As anybody who’s ever driven on the LIE will tell you, life isn’t about the destination – it’s about swearing and slamming the steering wheel during the journey.
With so many commuters on Long Island, it’s no surprise that so much about living there is centered around getting on, off or around the island. Many of the most prominent policy issues – from improving performance on the LIRR, to revamping the airport, to finding creative ways to get across the Sound – are related to transportation. Maybe that’s why Long Island politics are so consistently purple – is there a particularly Republican or Democratic way to repave roads?
We’ve reached out to lawmakers across the political spectrum to get a sense of what issues drive the policies and politics on Long Island.
Crossing Long Island Sound
The Long Island Sound is one of the region’s biggest draws for visitors and potential residents – and in the future it may be the site of a crossing connecting the island to either Westchester County or Connecticut. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for suggestions on how to carry out his proposal to build a tunnel or a combination of a bridge and tunnel across Long Island Sound.
Several of the suggested routes – Oyster Bay to the Rye/Port Chester area and Kings Park to either Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Devon, Connecticut – were deemed to be feasible in a 2017 report. The proposal aims to reduce travel time, which the first route would decrease from one to two hours to just 15 or 20 minutes, with 74,300 to 86,400 vehicles projected to use the route on a daily basis.
But the plan does not come cheap. The Oyster Bay route was estimated to cost between $8.5 billion and $55.4 billion while the Kings Park route was between $13 billion and $31.2 billion.
Long Island legislators haven’t been receptive to the proposal, which is at least the ninth attempt to build such a crossing since 1938. In a series of community meetings, representatives criticized the price of the project and its various environmental impacts, including during construction and the subsequent increase in traffic. Among those against the proposal are state Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Republican, and Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Democrat, who represent districts that would be affected by the proposal.
“Just because something can occur on a theoretical basis doesn’t mean that it can occur on a practical or pragmatic basis,” Lavine told City & State. “Here are the challenges. No one in Westchester wants it. No one in Nassau County wants it.”
Lavine said he is concerned about pollution from traffic, although the feasibility report determined that the Oyster Bay tunnel option would minimize the environmental impacts.
“Anyone that says there would be no environmental impact is dreaming or drinking from funny stuff,” Marcellino said. He also voiced concerns about the safety problems that would arise from accidents and emergencies occurring in the tunnel, which in the Oyster Bay route would run for a total of 18 miles.
The details of the proposal have yet to be finalized, including the landing points of the crossing. A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation said the agency welcomes public comments on the project.
Long Island Rail Road
It has not been an easy year for the Long Island Rail Road. A March report from the state comptroller’s office revealed the railroad’s on-time performance in 2017 reached new lows not seen since 1999. The number of late and canceled trains increased 19 percent and 9 percent, respectively, over 2016, and disrupted an estimated 9.2 million LIRR riders. The disclosure of these dismal numbers was followed by the resignation of LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski. And in the ashes of his resignation rose Philip Eng. Eng, who served as the MTA chief operating officer, is now navigating the system out of its trainwreck performance.
“In the past, without speaking to the past president, what I can say is I think sometimes folks get used to doing work in a certain fashion,” Eng told City & State. “It’s something that in the past processes and procedures that maybe have been acceptable for years. In certain days, when the system was newer and more reliable, it might have been sufficient.”
Eng developed his LIRR Forward plan, though Eng has said to think of it less as a plan and more as a “philosophy and mindset.” The plan is similar to another unveiled by Nowakowski before his resignation, called the Performance Improvement Plan. However, LIRR Forward, which has supplanted PIP, accelerates the timeline on many other improvements and repairs that Eng said will fix more problems in the long run.
For example, one initiative is to upgrade 10 switches that caused almost half of all switch failures last year. These switches, which otherwise would not have been scheduled for replacement for at least two years, will be done over the next six months. Two of these switches have already been fixed, Eng told City & State.
In response to a train colliding with a car in March, and similar incidents, the LIRR also accelerated a plan to install delineators across the tracks and reflective pavement markers at 65 crossings. The other 231 crossings should be completed this year. Meanwhile, the app Waze has partnered with the LIRR to prevent cars turning onto the tracks, a problem often caused by using GPS directions.
Eng said he created a plan that did not depend on the MTA capital program in order to address concerns about more delays with repair work. Although the LIRR Forward plan prioritizes efficiency with existing funds, LIRR officials are also in the process of finalizing a budget for July.
Belmont Park arena
Despite calls from community groups to halt the project, plans to build the New York Islanders’ new stadium next to the Belmont Park racetrack are underway. Empire State Development, the state economic development umbrella organization, envisions an 18,000-seat arena, with 435,000 square feet for retail space and a 250-room hotel. An environmental review process is expected to be completed next year.
The area that currently houses the Belmont Park racetrack is surrounded by a suburb where residents are concerned about how the project will affect traffic. The Belmont Park Community Coalition, a group opposed to the development, held a march against the project in May and a press conference in June to call for a expanded environmental review.
Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages echoed the group’s concerns, saying she was opposed to the idea of a stadium moving into the neighborhood. Beyond concerns about traffic, Solages was more focused on her constituents missing out on economic opportunities. “We don’t want to serve hamburgers and hot dogs. We want to actually have jobs that are for the future – jobs for careers,” she said.
In lieu of the stadium, Solages said she favors Belmont Park as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters, since the tech giant has announced it was considering Long Island as a potential site. She said the sustainable jobs could reinforce Long Island’s position as a hub for the technology and biomedical industries.
Solages added that she was opposed to the “sweetheart” deal that New York Arena Partners, the Islanders’ development team, received on its lease for the land. She said paying $40 million upfront for a 49-year contract is “a tax break on the people’s back.”
Reducing the regulatory burdens to wind farm development has led to the unlikely situation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke being on the same side of an issue. Cuomo unveiled a plan in January to develop 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 – enough to power up to 1.2 million homes. In his State of the State address this year, the governor said the state will jump-start the initiative by issuing solicitations through 2019 for at least 800 megawatts of offshore wind power.
One of those developments is being planned by Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island-based company, near East Hampton off the South Shore of Long Island. The plan had sparked controversy. While Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. believes there’s broad-based public support behind the plan, some constituents have raised concerns over the disruption the wind turbines could have on the commercial fishing industry.
“From my perspective, I think that it is a big ocean and it is possible to have a wind farm and mitigate any potential impacts to the commercial fishing industry,” Thiele told City & State.
In order to build the proposed 15 turbines, Deepwater Wind would have to run a transmission line underwater, which requires approval from the East Hampton town board and town trustees.
Thiele added that Deepwater Wind has proposed to fund research on how commercial fishing would be affected, in addition to completing an environmental impact survey.
Long Island MacArthur Airport
Suffolk County and Islip officials have long tried to make Long Island MacArthur Airport into an economic engine for the region. The problem is getting enough traffic through the airport, which is owned and operated by the town of Islip, to attract international airlines. Elected officials have been making incremental progress over the past few years.
The airport started to get some attention in January 2017, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Transform Long Island plan, which proposed $20 million to build a new terminal at the airport that would link it to the Long Island Rail Road. Though the proposal never materialized, Suffolk County conducted a study into the interconnectivity of the railroad and airport that led Islip officials to try and enhance the transit options that are already in place.
“Most people didn’t even know they could hop in a cab and get over to the train station or vice versa for only $5. So we’ve started putting signage up and doing some practical kinds of things to let people know about that,” Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter said.
Beyond attempts to increase traffic, Islip officials have jumped at other opportunities to improve the airport. In September, the town board passed resolutions authorizing $10 million worth of bonds to improve the airport’s terminal and communications center as well as its animal shelter. The airport also has received money to build a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection station that would equip it to handle commercial international flights. Though the customs station is not expected to break ground until 2020, the airport has already begun to expand its destinations. In April, Frontier Airlines began service to Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, Minneapolis and San Juan, Puerto Rico.