Sparks fly over LIRR bridge plan

Evan Nemeroff

Village of Thomaston residents expressed strong opposition at a meeting last Wednesday to a $40 million plan by the Long Island Rail Road to replace the Colonial Road Bridge and make improvements intended to increase bridge safety for local motorists and improve train reliability and customer service along the Port Washington line.

The heated words continued following the meeting when LIRR President Helena Williams accused Village of Thomaston Mayor Robert Stern of turning against the project at the meeting after months of expressing support in meetings with the LIRR and other public officials.

“We were quite surprised by your sudden decision to open the meeting on November 10, 2010 by publicly voicing your opposition to this project without any prior notice to ther LIRR of your concerns,” Williams said in a letter to Stern dated Nov. 16 that was released to the Great Neck News.

Under the proposal, the LIRR would replace the bridge, improve drainage on the railroad track and extend the existing pocket track that would allow the LIRR to turn trains around east of the Colonial Road Bridge – steps Williams said were necessary to improve service on the entire Port Washington line and get the LIRR ready for train service to Grand Central Terminal in 2016.

Williams said in her letter to Stern that at two meetings attended by other public officials and following numerous other meetings “your only request was that the pocket track be fully landscaped” and in other meetings he expressed support for the project.

“We appreciated your advocacy for the proposed project on numerous occasions, including as recently as this past summer,” Williams says, noting that at his suggestion the LIRR agreed to “meet with a small group of adjacent homeowners to preview the benefits of the bridge replacement, pocket track and bridge replacement.”

In responding to Williams’ letter, Stern said it would be acceptable for the LIRR to replace the bridge and fix the drainage issue, but he was concerned that extending the pocket track would impact too many village residents.

“I am unhappy about the plan because the extension of a 1,200 foot long pocket track would have an affect on about 25 homes,” Stern said. “That is a lot of people to bother. Residents who live near the pocket track now already complain about the noise and extending it further will only annoy more homeowners. This is an ideal plan for the rail road, but it would make a mess for the neighborhood. Village residents should do something about it and I will help them contact public officials to solve this problem.”

He said that while he did express support for the project initially, the LIRR made subsequent changes that resulted in his opposition.

At at meeting with LIRR officials at Village Hall in Thomaston last week residents objected to proposed construction of a turn circle at Colonial Road and Grace Avenue and the construction of a pocket track, which provide an alternative to Port Washington as a place for train to turnaround.

“The LIRR is acting very negligent with this project because it does not have any analysis,” said Thomaston resident Burton Weston. “How many people make a right turn on Grace Avenue after crossing the bridge? There is no need to make this turn unless you live on the cul-da-sacs off of that street. Dumping traffic onto Grace Avenue would increase safety concerns for everybody who drives here.”

Michael Zarin agreed with Weston to not build a traffic circle at Grace Avenue.

“There has been no traffic survey to see if this project even has a purpose,” Zarin said. “Great Neck Plaza has made several improvements with a turnaround, but what is the traffic impact there. We have not heard any word from the MTA about this and any alternatives. We also don’t know what the traffic consequences will be when the bridge has to close for a year.”

Thomaston resident Jamie Karasyk said she believes the LIRR’s main goal for this project is to make money and there is no need to build a pocket track at the Colonial Road Bridge.

“The LIRR wants to make more money at the expense of our homes,” Karasyk said. “We don’t want more service or a pocket track which will only create more noise for homeowners who live near the rail road.”

Lawrence Greengrass said it would be a smart decision for the LIRR to build a pocket track near Gilchrest Road because that street has fewer residential properties.

“The LIRR needs to look for alternative sites for the pocket track that is not near the bridge,” Greengrass said. “Gilchrest Road does not have any private homes and is an industrial section that includes a church, the senior center and a LIPA facility. There is a great deal of hostility and concern to expand the operations that the LIRR is proposing and it would have a great impact on this community.”

One village resident asked for a demographic study to be taken before this project begins because she feels the Great Neck population is getting older and more residents are now working at home.

Bob Brennan, director of government and community affairs for the LIRR, said this project is in its early stages. He said the LIRR does not have a design for the project and has not hired a construction company to build a new bridge.

“We are here because we know public input is extremely important,” Brennan said. “There are safety concerns with the bridge and we know it is very noisy because of the open deck. We want to take it out and put a new bridge in.”

Williams said in her letter that the Colonial Road Bridge was built 113 years ago and a is a three-span bridge, “which has exceeded its useful life” and does not meet state Department of Transportation standards.

Project manager Dan Knote told resident at the meeting that the new bridge would eliminate the steel grating, provide wider travel lanes, a pedestrian sidewalk that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and construction of a traffic triangle on Grace Avenue to improve sight distance for drivers when coming off the bridge. Knote said an 8-foot-by-25-foot retaining wall would be built to keep water away from residential properties and the LIRR would hire a landscaper to be responsible for maintenance, fertilization and cutting of trees near the bridge to mitigate noise pollution.

Knote said the Colonial Road Bridge would be closed for one year during construction that would only take place during daylight hours. He said the design phase for the project would be completed in 2011, construction on the bridge would end in 2013 and the project would finish in 2014.

Elisa Picca, chief planning officer for the LIRR, said the rail road foresees more commuters using the public transportation system when the economy improves.

“The pocket track will be favorable for a.m. and p.m. trains to be able to turn the trains around mid-branch,” Picca said. “It is a 20 to 30 minute operation to turn the train around and would give our customers more opportunities to have train service if the pocket track is here.”

Williams said in her letter to Stern that the pocket track would allow the LIRR to schedule trains that began their trips in Great Neck “thereby increasing availability for customers at Great Neck and stations west.”

She went to say that there would be “minimal noise associated with the proposed pocket track” since the track was located in a deep ravine.

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Evan Nemeroff

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