In Suffolk, a call for an innovation connection

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone: An innovation economy demands an equally innovative transportation system.

By GREGORY ZELLER //

The ambitious master plan Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled Tuesday – new public transportation options linking Suffolk’s burgeoning downtowns and major research centers – has plenty of regional support.

But even ardent backers can’t ignore the project’s estimated price tag.

Bellone’s sweeping plan, dubbed the Long Island Innovation Zone, includes a dedicated rapid-transit bus lane running from Stony Brook University to the Village of Patchogue that parallels a new hiking/biking trail, a new Long Island MacArthur Airport terminal with enhanced public-transportation access and relocating the Long Island Rail Road’s Yaphank station closer to Upton’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The county executive, joined by other elected officials and regional rainmakers on the podium at SBU’s Charles E. Wang Center, said officials would seek $350 million in state, federal and private funding for the “I-Zone,” which would connect “the cornerstones of our innovation economy.”

That estimated cost raised eyebrows, but the idea of creating a cohesive zone out of the Island’s progressive, productive assets – BNL, SBU, the Hauppauge Industrial Park, Patchogue’s bustling downtown and more – is certainly popular.

The I-Zone is actually a spinoff of Bellone’s Connect Long Island plan, which he first referenced publicly in 2012. The executive’s vision has expanded over the past three years, thanks to advances in various regional projects and considerable support from Albany, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has championed innovation as a job-creation tool. The Ronkonkoma Hub, for instance, has moved along, while Cuomo’s SUNY2020 competitive grants program and the Start-Up NY effort have helped solidify SBU as a realistic anchor for a high-tech transportation corridor.

North-south bus routes, bolstered MacArthur Airport operations and even hiking-trail networks have been discussed on Long Island for years. But the grand vision Bellone laid out Tuesday stands a better chance of coming to fruition, according to Neal Lewis, executive director of The Sustainability Institute at Molloy College.

“The difference could be that now we’re connecting places that are much more established than they were even a decade ago,” Lewis told Innovate LI. “Stony Brook University is an internationally recognized university. And if somebody had discussed Patchogue like this 10 years ago, it would have been dismissed out of hand.

“It’s possible that some of these ideas have gone through their processes and are finally ready to be implemented,” he added.

Ready or not, as the connectivity plan has expanded, so has its proposed costs. A 2014 Suffolk County study suggested it would cost $78 million to implement a rapid-transit north-south bus system; now, a year later, that’s less than a quarter of the estimated $350 million required by Bellone’s beefed-up I-Zone.

Any plan involving hundreds of millions of dollars and a total revision of Long Island’s feng shui is going to give rational observers pause. Even Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, one of the lawmakers handpicked to join Bellone on the podium Tuesday, couldn’t ignore the I-Zone’s estimated costs.

“I believe [Bellone] is forward-thinking in proposing these concepts,” Romaine said in statement issued for the event. “I am hopeful that there will be funding available to implement them.”

Some observers are more dubious about the plan’s finances. Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy told News 12 Tuesday that he’s “yet to hear anyone that wants to give us $350 million.” But others are more effusive in their support for a plan that promises to create jobs and give young professionals currently washing down Long Island’s dreaded “brain drain” good reasons to stay.

Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley expressed particular interest in the “multi-modal corridor” proposed to run along Nicolls Road. The corridor would include a rapid-transit bus lane stocked with a full complement of 21st century tech – WiFi connectivity, charging stations and smartphone-based payment options among them – and would be the first public transportation to connect the LIRR’s Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk lines.

“Modern public transportation assets can have a tremendously positive impact on our campus,” Stanley said. “Public transportation improvements will most certainly enhance Stony Brook’s ability to recruit and retain the best students and top early-career scientists.”

Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, also on the podium Tuesday, called the I-Zone part of the fight “to make Long Island a great place to live, not leave,” while fellow podium presence Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue, said “visionary regional planning is a must if we want Suffolk County to move in the right direction.”

Brookhaven Lab Director Doon Gibbs noted in a written statement that modern transportation options are “important factors that draw the best and brightest,” and even Vision Long Island Director Eric Alexander – while questioning Bellone’s idea of relocating the Yaphank LIRR station – noted his organization “likes the plan.”

“There are job centers, there’s an airport to connect to, there are a lot of things that make sense,” Alexander said. “It’s going to take time to develop – this is obviously not a short-term plan – but there’s always been support for a north-south bus route, and we know that infrastructure drives investment.”

Even the funding hurdles might not be insurmountable, according Alexander, who noted a new federal transportation bill in the works and “$550 million in state money that could be dedicated to Long Island.” But the Yaphank portion of the plan is “the missing piece,” he added – “We’ll have to see if there’s support for that” – and securing federal transportation funds is no small feat.

“You’ve got to show there are legitimate destination points,” Alexander said. “You’ve got to show there’s ridership. There’s a whole series of criteria that must be met when the feds look at transportation projects.”

Lewis, the Sustainability Institute exec, agreed that getting the federal government to board the bus plan will be difficult.

“This transit stuff requires a certain level of potential ridership,” he noted, recalling similar challenges the Island faced on the Nassau Hub project. “When you want federal money, they need proof that the numbers will be there, and they often say that Long Island is a suburb and doesn’t have the same demands as a city.

“The challenge is the funding,” Lewis added. “But politics, like comedy, is all about timing. And this plan has a lot in it that makes good common sense.”