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Nicolls Road

Nicolls Road. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

County Road 97, commonly known as Nicolls Road, is one of Long Island’s main thoroughfares, connecting Stony Brook on the North Shore to Patchogue on the South with nearly 16 miles of highway. For years the county has examined ideas to relieve rush hour traffic; now it is proposing a rapid-transit bus system, high-occupancy vehicle lanes and 16 roadside bus stops.

“It’s going to be dual function, and also reduce congestion on Nicolls Road, so its two birds, one stone effect,” said William Hillman, a chief engineer at Suffolk County’s Department of Public Works.

In a 2015 county report prepared by multinational engineering firm Parsons Brickerhoff, the project cost was originally estimated at upward of $200 million, though plans have been scaled down slightly since then.

“By making the buses faster, more reliable, more frequent, we may have a chance to get people to sit in it and get out of their cars.”

— Kara Hahn

Babylon-based engineering firm Greenman-Pedersen, which was the latest company tapped to research the Nicolls Road project, presented April 2 summaries of its initial plans at Suffolk County Community College. 

The plans, as they currently exist, call for 16 new stations positioned along Nicolls as bus terminals connecting to existing Suffolk County Transit routes. The plans would also include 16.5 new miles of dedicated lanes to bypass traffic congestion. Service of these bus lines include a frequency much higher than any current county bus, from a weekday peak of every 10 minutes to a weekend peak of 20 minutes.

Presenters did not offer details on the buses’ fuel source nor did they describe where new stoplights or other traffic slowing devices may be implemented. Larry Penner, who worked for more than three decades in the Federal Transit Administration regional office and now comments on ongoing projects as a self-described transit historian, said that buses typically get right of way in among normal traffic.

Mike Colletta, a project engineer at engineering firm Greenman-Pedersen, which created the most recent presentation on the road, said the firm was recently put onto the project by Suffolk County, and is still in the very early stages of design.

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said the Legislature has been approving the project, applying for grants and getting funding toward the corridor studies for years. The project still has a while to go before the county can estimate the true impact on traffic. County officials worry that people will not use buses.

“By making the buses faster, more reliable, more frequent, we may have a chance to get people to sit in it and get out of their cars,” Hahn said. 

While representatives from the county and engineering firm could not give an estimate into the amount of vehicles, Penner said the county still has many things to consider, including costs of roughly 10 new buses, 16 stations and proposed amenities, such as real-time bus locators, similar to the units found at the train stations. Seating and overhangs for the stations themselves must also be factored in.

“Here’s the challenge they face: The density in Suffolk County is far less than Nassau, and far less than New York City,” Penner said. “How many people would drive to one of these 16 Bus Rapid Transit stations and how many people will take a commuter bus and switch to the rapid transit when you can get in your car and get there much more quickly, that will be the challenge they face, because time is money for people.”

These proposed stations would link up to existing Suffolk County Transit bus routes. Multiple existing bus routes already travel along or intersect with Nicolls, including the 3D, the S62, S69, 6B, S58 and 7A, though only two routes use the county road for a significant distance. Service on Suffolk County Transit has also been spotty for a long time, with users often left waiting for buses for over an hour. 

Bruce Morrison, the president of the Selden Civic Association, said he is skeptical of the project, questioning how many people would use it, especially with existing issues on the regular county buses.

“If it’s not attractive to the public, you’re going to have empty buses.”

— Bruce Morrison

“Will they get the ridership?” Morrison said. “If it’s not attractive to the public, you’re going to have empty buses.”

Buses would operate in the HOV lanes on the inside of the road and along the specialized bus lanes along the outside portions of the road. One proposed route would take these buses down the Long Island Expressway, through the Ronkonkoma Train Station and the expected Ronkonkoma Hub project as well before linking back up to Nicolls. 

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) has been touting his Connect LI plan for years. In 2014 the county started exploring several other possible projects. Expanding Route 110 and the Sagtikos Parkway is among the other options. In 2015, Bellone shared his expanded plans for $300 million bus transit plan to connect Long Island’s downtowns, colleges, research and business centers. 

At one point, the county executive’s office floated the idea of building a rapid transit in the median of the well-populated road. Environmental impact studies are ongoing and necessary to ultimately receive federal funding.

In addition to the new route, engineers are also touting designs for a new trail that could run parallel to Nicolls. This path would be akin to the Rails to Trails project, but unlike the 3-mile Greenway Trail from Setauket to Port Jefferson Station, and the upcoming 10-mile project from Wading River through Mount Sinai, this path could be well over 15 miles of trail, crossing under the LIE and over other high trafficked roads like Middle Country Road. The 2015 study allocated $15 million for the biking and hiking trail.

Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning representative Kevin Luzong mans his station at the BRT first public information meeting. Photo by Donna Newman

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is hoping to modernize the way Long Islanders get around.

A proposal from the county executive to create Suffolk’s first north-south multimodal transportation corridor to feature dedicated lanes for rapid transit buses running along Nicolls Road between Stony Brook and Patchogue, was presented for public information and comment Dec. 13 at Suffolk County Community College in Selden. Interested residents attended to gain an understanding of the concept of a Bus Rapid Transit service, which unlike traditional buses are not constrained by traffic, and the possible ways the roadway might be configured.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) attended the event and said she supports upgrading public transportation on Long Island.

“Suffolk County is working to create a 21st century economy,” she said. “This requires a modern transit system that alleviates the burden of traffic and provides more transit options for a less car-dependent workforce. This is a first look at a proposal for a plan. We need community input to flesh it out more and see where the ‘buy-in’ could be.”

Hahn said she believes the idea would have multiple positive economic and environmental outcomes.

“Bus Rapid Transit offers many of the advantages of a light rail system, but at a fraction of the cost — both for the passenger and to the municipality,” a statement from Hahn announcing the county’s first BRT public information meeting said.

The BRT system would feature state-of-the-art Wi-Fi equipped buses; use dedicated “bus only” lanes, with priority traffic signaling; provide boarding at modern, comfortable, secure stations; accept fares with prepaid fare cards or electronic passes; and connect the commuter or traveler to transit hubs, such as other bus systems, railways and airports.

The purpose of the meeting was to provide information about the proposed road conversion in order to interact with three Long Island Rail Road branches, Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Babylon, and facilitate public transportation access to Long Island MacArthur Airport. Visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to submit feedback in the form of comments and questions via mail-in comment cards or by email to LIinnovationzone@suffolkcountyny.gov.

Representatives were on hand from both the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning and engineering firms that have worked on the planning stage to further explain the project and answer questions.

Debbie Brown and Stephanie Larkin, self-described PTA moms from Selden, had several concerns.

“Are they adding a lane or dedicating one of the existing lanes,” Larkin asked, adding the road is crowded enough without losing one of its lanes.

“Who, exactly, is going to use these buses?” Brown asked.

Kevin Luzong, a spokesperson for the project, addressed the residents’ concerns.

“The bus lane will be created within the existing roadway in the median or through a repurposing of the shoulder,” he said. As for people who might be interested in using public transportation, he mentioned millennials, like himself, who utilize services across Long Island, including colleges, research facilities, and new housing options, like the Ronkonkoma Hub being developed near that railroad station.

Brown was skeptical that Long Island could be converted from a “car culture.”

“We, as parents, would have to get our kids used to buses at an early age,” she said, adding that parents might be hesitant to do so in today’s world.

BRT systems exist in more than 190 cities around the globe, allowing passengers to arrive at their destinations faster, while reducing road congestion.

The proposal did not include a potential cost for the project, though the county is examining grant-funding possibilities to help taxpayers cover the bill if the project comes to fruition.

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A Black Lives Matter banner below the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sign is now gone. Photo by Sylvia Kirk

The Black Lives Matter banner that was affixed on July 3 beneath the sign identifying the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Nicolls Road was removed July 24.

Eileen and Sol Hummel, owners of the Imagination Pre-School, which has rented space in the fellowship for 20 years, discouraged its placement when they were first told it would go up.

Eileen Hummel said she responded to the notification with an email that simply read, “It’s going to hurt our business.” She said she made several subsequent requests to have the banner removed, including forwarding emails received from parents expressing dismay.

“The safety of the children is the most important thing for us,” Hummel said. She said police officers whose children attend the school were upset about the banner, and others were concerned about safety at the school because the message has created a heated debate nationwide in recent months.

“The safety of the children is the most important thing for us.”
— Eileen Hummel

The timing of its placement, shortly before the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the subsequent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, intensified the controversy surrounding the banner.

“We hoped to have a discussion with the community about the need for reform in police practices,” said Peggy Cohee, a member of the fellowship’s Racial Concerns Committee. “We feel it’s a social justice issue, not an anti-police issue.”

Concerned about the possibility of legal action against the fellowship, Cohee said its board of trustees decided to remove the banner temporarily, pending a discussion among the entire congregation.

“I don’t think this is finished yet,” Hummel said. “The fellowship informed us they are having a community meeting.” She was told the preschool parents would be invited to attend.

“I’m not against the church,” Hummel said, “I’m against the banner.” She thought they should move it inside the fellowship hall.

Hummel’s response to the banner was “all lives matter,” according to Cohee. “While we agree [with Hummel], our concern is that we can truly say that only when it applies to everyone.”

Residents gather to discuss drug and heroin use, rehabilitation and laws at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ monthly meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“Addiction is a family disease.”

That’s what Tracey Budd and social worker Mary Calamia had to say during the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ community event about heroin use on Long Island.

Around 20 residents gathered at the Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters on Feb. 24 to discuss drug laws, heroin use in the community and how to combat the Island’s heroin issues.

Tracey Budd, of Rocky Point, founded the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group to help work with families to try to combat the drug issues on Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Tracey Budd, of Rocky Point, founded the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group to help work with families to try to combat the drug issues on Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Budd, of Rocky Point, established the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group last fall. Her son, Kevin Norris, was one of many heroin users on Long Island before he died of an overdose in September 2012. Budd hoped to educate Long Island communities on drug awareness and establish a support system for drug users and their families who are seeking help, with the creation of this group. She tries to hold a meeting at least once a month.

“I’m hoping that as parents, neighbors, [and] friends, we learn how to advocate [about drug awareness] a little more, rather than putting it on Facebook,” said Budd about residents who have sought help, especially with acquiring Narcan, through social media outlets. She was among several residents, including Dorothy Johnson, who said people need to change how they view heroin users.

Johnson is a member of the Great Bay coalition. She lost her son four years ago to a heroin overdose and has fought to increase drug awareness ever since. For Johnson, heroin and drug users aren’t junkies, but everyday people in need of help.

“It’s not that they’re bad and sitting on a street corner,” Johnson said. “It’s somebody that’s walking around in a suit and tie that comes from a good family.”

Many of these families do not change how they view or deal with their relative once they return from a rehabilitation center. According to Calamia, treating rehabilitated individuals as though they still use heroin or other drugs will only encourage future drug use.

In light of heroin use on Long Island, the Suffolk County Police Department started using Narcan in August 2012, according to Dr. Scott Coyne, chief surgeon for the police department. The anti-overdose medication was used more than 470 times in 2013 and 2014 and 543 times last year. While Narcan allows officials and those trained to administer it to save people who overdose on heroin or opiate-based drugs, public and safety officials said some drug users abuse the system.

Sgt. Keith Olsen, on right, speaks at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Sgt. Keith Olsen, on right, speaks at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Capt. William Murphy said the police department has saved an unidentified Mastic Beach resident around 11 times using Narcan. Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) added that one woman who got into a car crash on Middle Country Road and Nicolls Road a few weeks ago demanded Narcan from First Responders. According to LaValle, officials can’t test a resident’s blood after receiving Narcan.

Currently, patients can go home shortly after officials administer the medication. Budd is trying to establish a 72-hour hold for these patients, which will allows hospitals to monitor patients following the procedure.

She also helped establish a 24-hour hotline for drug users and their families or friends who are looking for help, after she attended a conference at the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office last September. That hotline should be up and running, according to Budd, by April 1.

“Sometimes I feel bad for the young kids we’re locking up,” said Sgt. Keith Olsen of the SCPD. “They need help. They’re not the dealer. They’re not turning it over. They’re not the ones causing trouble.”

Residents and Brookhaven officials will address ways to improve Route 25A near the Stony Brook train station, above, in the first phase of the study. Photo by Giselle Barkley

After decades of waiting, Brookhaven officials said they were taking legitimate steps toward giving Route 25A a face-lift — starting with Stony Brook.

The town board approved a resolution on Thursday, Jan. 14, to conduct land use studies for Route 25A in Three Village and Port Jefferson Station. The town said it would be holding several meetings over the coming months at which residents can suggest ways to improve the de facto Main Street, especially near the Stony Brook Long Island Rail Road station and where Route 25A meets Nicolls Road.

This three-phase study will start with the Smithtown line to Nicolls Road. The two other phases, including the Port Jefferson Station study, will follow. Route 25A near the Stony Brook train station is part of the first phase.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said the town will use money from a contingency fund in its operating and capital budgets to fund the study. The town hasn’t established dates, times and location, but Romaine said meetings will begin once the weather gets warmer in March or April.

“It’s long overdue,” Romaine said about the study. “We will be sending letters to [the Department of Transportation]  and ask them to participate because a lot of the work we’re going to comment on are things [DOT has] to do, like additional sidewalks.”

Several civic leaders across the Three Village and greater North Shore community came out in full support of the land use study on Thursday with hopes of spurring the town board to expedite progress along 25A.

“The intersection of Nicolls Road and Route 25A is really the gateway to the communities of the Three Village community, and quite frankly it’s sort of a hodge-podge of commercial and retail buildings,” said George Hoffman, vice president of the Three Village Civic Association. “We also have a real problem with safety … because the corridor is really lacking crosswalks and sidewalks.”

The town also asked Stony Brook University to participate in this study. Similar land use studies and plans for Route 25A were conducted in 1963 and 1975 according to Robert de Zafra, former president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook. A third study was conducted around 20 years ago.

Current civic leaders like Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, have tried kick-starting revitalization efforts for Route 25A near the Stony Brook train station for several years. Nuzzo has often been at the forefront of all discussions relating to upgrading 25A and ushering in a new era of commercial and residential prosperity across the main road.

At Thursday’s town board meeting, Nuzzo said the town was finally taking a different approach when working with civic groups.

“There’s been a lot of false starts with this area because it was based in the past on this old top-down model, where the people at the top were going to tell the people at the bottom what they’re going to live with for the next 50 years,” Nuzzo said at Town Hall before Brookhaven passed the resolution. “But this model now with this corridor study and community visioning, this is a bottom-up model.”

Over the last several years, Stony Brook University students have worked with their professors to propose idealistic and practical ways to improve the area by the train station. The groups have been hosting events with residents at the Bates House in Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket and other locations, where they have pitched their plans based on various land studies of the 25A corridor.

Professor Marc Fasanella from Stony Brook University has been leading entire classes on the revisioning of Route 25A and challenging his students with finding realistic ways to make the corridor more appealing visually and logistically.

In a previous interview with Times Beacon Record Newspapers, he said the crux of the challenge was to think outside the box, no matter how outlandish the plans might seem.

“We looked at this as a tremendous opportunity for our students and for the community moving forward,” Fasanella said. “Are we dreaming? Of course we’re dreaming.”

Nuzzo said the area by the train station has united people throughout the community, but the entire corridor, especially near the LIRR, can not only be safer but also more visually appealing to the community.

“This is an issue that transcends political lines,” he said. “This is an issue that has unified both the civic association and the Chamber of Commerce who have historically been at odds with one another. We’re in that redevelopment phase of this corridor and this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a community vision to have something nice for 75 to 100 years.”

Phil Corso contributed to this report.

A teenager was critically hurt in a Selden car crash on Election Day.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, 17-year-old Jenna Kozak was driving north on Nicolls Road, just past Portion Road, at about 7:30 p.m. when her 1999 Acura Integra crossed the median into the southbound lanes and crashed into a 2008 Jeep Wrangler.

Police said Kozak, a Mastic Beach resident, was in critical condition at Stony Brook University Hospital. The Jeep’s driver, Vania Costa-Pereeira, a 32-year-old Farmingville resident, was treated at the same hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.

Detectives are investigating the two-car crash. They impounded both the Acura and the Jeep for safety checks.

Anyone with information is asked to call the 6th Squad at 631-854-8652.

Nicolls Road. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

A man was seriously injured in Centereach on Wednesday afternoon when he lost control of his SUV and was ejected during a crash.

The Suffolk County Police Department said 35-year-old Michael Negron was driving north on Nicolls Road when he lost control of the 1997 Ford Explorer and hit a guardrail. From there, the car entered the median and overturned onto the southbound side of the road.

Police said Negron was ejected from the Ford.

The Bellport resident was listed in serious condition at Stony Brook University Hospital, police said.

There were no other passengers in the vehicle.

Police impounded the Explorer for a safety check. Detectives from the SCPD’s 6th Squad are investigating the crash.

Anyone who may have witnessed the crash or have information about it is asked to call detectives at 631-854-8652.

Suffolk County Department of Public Works Commissioner Gil Anderson outlines the proposal that would change the way drivers enter Nicolls Road off Route 25A. Photo by Phil Corso

Suffolk County is turning a corner.

A problematic intersection where Nicolls Road meets Route 25A is in the county’s crosshairs as officials seek ways to make it more pedestrian-friendly and safer for drivers. Three Village residents heard a presentation on the proposal last Monday evening, where elected officials and administrators outlined plans to install a new sidewalk on the northern side of the intersection.

“The county has been responsive to our concerns about pedestrian safety here,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-East Setauket). “Right now, the 25A-Nicolls Road intersection is sort of scary for pedestrians trying to make their way across. The aim here is to improve safety and I wanted to make sure the public was included.”

Gil Anderson, commissioner of the county’s Department of Public Works, pointed to a blueprint of the proposal, which would remove an access ramp for drivers making a right onto Nicolls Road from 25A, and instead make the access point to the major roadway in the same spot as motorists making a left onto it from 25A. The intent, he said, was to ease the flow onto Nicolls without impacting eastbound traffic along 25A.

“Our intent is to improve safety at this intersection,” he said. “The county will be putting in sidewalks to connect the existing sidewalks put in by the state.”

As it stands, there are two ways to access Nicolls Road from 25A. Drivers going east on the route make a right onto the road via the access ramp in question under the county proposal, while drivers going west on the route make a left off 25A at a traffic light where the two roadways meet.

Bill Hillman, chief engineer with the county Department of Public Works, called the intersection the “genesis of pedestrian safety issues and vehicular issues” for the Three Village area and said this proposal could solve a lot of those problems. He said eliminating the current access ramp for cars going east on 25A making a right onto Nicolls Road was the safest way to handle the situation, and the county would be exploring the possibility with the state’s permission, because state-owned 25A is the crux of the county’s traffic issues at this site.

Some residents asked about the possibility of bike lanes being included in the proposal, and Anderson said civic members and elected officials should reach out to the state, which maintains Route 25A, with hopes of breaking through.

“If the civic reached out to the state, now would be an opportune time,” he said. “Route 25A is a state jurisdiction when it comes to bike lanes. They’ll take your requests a lot more seriously than ours.”

Hahn said she also requesting planning money on the county level for a bike path down Nicolls Road and near Route 25A and hoped it gets considered for the betterment of Stony Brook University students who frequent the area either by bike or foot.

“I’m hoping that money stays in and gets implemented one day,” she said. “Many students utilize the sidewalk and this will improve safety, no doubt.”

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