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Source: Newsday

Throgs Neck fire renews Cross Sound Link debate


Posted: July 19, 2009
Originally Published: July 18, 2009

Debate about a crossing over or under the Long Island Sound has ebbed and flowed for decades and was highlighted anew more than a week ago when a fire reduced access to the Throgs Neck span.

With drivers stuck in seemingly endless bumper-to-bumper traffic until the bridge is fully operational, Long Islanders are wondering whether a proposed tunnel could be their saving grace.

Transportation planners have pushed for another way off Long Island since the 1930s and intensified the effort after the Throgs Neck Bridge opened in 1961, saying Long Island's dead-end status was crimping its economy and presenting a safety hazard in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. Evacuation was a major concern during the debate over operation of the Shoreham nuclear power plant as early as the 1960s.

The only proposal on the table to solve the problem is a $12-billion tunnel about 150 feet under the bottom of the Long Island Sound that would connect the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway (Route 135) in Syosset with the intersection of interstates 287 and 95 in Rye, in Westchester County - a project that would not be ready until 2025.

The $12-billion Cross Sound Link could carry a maximum of 200,000 vehicles per day in two tubes that are 55 feet in diameter; a third tube would be used to service the tunnel and could house a mass transit component such as a light rail system.

Developer Vincent Polimeni knows his project would have to clear major hurdles if it is ever built. Already there has been intense opposition in Syosset and surrounding villages over the disruption from construction and possible increased traffic on adjacent highways.

The first major test will be a traffic study by the developers' consultants due by 2011. If it predicts heavily increased traffic on Route 135, the Long Island Expressway and the Northern State Parkway and the highways in Westchester, the project will be in trouble. And if the study shows the tunnel will generate as much or more traffic than it diverts from the Throgs Neck Bridge, "it will be a dead project," Polimeni said.

Despite the practical and political difficulties of the tunnel plan because of its size and scope, many local officials agreed this week that a new crossing connecting Long Island to the mainland - whether bridge or tunnel - is necessary.

"Any additional access would be positive for Long Island," said Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. "You don't need the crisis to justify better access."

Specifics of the Cross-Sound proposal:

16 -- Miles underground tunnel would run from end of Rt. 135 to Rye, N.Y.
$12 billion -- Estimated cost of three-tube tunnel to be opened in 2025, if no roadblocks.
200,000 -- Number of vehicles the tunnel could carry daily.
$25 -- Tolls cars would be charged during peak hours.


Ease congestion: The developers estimate the tunnel would carry 80,000 vehicles per day that now use the Throgs Neck to go upstate or to New England, at least a third of the bridge's current volume. "So it would significantly ease traffic congestion between Long Island and the [interstates] 287-95 intersection and reduce a 46-mile trip to 17 miles," said former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, a consultant on the project.

Proponents say the tunnel would boost the economy by improving access and curbing delays mainly for commercial traffic, and be a boon in an emergency.

"From an economic development and safety and emergency access point of view the tunnel makes sense" compared to doing nothing, said former state Economic Development Corp. chairman Patrick Foye, the project's legal counsel.

Halpin added that now "in the event of a hurricane or emergency, how do we get equipment and supplies on and off the island? The options are very limited."

While North Shore officials battled the Bayville-Rye Bridge proposal until it was dropped in 1973, Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto called the tunnel idea a "worthy pursuit. I don't think you can ever have too many ways to get off of Long Island. Many of these roads that we utilize really weren't made to serve the sheer volume of traffic we have in 2009."

With Long Island's relentless dependence on cars, traffic on the three major east-west arteries plus Sunrise Highway will only continue to increase, proponents say.

Boost for mass transit: The initial tunnel plan announced two years ago included no mass transit component. Because of criticism on that point, there have been discussions with the MTA and state officials about instituting express bus service to connect with the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North.

And while the central tube was initially going to smaller and be used just for service, it would now be as large as the two outer tunnels - 55 feet in diameter - to accommodate light rail tracks if the state chose to fund that option.

Good for economy: The developers say the tunnel would create 1,000 to 2,000 construction jobs and close to 1,000 operational positions. Cutting travel time and delays would be an economic boost for Long Island, they say.

Mitchell Pally, the Suffolk County representative on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board and former vice president of the Long Island Association, the Island's largest business group, said trucking companies would weigh the $100 tunnel fee against the large expected savings in time and mileage. "When there are significant backups, for some trucking companies time is more important than [toll] money," he said.

More green than a bridge: Developers, transportation planners and environmentalists agree a tunnel would create significantly fewer problems than a bridge.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said incorporating mass transit would reduce traffic and air pollution and "make it more appealing."

Pally said it seems to address all of the environmental concerns raised by the Bayville-Rye Bridge proposal, such as air and noise pollution from vehicles and water pollution from runoff contaminated with petroleum spillage. The developers say all air emissions and runoff would be filtered.

Polimeni said there would be discounts for green vehicles, congestion pricing and possible HOV lanes.

Most costs don't fall on taxpayers: Other than building a possible light rail system in the center tunnel, which the state would have to pay for, the entire project including the $1 million traffic study would be paid for privately. State agencies would pay for their evaluations of the developers' studies, and all steps needed for approval.


Steep tolls: To recover the project's $12-billion pricetag, one-way trips through the tunnel would cost $25 for cars and $100 for commercial vehicles.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said such a steep price would make a voyage through the tunnel unattainable for many people.

"I think people will end up driving all the way around if it's too costly," she said.

Neysa Pranger, a spokeswoman for the Regional Plan Association, said she didn't think the tunnel would be a viable option for commuters, even if the bridges were shut down.

"How much of an alternative is it going to be if it costs $25 each way?" she asked.

Who wants to go to Rye? With Rye in Westchester County as an end point for the tunnel, critics are questioning how much it would relieve traffic on the bridges, like the Throgs Neck, which has many drivers heading to New York City and New Jersey.

"If you want to go upstate, it's not a bad idea," Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) said. "If you want to go someplace else other than that, you have a problem."

Developers estimate that 80,000 drivers, primarily commercial, who currently use the Throgs Neck Bridge would use a tunnel. But local officials said they would wait for a traffic study, which is expected to begin by the end of the year, to determine its usefulness.

"I don't know if you would provide much relief from the traffic" on the Throgs Neck, said Lee Koppelman, former director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. "For those going to New England, it would certainly have an effect."

Possible environmental damage: Esposito said she and other members of the group would be vigilant during the project's environmental review process to gauge the tunnel's potential impact on Long Island Sound.

One area of concern, she said, is the bottom of the Sound, home to lobster and shellfish beds, as well as flounder and fluke.

"If it's a healthy area, you don't want to disturb it," she said.

After two meetings with the developer and engineers for the project, Esposito said she was hopeful that the tunnel would not disturb the sea bed since it would be built about 150 feet beneath it.

Logistics of getting it done: The construction of a 16-mile tunnel has several components that make it a drawn out process to complete.

Because the $12-billion cost would largely be funded by loans, securing the funds during a recession could be a challenge for the developer.

"Right now the project has an economy problem," Marcellino said. "Money is not flowing from anywhere."

Polimeni says he will have no trouble getting the funds, however.

Construction woes: An expected increase in traffic to the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway, which would lead to the beginning of the tunnel, would prompt a realignment of the main arteries feeding the expressway - the Long Island Expressway, the Northern State Parkway and Jericho Turnpike.

"That's a fairly congested area," said Marcellino, who represents the area that would be most affected by the construction.

Marcellino hasn't taken a public stand on the tunnel but says he has concerns about the disruption to homeowners.

To tunnel beneath homes, the developer would have to make deals with homeowners to purchase the rights to the land under their homes, have the land appraised and purchase it for that price or have the state condemn it under eminent domain. While developers say residents would not have to be relocated, many are concerned about disruption and vibrations. There is thus far no estimate on the number of affected homes.