In a Truck-Clogged Region, Rail Moves In

In Long Island, more goods are moving off road.

A freight terminal in central Long Island, opened in 2011, won approval last week to move ahead with an expansion plan that ultimately could handle a million tons of freight each year, removing thousands of trucks from the region's highways.

In much of the U.S., bulk commodities and other heavy materials typically are shipped long distances by rail. Until recently, that wasn't the case on Long Island, where a lack of infrastructure meant most freight traveled on trucks, usually on the Long Island Expressway. These 18-wheelers clog roadways and foul the region's air.

But things began to change last year when the Brookhaven Rail Terminal opened in Yaphank in Suffolk County. The new terminal, the first significant freight hub on eastern Long Island in decades, has been receiving shipments of ingredients used in the manufacture of cement and asphalt, and baking flour from the western U.S. bound for a local bread maker. These products still need to get to their final destination on trucks, but now they can travel just the final miles on smaller, short-haul vehicles.

Since the freight hub opened, demand at the facility has grown substantially. Last week, the county legislature voted to approve the sale of an additional 230 acres of county land adjacent to the terminal so that the private operators could expand with new warehouses and other distribution facilities. Regional Plan Association supported the sale aimed at expanding rail freight operations because Long Island residents stand to benefit greatly from the improvements. Shifting more freight from truck to rail will alleviate congestion and improve air quality. Ultimately, the economies of Nassau and Suffolk counties will gain as businesses are able to obtain bulk goods more cheaply via rail. And in the short term, the $20 million proceeds from the sale will flow directly into Suffolk County's depleted coffers.

The advances in freight rail on Long Island reflect a renewed interest in rail shipping throughout the region. This summer, a long-dormant freight float bridge reopened in Brooklyn's Sunset Park that will be able to transfer rail cars carried on barges from New Jersey to trains headed further into Brooklyn, Queens and to Long Island. In Staten Island, a freight line and rail bridge that had been abandoned seemingly for good were brought back to life in 2007, connecting the borough to New Jersey and the national rail network.

No infrastructure improvements come without downsides. Freight trains release emissions too, and rail infrastructure is expensive to build. And freight facilities need to be well-managed so that run-off doesn't harm the surrounding environment. But rail cars are between two and five times as fuel-efficient as trucks. That's why cities and regions around the U.S. are looking for ways to expand rail-freight infrastructure and connections where it makes the most sense.

Freight trains will never be as ubiquitous in developed areas as they once were - New York's hugely popular High Line park, after all, was built on the skeleton of a rail line that until 1980 carried freight up Manhattan's West Side. But the rumblings of new activity are promising as the region looks to bolster its economy while protecting its vital natural resources.