County Road 39 project loses steam

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The clock is ticking down and the funds are drying up on long-range plans to enhance County Road 39 from Sunrise Highway to its intersection with Montauk Highway near Flying Point Road.

In fact, the project, estimated to cost as much as $70 million, may have stalled for good, according to William Hillman, chief engineer for the Suffolk County Department of Public Works and Gil Anderson, the department’s commissioner . This comes after work to relieve congestion on the busy highway ended just before Memorial Day at a cost of $13 million.

Mr. Hillman and Mr. Anderson delivered the grim news to the Southampton Town Board at a recent work session and said more strictly enforced federal rules that establish a 10-year period to get going on the project has the town under the gun. Mr. Hillman said the 10-year time clock requires that a project seeking federal funding must begin within 10 years of that project being initiated to remain eligible for federal money. “There’ve been dramatic changes in how federal grants are allocated,” he said.

In the past, according to Mr. Anderson, projects failing to start within the 10-year period were often rolled over. But, in today’s economic climate, that is no longer the case, he said. And, to make matters worse, land acquisitions needed to begin construction on the thoroughfare, which would stop the clock, can not be completed by the 10- year deadline. Those land purchases could cost as much as $30 million, according to Mr. Hillman, with the actual construction costing another $30 million or more.

In order to stop the clock and remain eligible for the federal funds, the town must settle on a plan and establish a Design Approval Document, or DAD, which details the design and lays out a blueprint for completing the work. Mr. Hillman suggests starting the construction on the western portion of the roadway, near the intersection of North Sea Road, where acquiring land is not an obstacle. County funding for this section of the road, from the 7-Eleven to Montauk Highway, roughly a one mile stretch, is on hand, Mr. Hillman said. “We have a congressional earmark of $4 million that would cover that construction. And that would stop the clock.”

Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said it was crucial that the town come to a consensus on a plan for the road’s future. “We need to have unity over what plan we support,” she said.

Basically, plans for County Road 39, according to Mr. Hillman, include either raised medians along the thoroughfare between Sunrise Highway and Montauk Highway with traffic lights, turning lanes, and breaks in the median, or shoulders along the roadway, an option that Ms. Kabot said she strongly favors. However, Mr. Hillman said adding shoulders would increase costs substantially as more land would have to be purchased in order to build them. Ms. Kabot maintained that shoulders are necessary for safety along the road, especially as space for police officers to pull over motorists.

Besides the time limit, another problem facing the town is that money needs to be in the bank before the county can make an offer on land acquisitions for rights of way. According to Mr. Hillman, the county only receives about $12 million annually in federal funding for its roads. “Obviously, we can’t fund the entire project,” he said.

Mr. Hillman and Mr. Anderson assured Ms. Kabot and the members of the Town Board that County Road 39 remained a “top priority” on the county level. However, with the deadline of 2010 on the horizon, what has become more of a top priority is for the town and county to get on the same page before federal money to fund the project is lost. “If we snooze, we lose,” Ms. Kabot said.

Along with devising a plan for the actual roadway, plans are also in the works for the commercial corridor that runs through County Road 39. In July, the Town Board enacted a year-long moratorium along the corridor stretching from Shinnecock Hills in the west to Water Mill in the east.

Running in conjunction with the moratorium is a study of the commercial stretch aimed at designs, zoning and future land uses. On Thursday, December 4, a public workshop sponsored by the town’s Department of Land Management will be held to discuss these plans.

The County Road 39 Commercial Workshop will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Tuckahoe School at 468 Magee Street in Southampton.

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