Stuck In The 19th Century

Diane J. Savino

October 19, 2008

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- ving traffic congestion on Staten Island's roads is like trying to install an elevator in a skyscraper built only with stairs. The problem is that a firm infrastructure has long been in place -- most major local Island roads were in place by the 1800s -- and efforts to modernize them can move slower than a stagecoach led by a horse on its last legs.

The examples are everywhere. The intersection of Richmond Avenue and Amboy Road in Eltingville teems with traffic, but prospects for widening it are dim: buildings creep to the edge of three corners, and officials have been stymied in their attempts to convince the owner of a vacant gas station on the fourth to part with a piece of land that would ease the flow.

On the North Shore, State Sen. Diane Savino is thinking more aggressively. She suggests eminent domain may be needed to turn narrow, twisting Richmond Terrace into the thoroughfare it could be. But that process -- through which the government grabs slices of private property for public benefit -- would result in lengthy court battles. A quick fix it isn't.

It's not just 19th century roads that provide headaches.

Although the West Shore Expressway was completed in 1976, a long-requested service road that would at last connect Bloomingdale and Clay Pit roads is inching closer to reality. However, an endangered lizard appears to stand in the way, among other forms of red tape. Construction could begin as soon as 2010, but it would still be a few years before drivers get relief. It can't come soon enough for motorists who've waited decades for the fix.

Both elected and transportation officials have spent the past few years trying to atone for the sins of the past, including missed opportunities to plan for inevitable growth, and old decisions to grant construction waivers that still reverberate today on clogged streets.

The officials are aiming to build on some recent successes such as a partial left-turn ban on the busiest stretch of Hylan Boulevard -- an initiative widely hailed as one of the biggest improvements in traffic flow here in a generation. In the works are plans to convert more streets to one-way status, overhaul difficult intersections such as Travis Avenue and Victory Boulevard, and, possibly, implement a new type of traffic light that analyzes traffic levels and changes the signal accordingly.