WHAT do you call a long bullet-shaped vehicle with rubber tires that zips along roads, stops for traffic lights and carries lots of people?
Whatever you call it, don’t call it a bus.
After four years of study and a cost so far of $6.5 million, engineers working on the Long Island Transportation Plan 2000 are presenting their preliminary proposals to manage Long Island’s traffic 20 years from now. The linchpin of their solution is a transit system with a sleek bus that’s a dead ringer for a monorail car except for the tires. But transportation officials are loath to use the ”B” word to describe it.
”People have an image of a bus,” said David Rettig, the Long Island planning director for the State Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the study. ”A bus is crowded, it smells of diesel fumes, it’s stuck in traffic. That’s not happening with these vehicles. They have to have a fast route to where they’re going to go, they have to be clean, they have to be clean-fueled.”
Whether you call it a bus or a Rapid Commute Vehicle, as the planners do, if the transportation department has its way there will be 1,270 of them, at a cost of about $300,000 each, running along 60 miles of new restricted-access lanes on major roadways on Long Island by 2020.
The $5 billion cost of implementing the transportation plan would be spread out in $250 million chunks over 20 years. It would include 50 new bus routes; 130 miles of road widening in addition to the new restricted-access bus and car pool lanes; shoulder lanes for buses on major roads; electronic signaling equipment for intersections; and 72 new bus stations.
Under the plan, known as ”the preliminary preferred alternative,” roads that would be widened with restricted-access lanes for buses and car pools include the Northern State Parkway from the Long Island Expressway to the Meadowbrook Parkway; the Meadowbrook from the Southern State Parkway to the Northern State; the Southern State from the Meadowbrook to Sunrise Highway; Sunrise Highway from the Southern State to Nicolls Road; the Sagtikos and Sunken Meadow State Parkways from the Southern State to Veterans Highway; and Nicolls Road from State Route 347 to Sunrise Highway.
Some congested roads, like Route 347 in Suffolk County,are already scheduled for additional lanes in a separate state project.
Engineers say the plan also assumes that the improvements to local bus systems — Long Island Bus in Nassau County and Suffolk County Transit — that were recommended by a transportation department study in April, will be made. Other expected improvements taken into account to help relieve congestion include the Long Island Rail Road’s plan to provide service into Grand Central Terminal. But there’s nothing in the plan for the L.I.R.R. per se, and no role for a light rail system. Light rail is a general term for lightweight cars that run along fixed rails, like a trolley system.
The goal of the bus transit system, planners say, is to put a big dent in Long Islanders’ reliance on private cars. Marvin Gersten, the senior project manager of the consultant team working on the study, said that one-third of the bus system’s 50,000 expected riders will live a quarter of a mile from a bus station. Mr. Gersten estimated a 5- to 10-minute wait at the bus stations.
This is an example of how the system might work, he said: A commuter from Smithtown heading to the Nassau County business and shopping hub near Old Country Road and the Meadowbrook Parkway would arrive at a bus station on Route 347 and board a Rapid Commute Vehicle. The not-a-bus, equipped with electronic equipment that would turn traffic lights green when it approached, would zip west on 347, then merge onto high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the Long Island Expressway, the Northern State Parkway and the Meadowbrook Parkway before joining general traffic for stops at office buildings at the Nassau County hub.
The fast buses, Mr. Gersten said, would stop at a series of stations and bus stops along their routes, including some of the 49 stations to be built on the medians of the L.I.E., the Meadowbrook, the Sunrise Highway and the Southern State. These stations, which would cost about $5 million each, would have escalator and elevator access to pedestrian walkways or connecting local bus service.
The engineers estimate that more than a million Long Islanders travel during the morning rush hour, but fewer than 12 percent go to Manhattan. Nearly 80 percent start and end their travel within Nassau and Suffolk. The other 8 percent go to Queens, Brooklyn and other destinations. As a result, none of the new bus routes will run into Manhattan, although three express routes for reverse commuters will start out in Queens and head east in the morning rush hours, then west in the evening.
Among the 400 or 500 planned bus stops, Mr. Gersten said, would be stops at seven L.I.R.R. stations: Flushing, Mineola, Freeport, Farmingdale, Amityville, Huntington and Port Jefferson.
Transportation engineers are betting that in 2020, the new bus system will reduce the number of cars on the road in peak hours by 4 percent, or 41,000 cars. Combined with road widening and other road improvements, planners say the system would reduce the miles of rush-hour congestion by 26 percent and the minutes of traffic delays by 36 percent.
But first, the public has to use the system. Reactions were mixed at a public meeting on June 7 at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Deer Park, one of 12 such gatherings.
”I’m not totally enthusiastic about it,” Ron Horner, 57, said after he stopped in with his wife and talked with engineers presenting the new transit plan. ”The big bottleneck seems to be getting into the city. I think it should include some city relief, maybe run a bus, or an R.C.V. like they call it, that goes into the city.”
Mr. Horner, a certified public accountant, and his wife live in Dix Hills with their five children. The family owns four cars. The bus system wouldn’t help Mr. Horner get to work, he said, since he calls on different clients each day.
Would anyone else in the family prefer a fast bus to their own cars?
”I seriously doubt it,” he said. ”It’s not conducive to places of employment or conducive to shopping. Who wants to worry about schlepping on a bus with your arms full of Christmas presents?”
At a public meeting in May at Hofstra University, Rabbi Aryeh Spero took a look at the plan after overseeing the preparation of kosher food for a dinner in the room next door.
”I like this fast bus thing,” he said. ”I like the fact that there are feeders and a parking area to go from place to place on Long Island.” But Rabbi Spero, who lives in Great Neck, admitted that he was a ”big believer in driving in your own car.”
That, engineers say, is one of the major problems facing any Long Island transit system — the ”go everywhere in a car” attitude.
”I don’t think it will change the car culture,” said Lisa Tyson of North Bellmore, associate director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition and one of six public representatives on the 40-member advisory committee set up by the transportation department to vote on recommendations. ”People don’t want to ride in buses. It’s this perception that only low-income people take the bus.”
Another public representative on the advisory committee, Michael Kaufman, a real estate lawyer who lives in Nissequogue, said the bus and road proposal was ”about as good as you can probably expect” for Long Island.
”I’m praying that people” will use the new system, he said, but he admitted that he, too, was a ”true Long Islander” and was unlikely to choose a bus over a car.
”I would love light rail,” Mr. Kaufman said. ”Say you want to go to a hockey game or to the Nassau Coliseum. You have to drive. If they were to put in light rail to those places, people would use it.”
Transportation Department officials take issue with that contention. ”You use buses for busloads, and you use trains for trainloads,” Mr. Rettig said. ”Light rail generally works when you have a central business district, and everybody goes there. Long Islanders go all over the place.”
He added that if 100 new office buildings went up on Route 110, ”then light rail would make sense.” But he noted that no such building boom is expected.
Mr. Rettig and other transportation officials say there would have to be a commitment to major changes in land use and development before spending money on a light rail system.
”I guess it’s what came first, the chicken or the egg,” Mr. Rettig said. ”Do you invest billions of dollars in a system with the thought that it might change the way towns think about land use? That’s a tough chance to take.”
One of the greatest benefits of the bus system, the engineers say, is the flexibility of the routes.
”R.C.V. can use the roads, and as development occurs, we’re not stuck with fixed rail,” said Wayne Ugolik, the D.O.T.’s supervisor of regional transportation planning. ”We can modify the route. You just turn the wheel.”
Critics fault the plan as lacking vision. ”The major flaw is that it takes all zoning and land use as a given,” said Joshua Schank, a transportation planner for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. ”They said that they’re not prescribing any changes for zoning or land use, they’re only prescribing changes in transportation. And you can’t do one without the other.”
Critics also say the transportation department is trying to push its own agenda of widening roads rather than finding innovative transit solutions for congestion.
”The D.O.T. historically has been involved in road building,” Ms. Tyson of the Long Island Progressive Coalition said at the Hofstra meeting. ”That’s where all of their money has come from. They’ve never been involved in public transportation.”
Lee E. Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, warned that an increase in road capacity tends to attract more traffic.
”Whether you call it rapid this or rapid that, if it’s on rubber wheels or it uses the road system, then you have to widen your roads,” he said. ”That’s precisely what those who are arguing for more transit are concerned about.”
Engineers say they developed the plan using a computer model to simulate the traffic and travel patterns of Long Islanders and then used it to test the performance of a bus or light rail system. Using information collected from commuter questionnaires, census data and a Metropolitan Transportation Authority survey, the model measures the likelihood of Long Islanders’ decisions: whether they will drive alone, carpool or take a bus or a train.
The resulting plan for the new bus system may require raising the bridges over the Southern State so that the new buses, each with a capacity of 40 people, can pass underneath.
”Every one has to be torn down and rebuilt,” said Richard Schary, one of the public members on the study’s advisory committee. ”The Southern State Parkway is like a snake. In order for them to put buses on it, they have to straighten the road, and that means they have to take people’s houses. If they do all this and it fails, we’ll have another expressway.”
Transportation officials say they would try to keep any construction along the Southern State Parkway within the current boundaries. ”We would certainly strive to avoid taking homes,” Mr. Ugolik said. ”We would strive to make things better in terms of landscape, improving the visual context of the whole area. The bottom line is it wouldn’t turn into a Long Island Expressway. It would still look like a parkway.”
It might be possible to use smaller buses on the Southern State, but transportation officials say it’s too early to describe any of the vehicles in detail.
Leon Goodman, a transportation engineer who lives in Searingtown, believes that a bus system is the right transportation plan for Long Island but that it won’t relieve congestion on its own.
”There is no magic bullet,” Mr. Goodman said at the Hofstra public meeting. ”You have to have this in conjunction with land-use policies and parking policies. By itself, it can’t solve the problem.”
Engineers presented details of other proposals, including one that combined the bus system with tolls for people who drive alone during rush hours. But six state senators from Long Island opposed the tolls, making it unlikely that such a plan will go further.
Ms. Tyson, one of the public members of the advisory committee, contends that the transporation department is only paying lip service to public participation.
”We gave our laundry list and we were excused,” she said. ”This plan only includes what the D.O.T. wanted. They’re spending all this money, and they’re not building a consensus.”
Twenty-seven of the 40 advisory committee members voted by mail to adopt the bus transit system as the ”preliminary preferred alternative,” transportation officials say.
But there is some evidence that only a core group of members read the material sent out by study engineers and participated in meetings. New county planning directors — Rhoda Becker in Nassau and Thomas A. Isles in Suffolk — were appointed in March. Both said they had not had a chance to review the plan and could not comment on it. Mr. Isles said he would attend future meetings personally, but that no one was currently assigned to review the plan. Joseph Pecora, Nassau’s public works commissioner, said through a spokeswoman that his office would be reviewing the plan in the future.
At the public meeting at the Deer Park school, David Weissman, 63, and Barbara Christiansen, 55, walked into the cafeteria and watched a movie describing the new bus system, then talked with engineers.
”I’m very skeptical anytime the government is proposing plans,” said Mr. Weissman, who lives in Deer Park. ”They turn out to be a boondoggle. No matter what we spend, it doesn’t seem to solve the problems.”
If and when the proposed transit system is up and running, the D.O.T.estimates its operating costs will be $194 million a year.
”Once you have a bus operation, you only get about 30 percent back at the fare box,” Dr. Koppelman said. ”Buses have to be subsidized. If you charge what the true cost is, you’re not going to have anyone riding the buses.”
Once the transportation department comes up with a final plan, expected in about a year, it will present it to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. The council will then vote on the plan, and if it approves, it will incorporate it into a transportation plan for the entire region, which comprises New York City and Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam and Rockland Counties.
”It’s a very ambitious plan in terms of cost,” said Robert Shinnick, Suffolk’s director of transportation operations. ”I’m not sure the local tax base would be able to support a major part of that cost. The state or the federal government would have to play a major role.”
That proved to be the case during Nassau’s recent fiscal crisis. In one proposed budget, Long Island Bus would have lost $12.5 million in local financing; the money was later restored.
”There’s no dedicated funding for the existing system,” said Christopher R. Hewitt, a spokesman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a private transportation advocacy group. ”And the D.O.T. now wants to create a whole new system without the funding being there for the existing bus system.”
At the Deer Park meeting, Joe Cutrone, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative who lives in Deer Park, said that any plan that gets people off the Long Island Expressway was a good thing. After talking with engineers, he imagined watching the news on television screens inside the buses and plugging his headphones into a built-in jack to listen to music.
When engineers told him that a bus would pick him up and drop him off at his house, he said, that’s ”better than a cab ride.”
Mr. Gersten, the consultant, said that the engineers were probably talking about a dial-a-ride service like the Central Islip Jitney, which takes subscribers from their homes to L.I.R.R. stations in the morning and back again at night. This service is not part of the Long Island plan but might be provided locally to help people get to the new bus stations, Mr. Gersten said.
Whatever happens, this much is certain: any Long Island proposal will have to compete for money with transportation projects in New York and other cities. Mr. Schank, the M.T.A. planner, said, ”I think I would be shocked if I ever see any R.C.V’s roaming Long Island highways.”