Suffolk hopes to complete Rails to Trails by 2020

Construction on the long-awaited Rails to Trails project at the former Long Island Rail Road track path between Port Jefferson and Wading River could be completed by 2020, a Suffolk County official announced during a public meeting Wednesday in Shoreham to discuss the proposal.

Suffolk County Department of Public Works chief engineer Bill Hillman said construction could start in spring 2019, however he stressed to a crowd of nearly 500 people at Shoreham-Wading River High School that nothing has been finalized and described the plan’s status as preliminary.

Residents gathered Wednesday to voice their opinions on the proposed 10-mile biking and hiking trail. While most people expressed their support, several people who live near the former track said they oppose it because they believe it will negatively impact their quality of life.

• Related story: Rails to Trails project in Wading River back on track

The Long Island Power Authority owns the right-of-way where the tracks had run. The LIRR terminated the Wading River line in 1938. Power lines would remain along the trail, which the county plans to pave for biking, walking and running.

The county has proposed to create the trail between Wading River-Manor Road in Wading River — across the street from Wading River Elementary School — and Crystal Brook Hollow Road in Mount Sinai, which is near the Setauket-Port Jefferson Greenway Trail.

Motorized vehicles would be prohibited on the trail, Mr. Hillman added.

Wednesday marked the first public meeting to discuss the proposal. A second public hearing is scheduled for April 5 at Miller Place High School.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she’s been working on Rails to Trails since she was elected in 2011 and believes the plan will be a safer alternative to biking or running on heavily trafficked streets.

She said $10 million in federal funding had been allocated for the trail, however the county ran into some obstacles, including a lack of support from then-County Executive Steve Levy and liability concerns from LIPA.

Ms. Anker said current County Executive Steve Bellone supports Rails to Trails and announced the county has reached an agreement with LIPA to use its right of way.

The county has also allocated $8 million for the project, she added.

Bruce Kagan of Wading River said he first began working on the proposal with a group of residents 16 years ago. The name they came up with was the “Tesla Trail” since it would be near future Nicola Tesla Science Museum in Shoreham.

Mr. Kagan added Riverhead Town’s recreational path at the Enterprise Park at Calverton is being expanded from nearly 3.5 miles to 9 miles and could possibly connect with Rails to Trails.

Not everyone had favorable things to say about the proposal.

Mary Anne Gladysz of Rocky Point, who lives near the former track, said she opposes the project because her dog will be “freaking out” when people walk or bike ride passed her home on the trail. She fears people will complain about the barking and she’ll be fined for a noise violation.

She added she would probably be in favor of Rails to Trials if she didn’t live near it.

“This is in my backyard 24-7,” she said. “You come for an hour-and-a-half walk and then you leave. I’m here all the time.”

Ms. Anker said she’s working on a plan to protect people’s privacy along the path. However, Mr. Hillman said there’s currently no money in the budget for privacy fencing or benches unless the path is shortened.

He added maintenance for the path such as mowing will be one of the biggest challenges and the county may seek volunteers if necessary.

Former Riverhead Town Councilman George Bartunek said he’s spoken to people involved with trails in Cape Cod and Maryland and said they’ve seen a decrease in drug use, crime and vandalism since the trails were built.

Sgt. Walter Langdon of the Suffolk County Police Department said there has been “little to no crime” at Setauket-Port Jefferson Greenway Trail.

Fred Besold of Shoreham said he’s seen bike clubs “with 50 members flying down the road” and questioned how that could be safe on the trail.

Several other speakers said bike clubs don’t usually ride on bike paths because they prefer open roads, which allows them to go faster.

Cory Fitzgerald of Rocky Point said he supports the plan since the roads in his neighborhood are narrow and hilly.

“I have six and eight year old daughters and they love to ride their bikes,” he said. “This is something I’ve been waiting for so long. The girls really want to see this happen.”

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File photo credit: Paul Squire