections, and in anticipation of an emergency where residents would have to evacuate the peninsula when time is of the essence. From a logistical standpoint, Brookhaven Town Planning Commissioner Tullio Bertoli explained that the Tri Hamlet Community is a seven-mile long peninsula with one way in and one way out.
Brookhaven Town Sixth District Councilman Dan Panico directed the hearing where listeners heard results of a comprehensive ‘Long Island Railroad At-Grade Crossing Traffic Impact Study’ by Nelson & Pope Engineers and Land Surveyors which was commissioned by the town as part of a legal process the town is following under Section 90 of the New York State Railroad Law. According to Brookhaven Town Senior Assistant Town Attorney Kenneth Lauri, the legal process includes the town giving notice to the LIRR about the public hearing. Nelson & Pope’s findings, together with testimony from the hearing are being submitted to the New York State Department of Transportation prior to the case going before a law judge.
According to statistics cited by Nelson & Pope, the Patchogue/North Patchogue/Patchogue Village communities to the west of the Tri Hamlet Community have a population of 45,420 and 12 at-grade railroad crossings. The Center Moriches community to the east of the Tri Hamlet Community has a population of 8,043 with four at-grade railroad crossings. The Tri Hamlet peninsula has a population of 56,649 with three railroad crossings. Upon calculation of those statistics, the Tri Hamlet has an appreciably larger population with significantly fewer at-grade crossings. Add to the mix that the Tri Hamlet Community is a peninsula surrounded by the Forge River on its east coast, the Carmans River on the west coast and Great South Bay on its southern tip, and elected officials and emergency personnel all agree it is a roadmap for disaster in an emergency where residents would have to be moved off the peninsula.
Accident history statistics were also disclosed showing 91% of accidents occurred north or south of the railroad tracks and most at roadway segments leading to the crossings, and zero occurred at the railroad crossings.
The report also charted pros and cons of sites that are under consideration for at-grade crossings. The traffic study shows Madison Street is town-owned and is wider and has a higher traffic volume than Hawthorne, all “pros” for implementing an at-grade crossing. On the down side, there is no existing traffic signal at Montauk Highway and a new signal would be required which would require approval of the Suffolk County Department of Public Works. The upside for Hawthorne is that it has direct access to Montauk and Sunrise highways and direct access would be provided by Titmus Drive. The cons for Hawthorne are that is narrower, has low traffic volumes and a new at-grade crossing would require property acquisition.
In addition to statistics and facts, Nelson & Pope’s overhead unveiled optics that showed a series of rear end accidents and various other vehicular accident scenarios which resulted in traffic jams. In conclusion, Nelson & Pope traffic study found that “traffic will improve from existing conditions with a new at-grade crossing.”
Local residents, merchants and electeds alike testified during the hearing and all, with one exception being the Long Island Railroad, were in agreement that one or two at-grade railroad crossings are a necessity for safety and quality of life factors.
Congressman Lee Zeldin, who is an alumnus of William Floyd High School acknowledged this is a decades-old problem and conveyed staunch support for an additional at-grade railroad crossing. He explained federal funding is “block granted to states and Albany figures out how the money is spent,” adding that he would “love to see this money come through from the state.” Zeldin, who serves on Congress’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, asserts he has worked tirelessly on rail related issues including the push to improve safety at highway rail grade crossings. Congress’ Fixing America’s Transportation Act (FAST Act), was the first fully funded long term highway and transit bill to become law in nearly a decade, receiving bipartisan support. Zeldin served on the committee which wrote the bill and secured its passage into law. The FAST Act continued federal funding for safety improvements at railway-highway crossings with specific funding for the Railway-Highway Crossings Program to the tune of $245 million per year over the life of the bill. So it was no surprise that, on the heels of LIRR representatives testifying by reading in to the record a prepared statement that no additional at-grade railroad crossings were being constructed and that, in fact, some crossings are being dismantled, the congressman lambasted the LIRR. Zeldin received cheers and applause when he reminded LIRR representatives at the meeting that he and Congress were “more than happy to secure a whole lot of funding to the Long Island Railroad and MTA,” then stated: “The Long Island Railroad came here with the wrong attitude tonight . . . this has been a problem for decades and you are making enemies at the federal level by not doing the right thing here!”
Panico noted that the LIRR came with a prepared speech without weighing consideration to testimony given by those in attendance at the meeting.
New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. said the need for an additional crossing on the peninsula is needed and would provide greater public access and safety in times of emergencies, pointing out: “It’s time for the LIRR to step up because the New York State Budget has an earmark of $5 million. . .”
New York State Assemblyman Dean Murray denounced any denial to construct an at-grade crossing at the peninsula as it would relate to a portion of a report by the NTSB that denotes driver error causes accidents at railroad crossings. Citing the February 2015 at-grade crossing accident in Westchester as a “tragic” accident, Murray said this “doesn’t diminish the need for railroad crossings here and it should not prevent us from getting a crossing because it is incredibly needed. This is an emergency,” Murray underscored of the community’s attempt to get another railroad crossing, adding, “hopefully tonight with all our voices together we will get this done.”
New York State Senator Tom Croci stated that in order to have a proper evacuation, the area cannot have choke points at railroad crossings. Like Zeldin, Croci underscored funding is in place to institute an at-grade crossing on the peninsula. “We make sure the state funds the MTA and we kept our part with the bargain and we continue to invest in capital infrastructure,” Croci said. “All the stars are aligned, money is there and I am happy to continue to fight; It’s time to pull the trigger and go,” the senator said.
Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning likened increasing growth of the community since the 1970s which compounded increasing traffic and the need for another at-grade railroad crossing as the LIRR “holding an entire community hostage” in the event of an evacuation. “No other community is as impacted as we are and the crossings are needed,” Browning said.
Brookhaven Town Superintendent of Highways Dan Losquadro underscored the need for police, fire and first responders to move people out quickly in the event of an evacuation. “If I get the funding I will get the work done. I promise you – I will maximize your dollars,” Losquadro said.
Chief Harry Wallace of Unkechaug Indian Nation and Poospatuck Reservation said the current is, in his people’s opinion, “inadequate to accommodate the level of development in this area.” Their territory abuts the Forge River and the only outlets available are either the Mastic Road/Herkimer Avenue Crossing or the William Floyd Parkway Crossing. Chief Wallace’s prepared comments included that his “community feels trapped” and in emergency situations they would be the last to be evacuated. Chief Wallace recommended “safe and modern railroad crossings” at either Hawthorne or Madison in preference order. But it was when Chief Wallace diverted from his prepared statement that he received applause when he stated: “What astounds me is that it would be less than $700,000 per railroad crossing – this is insignificant in comparison to the need.”
Calling a crossing at Hawthorne “imperative,” Beth Wahl, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Mastics and Shirley said she received hundreds upon hundreds of petitions by residents who are pleading for a crossing which she formally entered into the record. Wahl asked that the MTA “finally take the action necessary to protect our residents.”
Rudy Sunderman, chief of the Mastic Fire Department, reported that his department is on duty 24-seven, 365 days answering 1,000 alarms with 200 more this past year than in the prior year. Sunderman underscored the necessity to “respond as quickly as possible.”
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island called upon the LIRR to “listen to this community and not hold folks hostage,” adding, “this is a project that has literally no opposition.”
But when Timothy Doddo, deputy chief safety officer of compliance and investigations of the MTA & the Long Island Railroad’s Corporate Safety Department addressed the audience, it was evident by those in attendance that his remarks were prepared in advance of the meeting, with no response or reaction to the testimony of those who spoke before him. Doddo read statistics but said he could not respond to questions after his testimony. Reached for comment after the meeting, Aaron Donovan, Deputy Director for External Communications for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad reported: “The LIRR is not opposed to the construction of a roadway bridge over our tracks, or an undercut that would establish a roadway beneath the tracks. These options would eliminate any potential train and automobile conflict and unlike grade crossings, would allow continuous and unobstructed north-south mobility for emergency services, school buses and residents.”
Donovan said the LIRR opposes grade crossings because of safety risks they can pose citing such scenarios as train-vehicular collision or a train-pedestrian accident. Donovan reported since 2010 the LIRR has experienced 66 grade crossing incidents that resulted in 14 fatalities and 39 injuries. He said grade crossing elimination is a lead objective of the New York State Rail Plan wherein pursuant to United States Department of Transportation guidance, the New York State Department of Transportation has sought to eliminate and consolidate hazardous and/or redundant grade crossings wherever possible. Other statistics reported by the LIRR include that over the past 10 years 26 LIRR grade crossings have been eliminated, 16 of them in Suffolk County. The LIRR plans to eliminate another seven crossings between New Hyde Park and Hicksville over the next several years not necessarily closing a street, but building a bridge that takes the roadway over the tracks or lowering the roadway beneath the tracks.