By Betsy Abraham and Steve Mosco
Local residents shifted their concerns into high gear after learning the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) quietly designated a four-mile stretch of South Oyster Bay Road as an access highway for big rigs last year—which, according to residents, happened without a word from local elected officials.
Tractor trailers ranging from 53 to 75 feet are now allowed on the local roadway, which is lined with homes and businesses, according to the designation. Prior to this new classification, trucks of 48 feet in length were allowed on the road.
Gathering at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library last week, residents from Plainview, Hicksville, Syosset and the surrounding communities learned the details from Tanya M. Lukasik, a Hicksville resident whose organization, Operation STOMP, sought to save trees on the same roadway from destruction last year.
Lukasik told the crowd of about 50 that during the fall of 2014, FedEx submitted an application to the DOT to request this designation to accommodate truck-based transport of freight from the Long Island Expressway to its growing facility at the Grumman site in Bethpage. Both the Town of Oyster Bay and Nassau County received the request. With no formal objection or request for a legal public hearing, the new designation was approved in December 2014.
“Nobody knew this happened,” said Lukasik. “Not local residents, business owners, school officials or even the local police. People are just learning about this now.”
According to NYSDOT Communications Director Gary Holmes, after FedEx’s request the DOT had 90 days to review the application and see South Oyster Bay Road met with federal guidelines.
“In this instance, when the request was considered, there was a traffic safety study that was performed and accident data [that was reviewed],” Holmes said. “An environmental study was not required.”
As part of that traffic study, the state DOT looked at lane width to see if the road was at least 10 feet wide (which it was), as well as accident history involving trucks on the road. As part of their review, Holmes said NYSDOT also notified Nassau County and Town of Oyster Bay officials, who then had 30 days to provide comment.
“If they objected, they could request a public meeting, but that didn’t happen,” Holmes said, stressing that the DOT did its due diligence in reaching out to the local municipalities.
However, Town of Oyster Bay Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia said that in its letter to the municipalities the NYSDOT inaccurately labeled South Oyster Bay Road as a town road.
“This road belongs to Nassau County. The road was misidentified in the letter,” Alesia said, adding that the town does not typically see these types of requests.
The town and county have since sent formal requests to the state asking them to rescind the designation.
“We’ve called the state and said we need to have the right ending. We need this to be undone,” Alesia said, noting they have not heard back from the state yet. “And the town is reviewing legal options to see if there’s anything we can do to fix this on the legal end.”
However, with trucks currently barreling down South Oyster Bay Road, Lukasik said that now is the time to talk about safety.However, with trucks currently barreling down South Oyster Bay Road, Lukasik said that now is the time to talk about safety.
“It’s not just ShopRite trucks, it’s trucks of all sorts. Trucks from out of state as well,” said Lukasik. “They are putting local residents in danger. The trucks are blowing lights. They can’t stop as quickly as a car, so when a light turns yellow or red, these trucks are blowing through it.”
Lukasik said large freights from different companies are using South Oyster Bay Road as a truck thoroughfare to other major roads. Lukasik said that a DOT official told her this is an “unintended consequence.”
This isn’t the first time legislation over South Oyster Bay Road has come under fire. Lukasik formed STOMP last year in opposition of Nassau County’s planned removal of 200 trees in Syosset, Plainview, Hicksville and Bethpage. The county cited pedestrian safety as the reason for the tree removals, but Lukasik contended there were other options. With the trees on South Oyster Bay Road coming down, some residents posited that the county removed the trees and repaved the road in order to make way for the freight trucks.
However, Legislator Judy Jacobs assures residents that the two incidents are unrelated.
“For the last 10 years, the repaving and sidewalk construction have been in the capital plan because the county has been put on notice several times because of the lack of ADA requirements being respected on roadways,” she said. “I know it’s popular to make it look like it was a deal with repairing the road and the access, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Jacobs, who is against the designation, said her main point of contention is there was no chance for the public to sound off on what they thought about the change.
“The county and town got 30 days to respond to the indicator that FedEx had requested that designation, but that wasn’t shared with the public which is one place I suggest the DOT add when they inform the town and county,” Jacobs said. “There should be some informative announcement made to inform people to write in comments.”
Last month, Jacobs wrote to the DOT, asking them to “reopen discussion on the decision” to allow for public input via a community meeting. She pointed out the FedEx facility’s proximity to state road 106/107, saying that could be an alternative to having South Oyster Bay Road as an access road.
Richard Murdocco, a local resident and writer on regional land use, joined Lukasik in leading the meeting and told the audience that though the timing of the tree removal and road designation is dubious, pushing conspiracy theories will not help the case to reverse the designation.
“The timing is suspect, but we cannot base our argument on that assertion,” he said. “I encourage everyone to reach out to their elected officials, but to do so in a respectful manner. Ask how this came about and what we can do about it. Express your concerns.”
Residents are mainly concerned with safety. Julie Tanbaum, a Plainview resident, said she is most concerned with the increased truck traffic just as children are beginning to return to school.
“There is a school zone on this road [at Our Lady of Mercy],” she said. “There are legitimate concerns that should have stopped this dead in its tracks.”
And there is data to back up residents’ concerns. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System from 2013 (the latest data available), a total of 3,602 people died in large truck crashes in 2013. Sixteen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 67 percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists. The number of people who died in large truck crashes was 14 percent higher in 2013 than in 2009.
Perhaps most concerning, the report states that 60 percent of deaths in large truck crashes in 2013 occurred on major roads other than interstates and freeways—major roads like South Oyster Bay Road. And according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), truck braking capability is a major factor in truck crashes.
The IIHS said that loaded tractor trailers often take up to 40 percent farther than cars to stop, and the discrepancy is greater on wet and slippery roads or with poorly maintained brakes.
“There are many lights on South Oyster Bay Road. There are shopping centers and schools and a church. There are red light cameras that have drivers slamming on their brakes,” said Lukasik. “With this designation, you now have trucks with drivers who are not used to the area. It is insane. And it is extremely dangerous.”