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Forest Hills LIE meet fails to draw public

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Only two members of the public spoke at the meeting, Community Board 6 Chairman Joseph Hennessey and Greg Carlson, director of the Fairview Building in Forest Hills.

"I was disappointed in the turnout," Hennessey said this week. His board abuts the southwestern corner of the project area in Forest Hills. About 50 people attended the hearing but most appeared to represent the DOT.

Construction on the project, designed to improve interchanges between the highways and fix surrounding bridges, is not slated to begin until January 2010 and will probably not be finished until 2013. But the DOT said now is the time for the public to help mold the plan since the proposal is undergoing a federally mandated environmental review process and is not yet fully formed.

"It will help us shape the project in an efficient way," one of the DOT engineers on hand said. The department met in February with elected officials, civic groups and community board members from the project area.

Members of the public still have until June 7 to submit written comments, but the forum was the major outlet to speak directly to the DOT. The department advertised the meeting in various daily and weekly papers serving Queens.

But even if people saw the notices, construction seems far away, said Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community Board 7 in Flushing.

"It's too early," she said. Board 7 includes Queensboro Hill, which touches the eastern edge of the site.

Carlson and Hennessey, who is also president of the Forest Hills Cooperative Corp., said construction crews on state DOT projects in the past had not been considerate to neighbors, a situation they hoped would not occur again. Hennessey also called for sound barriers along 108th Street near the interchanges.

"We will do the best we can to accommodate their requests," said an engineer familiar with the project.

Hennessey acknowledged the proposal should proceed.

"I do realize that something needs to be done because it's a major bottleneck," he said.

Officials from the state DOT said a draft Environmental Impact Statement would be issued in the spring of 2006, with an additional period for public comment before the preliminary design is released that June. A final impact statement will be completed by January 2007, followed by the final design by September 2009.

Officials said the design date could be moved up, however, and construction crews given incentives to work more quickly if the city gets the 2012 Olympics.

The proposal represents a larger, ongoing effort to upgrade the LIE in Queens, with the section from the Van Wyck to the Cross Island Parkway being studied, and the part from the CIP to the Nassau border under construction.

The project where the Grand Central and the Van Wyck meet the LIE is needed to ease congestion and improve safety, DOT officials said. Vehicular and pedestrian bridges in the area are aging and need to be refurbished or replaced. Traffic flows have increased and commuter patterns have changed since the interchanges were built between 1931 and 1963, with the existing configurations outdated and inadequate, the officials said.

During rush hour each day in the area, the Grand Central handles 100,000 cars in each direction, the LIE 80,000 and the Van Wyck more than 40,000, the department reported. More than 1,000 accidents were recorded last year in the project area where cars exiting are often forced to weave through entering vehicles.

With an older system of interchanges that have the appearance of a four-leaf clover, the Grand Central and LIE connections are slated to receive most of the major changes. In accordance with the environmental review, three proposed versions of the plan have been drawn up.

Alternative 1 involves working solely on the bridges, while Alternative 2 would add a direct connection between the Grand Central southbound and the LIE westbound and a bridge 15 feet over the roadway for a direct route from the Grand Central south to the LIE east. Alternative 3 would take away the Grand Central south to LIE west connection but would add a bridge over the expressway for a quick link between the Grand Central north and the LIE west.

DOT officials said any of the models could be changed or even combined after the review process.

"What you're doing is documenting what are the real trade-offs for the choices," said Douglas Currey, regional director for the department.

Some of the alternatives may require building on part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, but "we want to keep as much parkland intact as possible," said City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee.

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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