The following was written for Smithtown Matters, a local news site that focuses on issues within the Town. You can read the original piece here.
By Richard Murdocco
As Smithtown’s beleaguered road networks shoulder burdens that they were never designed to handle, the broader question isn’t how to all together eliminate volume, which has been amplified in recent months as stir-crazy Long Islanders take to the roads for a desperate change-of-scenery, but how to best accommodate Smithtown’s 21st century transportation needs using an antiquated 20th century network.
One local expert told Smithtown Matters that key traffic trouble spots throughout the town can be solved with a healthy mix of investment from policymakers, ingenuity from engineers, and a newfound open-mindedness from skeptical residents, who say that things cannot be improved unless future development is more carefully considered.
As a community at full suburban build-out, the Town of Smithtown serves as a unique environment for transportation planners to work within. Tackling traffic in such a landscape is challenging, a fact that Smithtown’s draft comprehensive plan document openly acknowledges when it states that “…at this stage in the town’s development, it is not feasible to build or widen highways or bridges.”
According to Peter Hans, the Town’s planning director, Smithtown’s traffic issues aren’t necessarily unique compared to those of neighboring Brookhaven or Huntington, but still present sizable challenges. “Some areas it’s better, some areas it’s worse,” Hans told Smithtown Matters, going on to highlight some of the more locally troublesome areas for drivers, including the intersection of Main Street and NYS Route 111 in downtown Smithtown, and the intersection of Old Nichols Road and Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset.
In Nesconset, locals are no stranger to the traffic tie-ups at the intersection of Old Nichols Road and Smithtown Boulevard, where residents can sit idling across a series of traffic light cycles as they watch the line of cars grow behind them.
Norma Dispenza, a licensed real estate salesperson with Signature Premier Properties in Smithtown who has both lived and worked in the area for years, said that the traffic congestion in the hamlet is impacting quality of life. “It’s tough to get out of the block during the morning,” she said, adding that conditions aren’t likely to improve any time soon if the town decides to approve a nearby apartment project that is being considered by officials.
The Preserve at Smithtown, a $47 million project proposed by developer Jim Tsunis, is calling for 180 units of age-restricted residential units that would be built on a 24 acre parcel that is located off Smithtown Boulevard near Gibbs Pond road. “They just want to bring more growth, but they didn’t think about widening the road,” Dispenza said. “I just don’t think anybody ever thought it would get as busy as it did.”
Meanwhile in downtown Smithtown, the traffic backups cascade as cars logjam their way through a mix of merging lanes and shifting speed limits. The roadway used to be more streamlined, but changes were put into place in the wake of a series of tragic pedestrian deaths. Among the victims was 11 year-old Courtney Sipes, who was struck and killed by a car while crossing Main Street in 2009. Her death called local officials to action, and a series of new crosswalks and an accompanying iron fence to prevent jaywalking were installed.
The changes weren’t enough.
In the next year or so after Sipes death, three others were subsequently struck by cars, two of whom who were killed. New York State transportation officials took action and consolidated two of Main Street’s westbound travel lanes into one travel lane, changed the timing of traffic signals, and created a designated left-turn lane throughout the downtown stretch of road.
With the changes to Main Street’s layout, Hans feels that the overall safety of the route has improved in recent years. “I think the flow improved when they put in the turning lane,” he said, adding that the designated turning lane and resynced signal timing has helped offset the removal of the westbound travel lanes. Additionally, Hans said that the changes help first responders bypass traffic on emergency calls.
According to Hans, both downtown Smithtown and the troublesome intersection in Nesconset are areas that would benefit from the placement of a rotary or traffic circle, as is frequently used at formerly crowded interchanges throughout Europe.
More locally, traffic circles have replaced clogged intersections around Riverhead and have been previously used throughout Suffolk County for decades. The tools eventually fell out of favor due to drivers being generally unfamiliar with them, and the fact that traffic circles typically have a footprint that requires a large amount of open space, which Hans said further complicates their placement.
With more apartments now being built downtown, such changes may be necessary in the coming years to ensure that traffic keeps moving.
The Lofts at Maple and Main, a $18.2 million mixed-use project by Northport-based VEA 181st Realty that is being built directly across from Town Hall, will add 71 new apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space to 3.6-acres. Local officials expect the project to attract new investment by developers in the area, with one telling Newsday last year that the project is “just the beginning.”
If that truly is the case, policymakers will need to find a way to accommodate the new congestion that will increasingly ensnare locals. If they can’t begin to untangle the town’s traffic tie-ups, Smithtown’s residents will be happy to crowd the polls to elect officials who can.
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist and adjunct professor in Stony Brook University’s public policy graduate program. He regularly writes and speaks about Long Island’s real estate development issues. Follow him on Twitter @thefoggiestidea. You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.