February 23, 2011
CR39: Final Phase On The Horizon
The "Buzzway's" about to get better. Nicknamed by friends, fans, and colleagues, the Edwin M. Buzz Schwenk Memorial Highway was officially christened recently in honor of the local activist who worked for years to improve the highway. Most people know it as County Road 39.
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County Executive Steve Levy calls it "The Municipal Miracle." Last Friday he announced the third phase of the project, targeting the section of the highway running from the North Sea Road intersection to its terminus at Montauk Highway.
Why "miracle?" Expanding the busy gateway to the Hamptons was little more than a pipedream six years ago, the CE recalled. "We were waiting for federal money that never came." The federal government, which would have been on the hook to cover 80 percent of the project, tapped its cost at $70 million, with Suffolk County covering 20 percent of the expense. Arguably the most spendy aspect of the project involved purchasing or condemning private properties to make way for the expansion.
In 2005 Legislator Jay Schneiderman and The Independent learned Levy crafted a capital budget that put the expansion off for years. Local lawmakers, including then Supervisor Skip Heaney and then Councilwoman Linda Kabot went ballistic . . . and the pressure was on.
After Hurricane Katrina struck that September, county officials spent time heralding their disaster readiness, neglecting to mention the South Fork in press conferences lauding their efforts. Emergency preparedness officials had no answer when asked how an East End evacuation might work.
The following summer Schneiderman and Heaney put forth a "cops and cones" experiment that used orange markers to create extra lanes in alternate directions during morning and evening rush hours.
The success and popularity of the program spurred county engineers to devise a new way to expand CR39. They crafted an additional lane using the road right-of-way, eliminating the need for costly condemnations. People worried an 11-foot lane, as opposed to the traditional 17–foot track might be a problem, but, said Levy, "It worked and we made it happen before schedule and under budget." County engineers also used a pre-fab arch to improve the St. Andrews Bridge.
The design was such a triumph -- at $17 million, a quarter of the expected price, not to mention completed in a fraction of the time -- county officials went on to replicate it on County Road 58 in Riverhead.
Now it's time to continue the miracle. On Friday Levy announced improvements to the second bit of the Buzzway.
They'll include a second lane along the eastern side of the road, plus a turning lane the length of the segment. The center turning lane, Schneiderman pointed out Friday, would be especially useful if the need to evacuate the South Fork ever arises.
Completing the overall re-structuring of one of Suffolk's most heavily traveled corridors is expected to cost about $4.5 million. In addition to the extra lanes, the project will include improved drainage, a sidewalk on the south side of the road, pedestrian features including crosswalks, and safety improvements at railroad crossings.
"There's nothing that frustrates our residents more than having to sit in traffic unnecessarily," the county exec observed Friday, calling a typical pre-expansion workday commute "the quintessential example of gridlock," with motorists taking as long as 45 minutes to travel just four miles.
Work is expected to commence after Labor Day with a Memorial Day 2012 completion target. While the county picked up the entire tab for the first portion of the project, they'll be looking to the feds for a contribution this time around.
"Years down the road," Levy unintentionally punned, "when people look at some of the major accomplishments of this administration, CR 39 will be right at the top." Thanks to the ingenuity of Suffolk's Department of Public Works, the expansion "really does improve quality of life."
Ann LaWall of the Southampton Business Alliance was on hand for the announcement, which was made at a press conference on the side of the Buzzway. She said, "Anything that makes it easier to get to work, we just have to be thrilled and endorse it."
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