Columbus Day traffic on Sound Avenue, Oct. 10, 2016. File photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s safe to say the idea put out by Riverhead’s traffic engineering consultants last week to ease Sound Avenue’s notorious traffic jams by widening the paved roadway to add a two-way center turning lane sparked a public outcry. RiverheadLOCAL’s social media channels erupted with some 200 comments, almost all lampooning the idea.

Some members of the town’s central advisory committee, who are tasked with advising the planning consultants developing the comprehensive plan update, also reacted negatively. Likewise town board liaison to the advisory committee, Councilman Tim Hubbard.

The town’s top planning official, Jefferson Murphree, and Ray DiBiase, the president of traffic consulting firm Louis K. McLean Associates, could have said “We hear ya” and abandoned the idea in favor of studying other alternatives. Actually being heard by town officials is a sentiment we know would be welcomed by constituents, who often complain they feel like Town Hall doesn’t hear them, or care to. But no.

They simply denied making the recommendation.

Murphree said the press “mischaracterized” it. They weren’t proposing a center turning lane along the length of Sound Avenue, he said — just at certain “choke points” to prevent traffic backups caused by vehicles waiting to turn. That’s patently false. Don’t take our word for it. Listen to the audio of DiBiase pitching the idea at the March 28 CAC meeting:

DiBiase said (at 2:14 in the above audio clip): “So what the thought is, is to provide a one lane in each direction, which it currently is, but add a two-way left-turn lane in the center of the road. So as you’re traveling along the road, someone in front of you who wants to make a left turn, they’re not going to stop and block you because they’re waiting for a gap in traffic in the other direction to turn left. They’ll pull on to their own lane, be out of traffic, won’t impact the through traffic at all.”

There was no mention of choke points — and his comments were made as he displayed a Power Point slide of a marked-up aerial image showing the proposed two-way center turning lane along the length of an unidentified stretch of Sound Avenue.

The aerial image showing Sound Avenue in Mattituck, east of the Riverhead Town line, used by Riverhead’s traffic consultants as part of their March 28 presentation offering a center turning lane as a potential solution to Sound Avenue’s traffic woes.

It’s astounding to us that a top town official would make up something like that just to — what? save face? walk back a controversial idea that drew fire?

Besides, Murphree said at Thursday’s work session, these suggestions were only very preliminary ideas — things that would be fleshed out in the Sound Avenue corridor study recommended by the consultants. We reported that as well.

We should note here that we did not receive a single call, email or text from any town official complaining about the story’s accuracy or that it “mischaracterized” anything. They all have our contact information — and are not shy about complaining.

Murphree and DiBiase on Thursday also distributed to the town board a handout similar to the one distributed at the CAC meeting last week — but with with some significant alterations. The slide listing potential solutions to the Sound Avenue traffic issues was changed to eliminate the controversial recommendations made a week earlier. The revised document added the phrase “at appropriate locations” to the “Two-Way Left Turn Lane” bullet point. It also added “where appropriate” to the “Prohibition of Parking” bullet point.

The revisions would be fine if they were acknowledged and explained as made in response to community feedback. But they weren’t. Murphree and DiBiase did not bother to mention that recommendations in the document they put before the board Thursday had been changed from the March 28 version.

Finally, the revised document also eliminated an illustrated aerial image (above) included in the March 28 presentation showing the proposed two-way center turning lane along the length of an unidentified stretch of Sound Avenue.

While we’re on the subject of that now-omitted aerial image, we are compelled to point out that — incredibly — the image, marked up with the proposed center lane, depicts a quarter-mile-plus stretch of Sound Avenue that’s not even in the Town of Riverhead. It’s in the Town of Southold. That’s right. It depicts Sound Avenue from Aldrich Lane in Mattituck to the Riverhead Town line more than 1,575 feet to the west.

The slide did not identify the precise location of the aerial shot but we were curious and looked at Google Maps. The structures and land features in that aerial are easily identifiable and it wasn’t hard to find the location. Using the county’s GIS mapping tool, we pinpointed the town line and measured the length of the road shown in the photo.

Town officials should be asking themselves why their highly paid traffic engineering consultants and the town’s top planner used an image showing a section of Sound Avenue that’s not even in the Town of Riverhead to communicate how a center two-way turning lane would alleviate Sound Avenue traffic woes.

Since we were the only news outlet that had reported on the potential solution of a third lane on Sound Avenue, we took Murphree’s comments personally. We stand by our reporting. It is backed up by an audio recording as well as a document that, as of this writing, remains on the town’s website.

Suggesting that people didn’t hear what they heard with their own ears, or didn’t see what they saw with their own eyes, is gaslighting the public. But to go back and attempt to alter the record that way is, in our opinion, much, much worse.

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