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Townline Rail Terminal garners public opinion, both in favor and against the rail spur proposal

Business by: Chrissy Ruggeri, February 27, 2023

Townline Rail Terminal, LLC is seeking approval to build a rail spur that connects to a five-track freight train yard on the CarlsonCorp property in Kings Park, pictured here. The proposal includes 5,000 feet of new rail that will branch off the LIRR’s Port Jefferson line and terminate at the transfer facility, which is planned to be a 100,000 square foot building. Image via the Townline Association website.

A petition for the approval of a rail spur off the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), just east of the Townline Road and Pulaski Road intersection, has garnered attention and concern among residents of the Kings Park, Fort Salonga, Commack and East Northport communities.

Project proprietor Toby Carlson is the owner of CarlsonCorp, an industrial transfer facility spanning 82 acres from Meadow Glen Road to Old Northport Road. The facility currently includes a fleet of commercial trucks that handle and move freight loads of waste and debris to the Brookhaven Landfill and elsewhere.

The primary tasks of the proposed one-spur train yard are to ship out ash from the adjacent Covanta Huntington Incinerator, located at 99 Townline Road in East Northport, to off-island landfills and carry in aggregate, lumber and automobiles for distribution within the Smithtown and Huntington townships. The waste and materials would make their way off island via the private freight line New York & Atlantic Railway, a short-line railroad that connects freight to the mainland with interchanges to Queens, New York City and New Jersey.

Townline Rail Terminal, LLC filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency, seeking approval to build storage rails on the CarlsonCorp property to haul the ash and construction debris as an alternative to trucking it.

The petition is in the first phase of a multi-year process, with federal approval required initially, and then community input and Town of Smithtown approvals to follow.

What is being proposed?
Townline Rail Terminal, LLC filed as a business entity in October 2021 and is seeking approval to build a rail spur that connects to a five-track freight train yard on the CarlsonCorp property in Kings Park. The proposal includes 5,000 feet of new rail that will branch off the LIRR’s Port Jefferson line and terminate at the transfer facility, which is planned to be a 100,000 square foot building.

Project petitioner Toby Carlson has expressed plans to operate one train per day, five days a week, between the hours of 10pm and 5am. The yard would be designed to handle one inbound and one outbound freight train of up to 27 cars daily, each hauling sealed containers of ash from the Covanta incinerator and other material from CarlsonCorp off Long Island. The storage tracks proposed have the capacity to store approximately three days of excess waste or material (up to 79 cars, according to Carlson) in the event of rail service outage.

Carlson has also expressed an interest in importing commodities for the local industrial area that are currently trucked in, including lumber and other building materials.

The project is being proposed as a solution to the 2024 closing of the Brookhaven Landfill in Yaphank, which currently accepts more than one million tons of ash and construction debris every year. Covanta Huntington, adjacent to CarlsonCorp, processes 341,000 tons of municipal waste every year, requiring CarlsonCorp trucks to make 20 trips to the Brookhaven Landfill for disposal every day.

Project advocates say that hauling waste off Long Island is a challenge, and the landfill closing will require thousands of new truck trips, in addition to the thousands already being made, according to an August 2022 Newsday article on the Townline proposal. The spur would replace the additional truck trips to haul waste off Long Island, and require only one truck to carry waste between the Covanta plant and the transfer facility, according to Carlson.

But residents closest to the proposed site have voiced concerns about the health implications of the spur and storage facility; noise, pollution and quality of life are concerns as well.

What is the project timeline?
The project is currently undergoing environmental review by the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which is the first of many steps in a multi-year-long process, according to the Smithtown information page on the proposal. At a community meeting last month, Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta estimated that it would take 42 to 52 months before the facility could begin construction, if it’s approved.

The STB will present a draft environmental assessment that will be issued for public comment in spring of 2023. After review, the STB will develop a final environmental analysis and then consider the transportation merits and environmental impact of the project before making a decision to grant or deny the petition for authorization.

In addition to required federal approval through the STB, the proposed buildings and site work, excluding the rail, are subject to Town of Smithtown approvals. These include a change of zone, amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance, special exceptions to the town board and Board of Zoning Appeals, and site plan approval. The project would also be subject to a full SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) review, including an Environmental Impact Statement.

Who is in favor of the project?
CarlsonCorp owner and Townline Rail Terminal petitioner Toby Carlson has made several public and social media comments regarding his proposed plan and why he believes it’s the best option for discarding waste when the Brookhaven Landfill closes. In a recent Facebook post, he wrote, “If that waste has to be shipped off island it will mean a quintupling of trucks and transportation equipment required to handle the amount of waste that needs to be moved. Rather than ship our waste by truck, we can containerize it indoors and ship it off by rail car, and reduce exponential environmental impacts.”

Carlson claimed that every rail car takes up to five trucks off the road, and that with one train running five nights per week (when commuter rail service is not operating) at the proposed terminal, 15,000 trucks would be eliminated from Townline Road per year. Carlson also indicated that facility transfer operations will occur indoors, in fully enclosed buildings that prevent dust, noise and odors from impacting the local community. “The facility being proposed is being built to support Huntington and Smithtown communities and to provide commodities to the Kings Park industrial park that are currently being consumed and currently being brought in by truck, further reducing truck traffic on our overburdened roads,” Carlson wrote.

Two local officials publicly in favor of the Townline project are Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim and Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta.

In a statement published in The Messenger, a Smithtown-based news source, Supervisor Wehrheim said, “This looming waste crisis currently has two temporary solutions, with the ultimate goal of zero waste in mind. The first is railing ash and construction debris off the island and the second option is to truck it off. If the latter is the only option for us, there will be a significant reduction in quality of life, from skyrocketing waste removal taxes and painstaking traffic to environmental impacts and broken-down infrastructure.”

The town of Smithtown stated on its website that during this first phase of decision making, it will defer to the Surface Transportation Board authority, but does recognize the use of rail over trucking to be a better option when the Brookhaven Landfill closes. “Regarding this petition, the STB is doing an environmental assessment as part of its process and will be evaluating the environmental impacts of the proposal. In addition, the town would be doing a full Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate potential impacts of the non-rail aspects,” the town stated on its public information page.

County Legislator Trotta attended a January public meeting at the Commack Library to discuss the proposal and stated his support for the project. He said that after analyzing the plan, he believes there will be less trucks in the neighborhood, which will save gas and be better for the community.

Additionally, environmental advocates suggest that using rail over trucks may be a lower-carbon solution. In December 2022, New York State’s Climate Action Council recommended the wider utilization and expansion of transportation of freight via rail, saying that the state should work with federal partners to strengthen the freight rail system and that “these improvements will provide New Yorkers with additional low-carbon options for longer-distance travel and improve the environmental sustainability of the goods movement system.”

Project advocates state that using rail instead of trucks to ship freight cuts costs and greenhouse gas emissions. According to RSI Logistics, rail shipping is much more cost-effective than truck shipping because rail is more fuel-efficient, can carry more volume, and has lower maintenance costs. Rail also has an environmental advantage over trucks, according to data from RSI Logistics, because it emits 75% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Who opposes the project?
Since the project proposal was made public, several groups have expressed their disapproval, including the Townline Association (a nonprofit organization originally created to fight a proposed power plant in Kings Park), the Fort Salonga Association, and the Commack Community Association.

A letter by the Fort Salonga Association to the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that is currently drafting a review of the proposed terminal, states “What is troubling to us is that the plans fail to show that the train yard will be only 500 feet from residential neighborhoods in Kings Park, with Fort Salonga being almost as close. Additionally, this site is within close proximity to thousands of homes in the communities of East Northport, Commack and Northport.” The plans also fail to show, the letter continues, “that there are a minimum of eight schools within a two-and-a-half-mile radius to the proposed rail yard.”

Townline Association co-president Linda Henniger wrote in a letter to the STB that, “The surrounding communities already bear the burden of several major sources of environmental blight, including the Huntington Resource Recovery Facility, the Northport power plant, the Huntington and Smithtown landfills and their methane burners/vents, medical waste incinerators at both Northport VA hospital and St. Catherine’s Medical Center, and the various heavy industrial uses that have been going on in this area for decades, many of which continue to operate illegally and unchecked.”

Another letter to the STB, by the Commack Community Association, states that Toby Carlson is trying to sell a “bill of goods” to the surrounding communities that the rail yard must be built or the community would suffer greatly – “but we know better that it is nothing more than a ‘money grab,’” the letter continues. It also notes that when the association asked Winter Bros. Waste Management if they would be able to properly handle the ash from Huntington and Smithtown with the facility they plan on building, they replied “yes.”

A change.org petition was created by resident Keegan Harris and has over 2,290 signatures. The petition description reads, “Our concern with this project is that this is to be built bordering a residential area of a neighborhood where children live and play.” Several concerns regarding the proposed rail terminal are also noted, including the health risks associated with diesel exhaust polluting the air, incinerated ash being loaded on diesel trains, trains operating through the night, the impacts on the aquifer that supplies Long Island’s water, and the impact on overall quality of life for surrounding residents.

The “solid waste crisis” on Long Island
As the Brookhaven Landfill closing nears, Long Island municipalities are charged with planning for waste disposal. In a February 2021 report, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine called for a regional approach to handling solid waste and ash deposits, with a need for innovative ways for residents to dispose of garbage rather than burning or storing it in landfills. A Brookhaven Town environmental committee report states, “The history of the Brookhaven Town Landfill makes it clear that Yaphank, Bellport and Brookhaven did not volunteer to be the garbage capital of Long Island.”

On February 22, Winter Bros. Waste Systems released a comprehensive report entitled, “The State of Waste—A Review of the Solid Waste Crisis Facing Long Island.” The report reviews the challenges associated with managing the waste generated on Long Island and was prepared using information from several environmental sources, including the EPA, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NY Metropolitan Transportation Council, the Long Island Solid Waste Leadership Council and the New York Climate Action Council.

The report states that every day, Long Island residents produce more than 14 million pounds of municipal solid waste and another 29.1 million pounds of construction and demolition (C&D) waste. The Brookhaven Landfill, which manages 1.2 million tons of incinerator ash, C&D waste and automobile shredder waste per year, is expected to close in 2024. When it closes, “approximately 60,000 trucks will be needed to haul the 1.2 million tons of waste that was going to the landfill,” according to the report. The rest of Long Island’s waste is already transported off-island for disposal or to two other active landfills, 110 Sand Company in Melville or Islip landfill in Hauppauge. The Town of Babylon has an ash monofil that accepts ash from the incinerator located in Babylon.

“The existing network of transfer stations, waste-to-energy plants, trucks, and rail is not sufficient to handle the volume of waste that will be displaced following the closure of the Brookhaven Landfill. Additional infrastructure will need to be developed, including enhancements to freight rail transportation systems,” the report states. To date, there are three waste transfer stations that ship waste by rail to distant landfills, one in Farmingdale, Lindenhurst and Brentwood. There are three other rail projects in various stages of development, including one in Medford, which is planning for a new C&D waste transfer station, Yaphank, and the CarlsonCorp proposal in Kings Park.

“Collectively, we all need to do more to reduce the amount of waste generated each day. Long Island municipalities and the solid waste industry have worked together to identify ways to improve recycling and dispose of millions of tons of waste generated on Long Island. But, this requires substantial participation by everyone,” the report indicates, adding “The future of waste management is alarming considering the dramatically increasing volumes of waste, the escalating costs of managing it, low recycling rates, and the shrinking capacity on Long Island to dispose of our waste.”

The Winter Bros. report provides 14 recommendations to address Long Island’s waste crisis, including creating a regional approach for planning; reducing waste; enhancing recycling; developing outlets for organics and food waste; and enhancing rail infrastructure. The report also notes the need for environmental justice advancements, stating, “The public has a right to participate in public decisions and actions that have an impact on their environment, communities, and neighborhoods. Fair and equal access to a safe and healthy environment is a basic human right. Regardless of which portions of solving the waste crisis move forward, everyone must have a voice and an opportunity to be heard.”