LI starting to pick up pace on rail freight
July 16, 2012
By SARAH CRICHTON
A 10-month-old private rail venture is taking
thousands of trucks off the Long Island Expressway
in a region that is among the nation's most reliant
on road freight.
Reducing long-haul truck traffic on the Island's
main artery has been a goal of regional planners and
government officials for decades as they seek ways
to reduce air pollution and traffic. The September
opening of the Brookhaven Rail Terminal ran against
years of inaction and obstacles to delivering what
policymakers agree is critical: bringing more goods
to the Island by rail. "Public officials have been
calling for truck-rail facilities for more than 25
years to reduce truck traffic and make it easier
moving goods on and off the Island," former Suffolk
County Executive Patrick Halpin said.
The 3.4-mile rail spur and storage yard off the Long
Island Rail Road's main line in Yaphank was the
brainchild of four construction-related company
executives who for years trucked material from an
upstate quarry to Long Island, bedeviled by rising
fuel prices and tolls. In 2007, they teamed up with
the quarry owner and bought 28 acres off Sills Road,
just south of LIE Exit 66. The partners, working as
Brookhaven Terminal Operations, said they have spent
$40 million getting the facility established.
In its first nine months of operation, the terminal
received 735 railcars of stone, 22 of flour and 12
of biodiesel. With one railcar able to carry the
amount of four truckloads for those commodities, the
terminal operators said the loads replaced 3,076
long-haul trucks on the LIE. Brookhaven Town
Supervisor Mark Lesko called the venture an
infrastructure "game-changer" that will help spark
future economic growth and help improve quality of
life for all Long Islanders. "Long Island is the
most polluted area in New York State -- a key reason
is truck congestion on the LIE," he said. "This
project will result in cleaner air and better health
by removing truck traffic."
Region's negligible rail freight
The New York State Department of Transportation puts
the number of trucks on the most heavily trafficked
parts of the LIE at 20,000 a day. While only about 1
percent of Long Island's freight travels by rail,
the rate is about 15 percent nationally, according
to state and federal data.
Long Island's negligible rail freight use stems from
the limited number of Hudson River rail crossings,
said Robert Paaswell, professor of civil engineering
at the City College of New York. "Around the
country, it's one of the least of all the regions to
move goods by rail," he said. Efforts have been
made to change that. The state secured millions of
dollars in federal and state funds in the mid-2000s
to build a rail freight distribution facility off
the LIRR line on part of the former Pilgrim State
Hospital grounds south of the LIE in Brentwood.
That project stalled about four years ago because of
local opposition. But state officials said they
continue to evaluate "the costs and benefits" of
having a rail freight terminal at the Pilgrim site.
A second truck-rail yard is to start receiving goods
for two companies operating out of the Town of
Riverhead's Calverton Enterprise Park this fall,
town officials said.
Brookhaven Rail Terminal's initial goal was to bring
in around 500,000 tons of aggregate crushed stone
annually, to be trucked short distances for use in
local road and building projects. When the
construction business dropped off during the
recession, the partners identified other commodities
that now make the trip to Yaphank. Ultra Green
Energy Services, a biodiesel company, will open its
terminal facility Thursday to bring in fuel made
from vegetable oils and other fats for heating
system and vehicle use. The terminal's first food
product arrived last month when Wenner Bread shipped
1 million pounds of flour, or about 2 1/2 days'
supply, for its Islip bakery, Long Island's
largest. "Right now we bring in about 40 percent of
our flour by railcar," said Richard Wenner, whose
family founded the company. "Once we analyze the
situation some more . . . our goal is to move to 90
percent." That level of rail shipments would equate
to removing 1,500 tractor trailers a year from the
LIE for his business alone, he said.
Plans for rail track expansion
The Yaphank site operators have their sights on
further growth and recently bought another 92 acres
east of the yard. They are seeking state and federal
assistance to expand their rail track to serve about
400,000 square feet of refrigerated and dry storage
warehousing to open next year. Refrigerated
warehouses, combined with the purchase of
refrigerated railcars, would broaden the range of
products the terminal can receive and open the way
for the depot to start exporting local goods off the
Island, the partners and officials said.
The concept has the backing of LIRR president Helena
Williams, who said the main line has capacity for
more off-peak freight movements. "To . . . take a
diverse range of exports off the Island as well as
bring products in as a safer, more efficient way to
move freight, that's the key," she said.
Refrigerated storage is the crucial element, said
Bill Mannix, economic development director for the
Town of Islip. "Then I think we have the tiger by
the tail. I can't begin to guess how many other
sectors could benefit -- pharmaceuticals, health and
beauty products, East End produce and wine
exported," he said. "I think it's a very important
project for Long Island, we just have to capitalize
Ron Parr, a Ronkonkoma builder and developer, said:
"It's an excellent concept -- it has a great
potential if they have the staying power to see it
all come together."
Yaphank depot is 'good start'
The terminal faced early controversy when
site-clearing in 2007 took local residents and town
officials by surprise. Excavation as the operators
dug down to grade to lay the track brought
complaints of illegal sand mining from the state
Department of Conservation.
Both issues were resolved and the terminal has the
support of the South Yaphank Civic Association's
immediate past president Johan McConnell, who said
it is well-sited in an industrial area. Adrienne
Esposito, head of Citizens Campaign for the
Environment, which opposed the Brentwood site out of
concern for groundwater, also backs the terminal.
"We support 100 percent the concept of lessening
truck traffic in scaled-down facilities less
disruptive to communities, but which still advance
the benefit of reducing truck traffic," Esposito
said. "BRT seems a reasonable location and we're not
Paaswell, who at the request of then-Gov. David A.
Paterson led a team that conducted a 2009 review of
potential Long Island truck-rail yards, said
research showed demand for increased freight
delivery would increase and that Long Island needs
more than one terminal. "We felt it [the Brookhaven
terminal] would be one of the first to fly,"
Paaswell said. "They are supplying a fast-growing
part of Long Island and they had initiative."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), who has long
advocated for rail depots on Long Island as a way to
reduce metro-area truck traffic, said Brookhaven
Rail is "a good start," but the Island needs several
facilities to keep final truck delivery distances as
short as possible. "There is no choice, you have to
develop rail freight capacity or you put a lid on
economic development, job growth and economic
prosperity by reason of congestion," he said.