By Jano Tantongco
Construction officially began Monday on a long-discussed, and controversial, rest stop along the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills.
Soon to be known as the Long Island Welcome Center, the site between exits 51 and 52 on the eastbound side of the LIE was swarming with construction trucks and workers as work bean.
Spearheading the $20.22 million project is the New York State Department of Transportation. Officials said plans include a 15,200-square-foot building with parking for up to 135 vehicles.
The welcome center will also feature space for substations of both the Suffolk County and New York State police departments.
A 600-square foot “community room” is also planned, and will be made available for use by community groups,
The site was formerly a rest area that offered parking, but no amenities, for truckers.
A rest area on the westbound side of the LIE between exits 51 and 52, which also offered parking for truckers, will also be permanently closed, though.
The welcome center will not allow parking of tractor trailers or buses, state officials said.
That stipulation was confirmed in a May 16 letter sent to state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) from state DOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll.
In an interview last Thursday, Raia said the agreement was reached between state officials and nearby community members. The agreement represents years of negotiating and community pushback, he said.
“For the past 17 years, I’ve been fighting this rest stop. It’s always been about the trucks,” said Raia, adding that DOT officials had been “kicking and screaming” as they were asked by local residents to make concessions.
“Not everybody’s happy -- you’re never going to appease everybody,” Raia added.
Gary Holmes, director of communications for the state DOT, said that trucks will instead be directed east to either Exit 56 or Exit 66 on the LIE.
Construction is currently underway on the westbound side of the LIE near Exit 56, and on the eastbound side near Exit 66, to make space for truckers to park, Holmes said.
Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone said Monday that he also spoke with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and asked that truck parking be pushed farther east.
“There were issues, rightfully there were concerns. And, over the years, I think there were attempts to try and resolve it,” he said.
Federal Law Bans Food Sale
Since the LIE is an auxiliary route of the federal interstate highway system, the sale of goods and service will not be permitted at the welcome center.
This was confirmed on Friday by Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, who cited a portion the law that states goods and services can’t be sold at safety rest stop areas on federal interstates.
According to Holmes the welcome center will include a Taste NY facility, but current plans show it will only offer free samples from local vendors.
What About The Wine?
Previous plans for the welcome center have incorporated the on-site sale of wine, which state officials have not backed down from.
Holmes couldn’t confirm whether or not wine will be sold at the welcome center.
State Assemblyman Raia said he is opposed to the sale of alcohol at the welcome center.
Sheila Saks, past president of the House Beautiful Dix Hills Civic Association who has been active in opposing the rest stop for years, continued to express her disapproval toward the proposal.
It’s “not even negotiable,” she said. “To sell drinks to drivers in this modern day and age when every night we hear of a tragedy of a DWI?”
Other Concerns Remain
Local residents, town officials and Assemblyman Raia continue to cite other concerns with the welcome center, but state officials contend that local residents have not impeded progress.
In an interview, Raia said remains concerned about the size of the building, its hours of operation and whether or not food and alcohol will will be sold there.
In a May 16 letter, state DOT commissioner Driscoll states, “The Dix Hills community agrees not to litigate the construction of the Welcome Center, nor impede required approvals such as Suffolk County sewer and Dix Hills water connections.”
Saks took issue with the commissioner’s use of the phrase “Dix Hills community.” She said it does not adequately represent the entire area.
In an interview Monday, Saks said the project in its current state is the direct result of agreements with residents who live directly south of the site, those with the “highest standing in this issue.”
“They have the most to lose or the most to gain,” said Saks, adding that she respects the deal.
However, she added that she still wants the state to disclose certain aspects of the plan, and to do so in a “transparent way.”