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Rails to Trails project in Riverhead Town back on track

08/18/2016 9:00 AM |

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Fifteen years ago, Denis Byrne’s friend Michael Cosel came to him with an idea: Why not turn the former Long Island Rail Road track path from Wading River to Port Jefferson into a set of biking and hiking trails?

The two began pushing for a federal Rails to Trails project, trying to rally support from Suffolk County, the towns and the Long Island Power Authority, which owns the right-of-way where the tracks had run. But the effort was filled with fits and starts, as funding was secured, then dried up. There were also concerns about liability related to using the utility-owned pathway.

Mr. Cosel — an active member of community organizations on the North Shore — died last year. But Mr. Byrne said his old friend would be happy now because, at long last, the Rails to Trails project is back on track.

“I really wish he was here to see it to completion,” Mr. Byrne said. “Hopefully he’s watching from above.”

At a press conference last week, a bipartisan group of local elected officials, including Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) announced that the $9.51 million Rails to Trails plan is now scheduled for completion.

The path will start near Wading River Manor Road and travel past the old Tesla laboratory before continuing further into Brookhaven Town. Mr. Zeldin said the project will be funded with 80 percent federal money and a 20 percent local contribution.

“In Congress, I have been working as part of a bipartisan coalition with various levels of government to protect our parks and expand our growing network of trails here on Long Island through the Rails to Trails program and other efforts,” he said. “I will continue my efforts to ensure that the Port Jeff to Wading River trail is completed.”

State Senator Ken LaValle, who had helped secure original funding years ago, said the trails were a “long-standing priority.”

“When it’s completed, all of the communities from Port Jefferson to Wading River will enjoy the trail and make good use of it for years to come,” he said.

Ms. Anker said the county will lease the land for free and assume liability for the land through an agreement with LIPA. That land lease will count as the 20 percent match, she said.

“This is the farthest it’s gone down the track, and now we can see the depot in sight,” Ms. Anker said. “It’s so hard to get these projects moving, but thank goodness we have supportive legislators all around.”

She said local residents already use the rails, but the path is overgrown with weeds and vegetation. The Rails to Trails plan will be a safer alternative to biking or running on heavily trafficked streets.

“There have been too many accidents with people walking and jogging and riding our bikes along our roads,” Ms. Anker said. “Pedestrians and car traffic don’t mix.” She said she expects that public hearings about the project could begin next year, with a shovel in the ground as early as 2019.

Mr. Byrne, who’s seen the project come close to starting, only to stall, is somewhat less optimistic. He thinks it will probably be completed in phases.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight,” he said. But after years of pushback from some elected officials and the power companies that owned the land, he said he now sees widespread support for the idea.

“I’m more positive than I’ve been in a long time that this is actually going to get done this time,” Mr. Byrne said.

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