The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office welcomed its newest hire, an emotional support canine named Tillman III, on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the William J. Lindsay County Complex in Hauppauge.
Tillman is a 2-year-old Lab/golden retriever mix, bred and trained as a facility dog by Medford-based Canine Companions. Assistant District Attorney Melissa Grier, of the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Bureau, paired with Tillman, who will assist her as well as victims, witnesses and officers during traumatic events.
“This is a tough system for victims, especially child victims,” District Attorney Ray Tierney (R) said. Tillman is “very comforting, and it’s just a good opportunity to help the kids with a very recognizable and lovable thing in a very unrecognizable and tough situation.”
Together, Tierney and Tillman strolled through the various rooms and hallways throughout the office building, the staff greeting their newest colleague with delight.
The Sound Beach Civic Association met on Monday, Feb. 13, at the Sound Beach Firehouse, joined by public officials, first responders and special honoree Bill Pellenz.
A past president and longtime civic member who also accrued over 50 years in the Sound Beach Fire Department, Pellenz was recognized for his contributions to the greater area. Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) presented Pellenz with a town proclamation.
Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) recognized Pellenz for his commitment to public safety. She recounted the many challenges faced in planning and launching the North Shore Rail Trail, which formally opened last summer.
Anker said Pellenz was instrumental in bringing attention to key safety needs for the trail. “He understands where to go with issues,” she said. “We were able to make additional safety measures because of you, Bill.”
Representing U.S. Congressman Nick LaLota (R-NY1) was Peter Ganley, who presented Pellenz with a certificate of congressional recognition, particularly noting his efforts to support veterans throughout the hamlet.
William Rosasco, chief of the Sound Beach Fire Department, chronicled Pellenz’s long service to the department, starting as a probationary firefighter and working his way up the ranks to captain of Engine Company 2.
“In the 36 years that I’ve been a member of this department, it’s been a pleasure working with Bill and being able to call him a friend,” Rosasco said.
SBCA president Bea Ruberto discussed Pellenz’s several contributions within the civic, notably to Veterans Memorial Park.
“On behalf of the Sound Beach Civic Association, I want to thank you for all the work that you have done for this organization and the community,” she said. “Also, I want to thank you for all of the work that you will do,” to which Pellenz responded: “I’m not going anywhere.”
Following the ceremony, the civic held a brief meeting. Members were introduced to William Doherty, the 7th Precinct’s new inspector. In a brief statement to the body, he referred to his recent promotion as “the cherry on top of my career.”
“I look forward to working with everyone in this room through your elected officials and through my community liaison officers,” he said. “I tell you in my heart of hearts that this is the assignment that I wanted,” adding, “I don’t think I would have chosen any other precinct but the 7th.”
Ruberto reported that the civic would soon welcome a student volunteer from the Rocky Point school district, who will attend meetings.
“That’s one of the things that we really try to do,” she said. “We try to work with young people in our community.”
Following adjournment, the attendees enjoyed cake in Pellenz’s honor.
Brookhaven Town Clerk Kevin LaValle (R) formally took office during a swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 1. He is the 44th occupant of the clerk’s office in the town’s 368-year history.
Deputy Town Clerk Lauren Thoden officiated the swearing-in. LaValle was elected after a Jan. 17 special election triggered when former Town Clerk Donna Lent (I) retired after nine years in the position.
LaValle previously served as a Brookhaven town councilman for the 3rd Council District, which includes Lake Grove, Centereach, Selden and parts of Lake Ronkonkoma, Farmingville, Port Jeff Station and Holbrook. He was first elected to the Town Board in 2013.
Before entering elected office, LaValle served for three years as chief of staff for then-Suffolk County Legislator and incumbent Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R).
From 2007 to 2011, he was president and part-owner of Pinnacle Title Agency. He also served as a legislative aide to former Suffolk County Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma).
LaValle was educated in the Middle Country Central School District, graduating from Centereach High School in 1995. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Salisbury University, where he graduated in 2000. He currently resides in Selden.
Public officials and first responders gathered Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Terryville Fire Department Station 2 in Port Jefferson Station, announcing the recent injection of federal funding to support roadway safety in the Town of Brookhaven.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program was established by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Under this law, $5 billion will be spent over the next five years to limit roadway deaths and serious injuries.
U.S. Congressman Nick LaLota (R-NY1) announced that the Town of Brookhaven was awarded $380,000 through the grant program.
“The average homeowner here on Long Island pays $14- or $15,000 in [property] taxes,” he said. “What people expect in return are safe streets, good schools and smooth roads.”
The congressman also touched upon the perceived imbalance between taxes contributed and funds received from the federal government.
“For every dollar we send to Washington, Long Islanders get a mere 93 cents back in return investment,” LaLota said. “This infrastructure law is one of the ways that we can make that wrong right,” adding, “We can send money back to our local governments to ensure that we lower the tax burden and improve the quality of life.”
Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) thanked LaLota for facilitating the additional infrastructure money. He said reducing roadway deaths is a matter of securing the necessary investment.
“For us to be successful, we have got to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease,” he said.
There are “3,700 miles of roads in Brookhaven Town,” the supervisor said. “We’re concerned about our roads, and the federal dollars will help us maintain [and] make them safer.”
Town of Brookhaven Deputy Supervisor and Councilman Dan Panico (R-Manorville) also attended the event. He thanked LaLota on behalf of the Town Board.
“We have six council districts here in the Town of Brookhaven, and we want to thank Congressman LaLota for bringing this money home and let him know to keep that money coming,” he said.
Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) called the press conference, saying the location was decided based on a recent nearby traffic fatality. According to him, the federal funds will go toward the town’s plan to reduce traffic fatalities on town roads to zero.
“Grants like this, programs like this … are part of a larger effort to make sure that we make our roads as safe as possible,” he said. “We know we can’t legislate morality. There are always going to be people who don’t obey speed limits or drive distracted or impaired.”
However, the highway superintendent added that local governments “can design roads safer — we can use proven traffic-calming measures.”
Losquadro said the highway department uses several measures to identify problem roadways, such as the number of accidents, fatalities and other traffic-related incidents that occur upon them. When asked which roadways the $380,000 would target, he responded, “There are a number of criteria that go into examining that.”
Representing the Terryville Fire Department was 1st assistant chief Ray Kolb, who said the department responded to approximately 4,300 calls last year, “most of which were ambulance calls.”
Regarding the investment, he said the potential for more roadway repairs would support the work of the various first responder units within the area.
“We have paid 24-hour ambulance people, medical people, and they do a lot of our work for us,” the assistant chief said. “Anything we can get to help the safety of the roads is great.”
Fred Leute, the code enforcement chief in the Village of Port Jefferson, has been suspended with pay.
In an email, Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden, the village’s public safety commissioner, confirmed Leute’s suspension.
“Chief Leute has been suspended with pay until further notice,” Snaden said. “The department is running smoothly, and the village is safe and in good hands.”
The news comes just days after Leute delivered the department’s monthly report on public safety during a Board of Trustees meeting held Monday, Feb. 6.
Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview that Leute “had the opportunity to resign, and if he didn’t resign, then he has been informed that he will be brought up on the [New York Civil Service Law Section] 75 disciplinary charges and potentially have a hearing.”
When asked whether any particular incident precipitated the suspension, Garant declined to provide further details. “I cannot disclose anything that’s led up to this,” the mayor said. “He has rights. There’s a procedure to follow — being brought up on charges and having the hearing that he’s entitled to.”
Asked whether she or the village board had decided to suspend, Garant said, “The Board of Trustees was fully informed in exec session — and the labor attorney as well. There is no technical vote that has to happen until a hearing officer, after the hearing, makes a recommendation to the Board of Trustees.” She added, “Based on that recommendation, we will then take further action.”
Village residents ‘have to assume that the person being charged is not guilty, and they shouldn’t expect any details until the hearing process has proven otherwise.’
— Ken Girardin
The state law requires that an employee covered under Section 75 “may not be removed or otherwise subjected to disciplinary penalty except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon stated charges.”
Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, has extensively researched the Section 75 disciplinary review process. In an interview, he said the guidelines have been in place for nearly a century, laying out the ground rules by which a public employee can be charged and disciplined.
Section 75 “sets a process where those charges can be laid out and answered in a court-like setting, where an employee can bring witnesses in his or her defense,” he said, offering elected officials “an opportunity to decide whether that discipline should be meted out.”
Girardin suggested a degree of confidentiality is embedded within the review process to protect the due process rights of public employees.
“With respect to the public, there’s always a tough balance between keeping the public apprised of what’s going on and respecting employees when charges have not yet been substantiated,” he said. “But with respect to transparency, the public has an absolute right to know whenever an employee is disciplined” following a Section 75 hearing.
Along with transparency is the matter of cost, which Girardin stated can quickly add up. Between the expense of paying a hearing officer, prosecutor, stenographer, potential witnesses and the suspended employee, he said municipalities must weigh the costs of going through with a hearing.
“The cost becomes a part of the calculation with employee discipline,” Girardin said, adding that mounting costs often increase the likelihood of a settlement, “the terms of which the public should know.”
Given the sensitive nature of the dispute, Girardin maintains that village officials are in a difficult bind, simultaneously weighing competing values of promoting transparency while respecting due process.
“To be fair, it puts them in a really weird spot,” he said. “Because it is a personnel matter, where someone is potentially still without fault here, it’s really hard for them to talk about it.”
For village residents who may wish to stay informed about a potential disciplinary proceeding, Girardin implored them to wait patiently and to respect the procedures put in place.
“They have to assume that the person being charged is not guilty, and they shouldn’t expect any details until the hearing process has proven otherwise,” he said.
A moment in village history
In Leute’s absence, deputy chief John Borrero has assumed the role of acting chief. Garant ensured that the transition within the code department was relatively smooth.
“Everything is pretty automated up there,” she said. “We’re… assuring the ladies and gentlemen of the code bureau that they’re going to continue to get the support that they have always gotten from the administration and from the executive team here.”
Leute’s suspension also came shortly after Garant announced her retirement from public service. When asked if there was any connection between the two matters, she said they were unrelated.
“Unfortunately, this is the way the timing worked out,” the mayor said. “It is just a coincidence,” adding, “I wish that the timing had been altogether different.”
Brookhaven councilmember talks Lawrence Aviation, PJ Branch electrification
While plans to electrify the Port Jefferson Branch line have stalled for over half a century, nearly every level of government is coming together to support the development of the Lawrence Aviation Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station. [See story, “Schumer announces $450K to help demolish buildings at Lawrence Aviation,” Jan. 9, TBR News Media website.]
In an exclusive interview, Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) summarized the plans for the Lawrence Aviation property, connecting this local project to the decades-old struggle for branch electrification. The implications for both, he suggests, would be transformational for the community and greater region.
From a planning perspective, what is the overall vision forthe Lawrence Aviation property?
Roughly a third of the site would be preserved as open space. Another third would be for industrial purposes, specifically a solar farm. And the last third would be, theoretically, set aside for the MTA rail yard to try to move [the existing] rail yard there and eliminate the grade crossing on Route 112.
Is the proposed rail yard intended to accommodate electric train cars or the diesel-powered locomotives currently used on the Port Jefferson Branch?
I’d love to see it as an electrified rail yard. But even if it were to relocate the existing rail yard using the same 19th-century technology they’re using now to a better location, it would still be an improvement.
How is your office coordinating with higher levels of government? Have they been open to your suggestions?
We haven’t interacted much on a federal level. We have had a couple of meetings with the MTA, with [former state] Assemblyman [Steve] Englebright [D-Setauket].
Much more of our interaction has been with Suffolk County. I did help negotiate a New York State contribution through Assemblyman Englebright’s office to get the buildings taken down.
When you’re dealing with some of these big state bureaucracies like the MTA, I feel like we tell them things, and they tell us things. But sometimes, I don’t know how responsive they really are.
This is a major priority for us, but I don’t know if it is for the MTA. My job, what I’ve been trying to do, is get meetings with them to keep those lines of conversation open. It’s to communicate to them how important this project is and what the regional impact of electrification would be.
Is there a disconnect between local and state-level officials’ priorities, particularly with electrification?
Yes, and this is a common theme that we have seen. The centers of power in Albany seem to be well aware of the city’s concerns. To some extent, they’re concerned with upstate and rural communities. But I feel that sometimes there is a disconnect between state-level priorities and suburban concerns.
What can local officials along the North Shore do to make their concerns heard by state-level officials in Albany?
This is the nexus between politics and government. We have to advocate for the needs of our communities — not for political reasons but from the standpoint that these are the concerns of the suburbs. These are concerns that these communities face, and we want state support in addressing the unique challenges that we face in the suburbs.
Is it realistic that MTA-LIRR will commit to Port Jefferson Branch electrification within the next decade?
My parents moved out here in 1968, and my dad was working in the city at that time. The real estate agent who sold them the house said, ‘You are going to love getting into the city because the Long Island Rail Road is going to electrify that train.’ They were literally talking about this in the 1960s.
So, is it realistic? I guess it could happen. Will it happen? I have no idea, but I’m going to fight like hell for it.
The decades-old plan to electrify the Port Jefferson Branch line of the Long Island Rail Road has transformational implications for our community, region and state. Yet for far too long, this critical infrastructure need has gone unmet, passed over repeatedly for other projects.
The MTA’s long pattern of negligence has condemned our commuters to ride in rickety train cars powered by diesel, an antiquated, environmentally hazardous fuel source. For a better ride, our residents often travel inland to Ronkonkoma, the MTA siphoning ridership to the main line and adding cars to our already congested roadways.
A fully electrified rail would provide the necessary recharge for downtowns still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. It would free up mobility for our residents, connecting them to every restaurant, bar and storefront along the North Shore within walking distance of a train station.
Electrification would give students and faculty at Stony Brook University swift access to Manhattan, producing even stronger ties between the southern flagship of our state university system and the global capital. This project would unlock the full commercial, environmental and educational potential of our region.
Throughout history, generations of New Yorkers have participated in engineering feats of great scope and vision. In the early 1800s, our citizens constructed the Erie Canal, bridging the world’s oceans to the American frontier. A century later, we built the state parkway system, laying thousands of miles of road, linking Montauk Point and Niagara Falls along a continuous stretch of pavement.
Generations have taken part in our state’s rich public works tradition, which has united New Yorkers around herculean aims, facilitated greater movement and improved the lives of ordinary people.
Yet, at every stage, the North Shore has been systematically shut out from any public investment of considerable scale. MTA has continually repurposed our tax dollars with no giveback to North Shore communities.
With our money, MTA recently opened its Grand Central Madison terminal ($11 billion), opened the 9.8 mile Third Track between Hicksville and Floral Park ($2.5 billion) and laid the groundwork for a proposed Interborough Express between Brooklyn and Queens ($5.5 billion estimated).
For us, Port Jefferson Branch electrification is our shared vision of change. This is our noble cause, our generational investment, our Erie Canal. The funds for the projected $3.6 billion Port Jeff electrification project are there if we can start getting them to come our way. And to do that, we must begin applying maximum pressure upon our elected officials.
From village and town boards to the county and state legislatures to the United States Congress, every public representative between Huntington and Port Jeff must be in alignment, letting out one common cry, “Electrify our line.”
We must treat electrification as the paramount infrastructure concern of our region, demanding our elected representatives and public railroad match our level of conviction. We should cast no vote nor contribute a single campaign dollar for any candidate without their unyielding support of this project.
This October, MTA will publish its 20-year Capital Needs Assessment. Port Jefferson Branch electrification must be included within that document for it to have any shot to prevail over the next two decades.
Write to your congressman and state reps in Albany. Write to the MTA and LIRR. Tell them to electrify this line, lest there be consequences at the ballot box. With all our might, let us get this project underway once and for all.
The Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees met Monday, Feb. 6, with public commendations, updates on East Beach Bluff construction, coastal resilience strategies and parting words.
The village board recognized three code enforcement officers who responded on Dec. 28 to an active shooter incident in Upper Port. Mayor Margot Garant acknowledged code officers Scott Borrero, Emmanuel Kouroupakis and Kevin Toner for their services during a recognition speech.
“I want to thank you in your team efforts for closing off the scene to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, rendering lifesaving first aid to the victim and keeping all safe until Suffolk County police arrived,” she said.
The board also acknowledged former New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for his decades of service representing the Port Jefferson community. While she had intended to present Englebright with a plaque, Garant said the village parks department was “so efficient they already secured it on the building” at the Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum.
Instead, she presented the former assemblyman with a picture off the bathroom wall at Village Hall. Accepting this honor, Englebright delivered a brief address, sharing the history of the William Tooker House on Sheep Pasture Road, for which his office worked to secure over $800,000 for historic preservation.
“We have a chance to preserve the legacy that our forebears have brought to us,” he said. “That adventure is just beginning. That house has many more insights to give us as we restore it to useful service.”
He added, “I again say thank you so very, very much to the board. You’re all my heroes, and it’s a great honor to receive the picture off the wall.”
Mayor Margot Garant offered an update on the ongoing construction at East Beach as part of phase I of the village’s bluff stabilization initiative.
“They’ll be starting some of the upland work, restoring some of the material that we lost at the top of the bluff,” she said. “Then they’re poised to revegetate the entire slope for the spring.”
The mayor added, “It’s an exciting project. I believe in the project, and I’m looking forward to its completion.”
Entering the budget season, Garant said she is also working with each of the departments with the goal of “not trying to spend a lot of money.”
Trustee Stan Loucks updated the public on engineering plans to replace racket facilities at Port Jefferson Country Club. “These plans call for the building of six pickleball courts and three tennis courts,” he said. “This new facility is going to be constructed with a hard surface to allow play for a much longer season.”
He added, “The facility is going to be available to all village residents, as well as some sort of membership. The timetable for construction is totally dependent upon present construction that is going on up there right now.”
Trustee Rebecca Kassay announced an upcoming meeting between the village and officials from U.S. Geological Survey. Coordinated with the assistance of Elizabeth Hornstein, a New York State Sea Grant sustainable and resilient communities specialist for Suffolk County, the meeting will cover the coastal resiliency needs of the village.
“The mayor and I will display how clearly interested we are in climate resilience and in being proactive about these issues,” Kassay said.
Trustee Lauren Sheprow reported on a recent meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Council, stating that one of the priorities that came from the discussions was updating the East Beach and West Beach restroom facilities.
Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden reacted to the success of the 4th annual Port Jefferson Ice Festival. [See story, “Thrills and chills in Port Jeff during annual ice fest,” The Port Times Record, Feb. 2, also TBR News Media website.]
“It was toasty warm that day, but it was a fun event, very well attended,” she said. “The ice sculptures were beautiful as always, and fun was had by all.”
Mayor’s upcoming retirement
‘Your guidance, your instruction and your dedication have gone unmatched and will continue to go unmatched.’
— Kathianne Snaden, to Margot Garant
Near the end of the meeting, Garant announced her retirement as mayor, with her 14-year tenure to end in June. During the public comments period, some residents took the opportunity to thank the outgoing village mayor.
“As a resident, mayor, thank you,” said Alison LaPointe. “As your friend, I’m so proud of you. Congratulations.”
Kathleen Riley discussed the breadth of Garant’s impact over her seven terms in office. “I don’t think many of the residents know to what extent you have done for this village,” she said.
Loucks said he has “learned an awful lot working with Margot,” adding, “I think the world of her and wish her all the best.”
Snaden recognized Garant’s level of commitment during her time presiding over the Board of Trustees. “Your guidance, your instruction and your dedication have gone unmatched and will continue to go unmatched,” the deputy mayor said. “I appreciate you as our mayor, as the leader of this community for so many years, as my friend.”
The decades-long proposal to electrify the Port Jefferson Branch line of the Long Island Rail Road is nearing yet another derailment.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, public owner of LIRR, is expected to unveil its 2025-2044 20-Year Needs Assessment in October. Larry Penner, a transportation analyst and former director for Federal Transit Administration Region 2, considered that document pivotal for the project’s future advancement.
“If the project is not included in that 20-year document, then none of us are going to be alive to see electrification,” he said, adding pessimistically that electrification “is not on the radar screen” of senior MTA or state-level officials.
Requests for comment submitted to the press offices of the MTA, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and U.S. Congressman Nick LaLota (R-NY1) went unanswered.
A cry unheard
‘It’s appalling that they’re using diesel in this day and age.’
— Bruce Miller
Generations of North Shore residents and community leaders have called upon the MTA to electrify the Port Jeff line to no avail.
Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) has been among Long Island’s loudest and most prominent proponents of electrification in recent years. In an interview with TBR News Media last summer, he said public investment has shifted away from the Island.
“Our voice has not been raised,” he said. “There hasn’t been an investment in providing modern technology” to this region.
Village of Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant voiced similar frustrations. According to her, a fully electrified rail would boost local and regional economies, expediting travel to Manhattan and between North Shore communities, namely transit to and from nearby powerhouse Stony Brook University.
The project “would incentivize people being able to take the train not only into Stony Brook but into the city in a really timely manner,” she said.
From an environmental perspective, former Port Jeff Village trustee Bruce Miller decried the existing railway infrastructure as “ludicrous.”
“It’s appalling that they’re using diesel in this day and age,” he said, adding, “Everyone is making every effort for green energy in all fields except for the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road.”
State legislators join the cause
Local leaders are not alone in their disappointment over the long delay. State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) condemned what he considered an imbalance between the state taxes Long Island spends and the infrastructure dollars it gets from Albany.
“Long Islanders already contribute greatly to the MTA and deserve better access to more reliable and dependable rail service,” he said in an email, referring to Port Jefferson Branch electrification as a “critical project.”
At the western end of the branch, state Assemblyman Keith Brown (R-Northport), whose district includes travelers from Huntington, Greenlawn and Northport stations, expressed dismay over the state’s billowing budget yet few returns for North Shore residents.
He noted the apparent contradiction between Albany’s green energy priorities and the MTA’s continued use of diesel locomotives, which are due for replacement in the coming years.
Referencing the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which targets an 85% reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, Brown regarded the continued dependence upon diesel technology as inconsistent with state law.
“They can’t really replace the existing fleet with diesel trains,” he said. “At the same time they’re calling to stop the use of gas in homes, the MTA and LIRR can’t be purchasing diesel locomotives.”
The Empire State Passenger Association is a transit advocacy group that aims for improvements in public transportation services throughout New York state. ESPA president Gary Prophet said the passenger association has endorsed Port Jefferson Branch electrification over the years, referring to the project as necessary and justifiable given the volume of commuters along the line.
“That is a heavily used branch of the Long Island Rail Road that should be electrified,” he said. “It probably should have been electrified in the past, but it just hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons.”
A history of inaction
The original concept of Port Jeff line electrification dates back over half a century. However, planning began in earnest in the early 1970s when electrification of the North Shore line extended up to Huntington.
Derek Stadler, associate professor and web services librarian at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, has closely followed historical developments along the Port Jeff Branch.
He attributes the failures to electrify the line to a combination of resistance from property owners near the tracks, engineering challenges, financial setbacks and bad luck.
“In the ‘80s, they had money set aside to start working on it though they hadn’t secured the funds to complete it,” he said. “Then in 1985, the president of the MTA postponed that indefinitely.” Stadler contends this was the closest the project ever was to moving forward.
In the ‘90s, the MTA launched a fleet of dual-mode locomotives which are still in use today. Despite the good intentions, Stadler maintains that this fleet has not adequately substituted for electric service. Given the high costs to repair and replace outdated train cars, Stadler regarded this effort as a poor long-term investment.
“They have spent more money on that new fleet and repairing them than if they would have done the electrification way back in the ‘80s,” he said.
‘If I’m the MTA, I’m electrifying the East End before I electrify the North Shore.’
— Richard Murdocco
The current cost estimate of Port Jeff Branch electrification is $3.6 billion, though that figure will almost certainly climb. To secure these dollars, however, the North Shore is competing against other project proposals across Long Island and New York state.
Throughout LIRR’s history as a public railroad company, North Shore riders have lost out consistently to their inland counterparts traveling along the Ronkonkoma line. Richard Murdocco, adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at SBU, chronicled this pattern, saying the pursuit of Port Jeff Branch electrification continues running up against the hard realities of the MTA’s prioritization scheme.
“The question is: Is electrification really the priority on the North Shore, or should you electrify east of Ronkonkoma?” Murdocco said. Given the spur of recent growth in Yaphank and new developments in the Town of Riverhead, he added, “If I’m the MTA, I’m electrifying the East End before I electrify the North Shore.”
Further hampering investment into the Port Jeff Branch is the topography along its route. Given the large hills and frequent bends, the flatter main line may win the day for its comparably simple engineering logistics.
Murdocco said the MTA could either electrify the Port Jeff Branch, which “meanders along the hilly terrain, or you get a straight shot through the Pine Barrens, where there’s already talk of them doing it, where they’re welcoming it and where there are no neighbors to disrupt.”
‘Suffolk County does not have the political clout that it used to.’
— Larry Penner
Political and financial distress
Penner claims the political and financial currents are also working against North Shore residents. Suffolk County’s state representatives are increasingly in the legislative minority in Albany, leaving mere “crumbs on the table” for infrastructure improvements.
“Suffolk County does not have the political clout that it used to,” he said.
Even so, the MTA is encountering a systemwide economic crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic, with daily ridership hovering around 65% from pre-pandemic levels. Murdocco insists that many of the labor trends unleashed by COVID-19 will likely linger indefinitely.
“There’s no denying remote work is here to stay,” the SBU adjunct professor said, adding, “We don’t know how long the ramifications of the pandemic will last.”
Meanwhile, the MTA is facing even greater fiscal strife over looming labor negotiations. With recent inflation, Penner said the agency could lose potentially hundreds of millions from renegotiated union contracts.
“All of this plays into the bigger picture of MTA’s overall health,” Penner said, which he considered dismal based on state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s (D) most recent analysis. “They’re barely staying afloat maintaining existing service, systems and repairs,” the former FTA official added.
Penner, Stadler and Murdocco expressed collective pessimism about Port Jefferson Branch electrification getting underway within the next decade. “As of right now, I do not see this project happening within 10 years because I do not see a fiscal way for anyone to pay for it, given the MTA’s current financial status,” Murdocco said.
Looking for answers
Given the hefty $3.6 billion price tag, Miller proposed exploring alternatives to electric service. He cited examples in Germany, where zero-emission hydrogen-powered train cars recently went online.
“Hydrogen technology is new but they’ve developed it, and it’s working in Germany,” the former village trustee said. “I don’t think they’re exploring enough options here.”
But implementing high-tech propulsion technologies may be out of reach for the MTA, which uses a late 19th-century fuel source to power the Port Jeff line. When asked about these potential innovations, Brown expressed skepticism.
“As far as hydrogen is concerned, that’s all it is right now — experimental,” the state assemblyman said. Rather, he favored pursuing electrification in a piecemeal, station-by-station fashion, dispersing infrastructure funds for the project over several annual budgets.
Penner implored community members to adopt a policy of maximum pressure upon their elected representatives.
“I wouldn’t give a dime to any elected official unless, with your campaign contribution, there’s a little note in your check [that says] you have to promise me that electrification of Port Jefferson will be your number one transportation priority,” he said.
Stadler emphasized executive support, arguing that several system expansions during the administration of former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) were made possible by the chief executive’s commitment to seeing them through.
“A lot of money has to be budgeted for it,” he said. “State leaders have to be involved in it, and pressure from the governor” can be a reliable instrument.
To make the electrification dream a reality, Garant said all levels of government should pool their energies around this cause. “It’s certainly going to be a long-term plan for the region,” she said. “You need partners on every level, from the federal and state levels to the town and county.”
Prophet said megaprojects, such as the $11 billion East Side Access extension into Grand Central Madison, have taken up much of the political and economic capital in New York state.
“I think there’s a lot of emphasis on large projects that make a big splash,” the passenger association president said. “Politicians need to spend a little more time on smaller projects that may not make a big splash but may help commuters and people looking to travel between cities.”
Setting the stakes, Penner returned to the 20-year capital needs assessment. He equated the North Shore’s present predicament to a baseball game.
“You’re in the ninth inning with two outs,” he said. “The last at-bat is the 2025-2044 20-year capital needs assessment.” He concluded by saying, “If this project is not included in that document, then the ball game is over.”
During a public meeting on Monday, Feb. 6, Village of Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant announced her retirement from public service. Her 14 years of uninterrupted tenure presiding over the village government will come to its conclusion this June.
“We’re going to give the community back to the residents,” Garant told a group of supporters the night of her first election win in 2009.
Six successful races later, Garant has been at the seat of power longer than any other in the village’s nearly 60-year history. And during that window, the village has undergone considerable change.
Garant’s mother, Jeanne, served three terms as mayor starting in 1999 through 2005. Unlike her mother, who had previously sat on the village Board of Trustees, Margot Garant was a first-time elected official upon entering the mayor’s office.
For over eight years, Garant’s administration engaged in a widely publicized legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority over the assessed valuation and property tax bill on the Port Jefferson Power Station. The tax grievance case was settled in 2018.
Colloquially known as the glide path, the village and LIPA agreed to an eight-year phasing out of the public utility’s local tax contribution, with a 50% reduction in revenue by 2027.
Known for her ambitious building philosophy, Garant facilitated the construction of numerous projects, including large-scale developments along Port Jeff Harbor and near the train station.
The development of Upper Port has been a core tenet of her administration. The seven-term incumbent also advanced the envisioned Six Acre Park along Highlands Boulevard, with plans in place to preserve that last remaining tract of undeveloped land as open space.
Garant’s boards have been forced to confront the crippling effects of coastal erosion at East Beach, which presently endangers the Port Jefferson Country Club’s catering facility at the edge of the bluff.
Construction is currently ongoing for a toe wall at the base of the cliff. Most recently, Garant announced the injection of federal funding to subsidize the upland phase of the bluff stabilization initiative. Controversially, village residents have not had input on these investments through voter referendum.
Outlining why she will not seek reelection, she told the group assembled at Village Hall that her decision to step down was motivated by a desire to let others into the political process. Leaving public life, she reiterated her message delivered 14 years ago.
“It’s not about me, it’s about this community,” she told the audience. “This community is yours, and it’s always been in your hands. I couldn’t have done my job without you.”
The race to fill Garant’s seat is now underway, with candidate announcements expected in the days and weeks ahead. Village elections will take place Tuesday, June 20.