The Design of Portion Road

Recently, Newsday’s “Watchdog” column discussed Portion Road and its design. Specifically, a local resident wrote to Newsday to find out why some parts of Portion Road have two travel lanes in each direction and some parts have one travel lane in each direction. The resident felt that in the sections that transition from two lanes to one lane, that drivers exhibit aggressive behavior to be at the “head of the line”.
Recently, Newsday’s “Watchdog” column discussed Portion Road and its design. Specifically, a local resident wrote to Newsday to find out why some parts of Portion Road have two travel lanes in each direction and some parts have one travel lane in each direction. The resident felt that in the sections that transition from two lanes to one lane, that drivers exhibit aggressive behavior to be at the “head of the line”.

The “Watchdog” reporter investigated the history and explained to readers:

In the 1990’s, Suffolk County wanted to build out Portion Road to a consistent highway design from Ronkonkoma Avenue to Nicolls Road, i.e. four travel lanes, a center turn lane, wide shoulders.
Many residents protested at a series of public meetings (including the civic organization which was founded to address the Portion Road widening.)
The county compromised and only widened the road in the areas where the data showed that extra capacity was needed.
Accident data for three intersections in the widened area (Cenacle Road, Holbrook Road and Hawkins Avenue) show a significant decrease in the number of accidents: 754 in 2008 to 18 in 2013, a 97% decrease.

That’s an accurate but compressed summary of what transpired. For those of you who did not live in the community during this time or have forgotten the details of the Portion Road saga, we will fill in some of the details.

In the late 1990’s, the Suffolk County Department of Public Works (SCDPW) held a series of public meetings to present their plan for “improving” (i.e. widening) Portion Road (County Road 16) into essentially a highway design. These public meetings were required as part of the design process as 80% of the cost of the project would be federally funded. SCDPW expected this to just be a non-event on their way to widening the road. Instead, the unexpected happened and many community members said NO, we don’t want a highway running through our town. However, there was no organized “voice” for the community to speak to elected officials and officials at SCDPW. Unlike most other communities in Suffolk County, we did not have a civic association to play that role.

So a small group of community members organized a committee (the CR16 Committee) to respond to the county and represent residents’ concerns. We knew intuitively that a highway running through Lake Ronkonkoma and the western part of Farmingville would be disastrous for our community, but we needed more than a gut feeling to fight the county. We knew that when Portion Road/Horseblock Road was widened through the eastern part of Farmingville, it hurt the businesses along the road as drivers sailed by at high speeds, not bothering to stop and shop. We knew from reading Newsday that there were several fatal traffic accidents along that widened stretch of CR16. We knew that traffic was bad during morning and evening rush hour, but that the county’s plan seemed like overkill. We knew that the Long Island Expressway was less than a mile south of Portion Road, so why build another highway that close to the LIE.

Thankfully, one of the CR16 Committee members was a traffic engineer by profession, so we were able to analyze the traffic data to truly understand where the road “failed” and where it functioned. We were helped out by two groups that helped us organize our opposition: ABCO (Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization), an umbrella group of civic organizations in Brookhaven and Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit group dedicated to transportation reform in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. Armed with resources, this small but dedicated committee fought back and advocated for a smarter road design to move traffic along more efficiently and also allow for other users of the road to have a safer experience (pedestrians and bicyclists).

Our meetings with SCDPW resulted in small successes: the addition of some medians to the road design, nicer crosswalk designs, the addition of a bike lane, some street trees, etc. But the proposed road and many of the intersections were excessively wide. We were at a stalemate.

We were able to secure funding from the Town and County to hold a “visioning” which is a community planning process. In a visioning process, a community envisions the future it wants, and plans how to achieve it. It brings people together to develop a shared image of what they want their community to become. All community stakeholders participate (residents, business owners, elected officials) to discuss the community’s purpose, its future, action plans and implementation of those plans. Much follow-up is required to sustain the momentum that comes out of a visioning to implement both short-term and long-term strategies to make the community’s vision a reality.

It was during this time that the Lake Ronkonkoma Civic Organization was formed. The CR16 Committee realized they needed a more formal organization to speak for the community. The civic was founded in 2003 and the visioning was held in October 2004.

Over 600 residents participated in the weekend-long event facilitated by Vision Long Island. Community members came together to share their desires for this community, how it would grow, what it would look like, and how would the road design support the future of the community. The visioning document that came out of the weekend was the backbone of the final road design and also the Portion Road Lane Use Plan.

More meetings with SCDPW over the year following the visioning resulted in what became the final plan. The civic did not succeed 100% in our efforts, but we felt that the community deserved an improved road and the compromises were the best we could achieve:

East of Holbrook Road, the county crunched the traffic numbers and conceded that only one travel lane in each direction was warranted.
West of Holbrook Road, the county crunched the traffic numbers and conceded that with the exception of two areas, only one travel lane in each direction was warranted. However, they insisted on widening the road to allow for two travel lanes in each direction at some future point where the traffic increased and more capacity was needed.
Between Cenacle and Holbrook Roads, and between Hawkins and Ronkonkoma Avenues, traffic counts supported two travel lanes in each direction. Although this may not appear ideal to some folks, it would have been overkill to widen the entire road just to deal with some of the more heavily utilized intersections.
Several intersections were not expanded as extensively as originally planned.
Street trees were placed between the sidewalk and the road to help calm traffic.
Continuous sidewalks for the entire stretch of the project.
Countdown crosswalks at several intersections.
Bicycle lanes for most of the project length.
Decorative street lights and colored crosswalks in the designated downtown areas.
Several medians to calm traffic.

Is the road perfect? Far from it. And there are some lingering issues: the striping for the crosswalks and bike lanes is fading fast, several of the street trees are missing or damaged, several of the decorative street lights are missing or damaged. But the Lake Ronkonkoma Civic Organization is working with the appropriate government officials to address these issues. And the road is much safer than if the county had gotten its way back in 1999. We know that our efforts have saved lives and we are proud of our accomplishments. We encourage local residents to join the civic to help be a voice for this community and to help advocate for the best for Lake Ronkonkoma and the surrounding communities.