The town sought money to help mitigate flooding conditions often impacting Heidi Behr Way along the riverfront. File photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead Town has been passed over for a federal grant that town officials hoped would help fund projects supporting downtown revitalization efforts, including a parking garage on First Street and flood mitigation measures for the Peconic Riverfront.

This is the fourth time the town’s funding request has been passed over by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which distributes the RAISE (Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) grant, previously known as BUILD. The competitive transportation infrastructure grant program received $15 billion in requests this year throughout the country, according to the DOT, but is only able to fund $2.26 billion in projects.

In its application submitted in late February, the town requested $24.6 million to help fund a flood resiliency project on the Peconic Riverfront; the amphitheater and playground elements of the new town square; new streetscape lighting and signage improvements downtown; public Wi-Fi and new security cameras downtown; and roughly half the cost of the parking garage.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead seeks $24.6 million federal grant for downtown projects, including flood resiliency measures and 569-space parking garage

The 569-space parking garage on the north side of Main Street was the largest ask for the town in its application. It sought $10 million to subsidize an estimated price tag of $20.3 million. The garage is crucial to future development plans in the town: new apartment buildings are expected to continue to strain the capacity of the existing downtown parking district, and the development of the new town square and riverfront park on an existing parking lot will remove more spaces.

Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, who leads the town’s grant-writing team and downtown planning efforts, said the garage is “an important piece” to the development plans in the area. 

“And one way or the other, we have to do it,” Thomas said.

The town will look at other sources of funding, including from developers and garage users, such as the boutique hotel proposed for the town square, which will have no on-site parking and use a valet service. There are other grants the town can apply for to help fund the project, she said.

Using the $7.29 million the town is set to receive from the sale of a town-owned parking lot on Railroad Avenue for a transit-oriented development project is also on the table, Thomas said. That money was originally earmarked for the development of a parking garage on a Suffolk County-owned parking lot on Griffing Avenue, but town officials have scrapped the plan for that parking structure, Thomas said.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of doing feasibility for that so we know how many spaces exactly we need and we’re also doing some ground testing to test what’s beneath so that you know, what you need to do to construct, and groundwater and things like that,” Thomas said.

Another major funding request in the town’s grant application included $6.1 million for streetscape, crosswalk and sidewalk improvements for the downtown area. The town is set to receive a $750,000 from the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant for improvements to a stretch of East Main Street 

The town also requested $5.6 million for a flood resiliency project that would raise the bulkhead along the Peconic riverfront and raise Heidi Behr Way roughly three feet. The plans, along with other elements of the town square’s and surrounding development’s design, would create a “flood wall” above the 100-year flood plain, according to the application.

Thomas said the town is hopeful the Army Corps of Engineers will fund the floodplain management project on the riverfront. The Army Corps’ Floodplain Management Services initiated a study of the riverfront in October 2021 at the request of town officials and former Rep. Lee Zeldin, but has yet to submit a final study. Thomas said the final study is in the process of being finalized. 

Federal representatives made funding requests last year in Congress’ appropriation bills to fund the next steps in the Army Corps’ flood resilience efforts in Riverhead. Zeldin put in a request of $200,000 for the next study required for the plan, while Sen. Chuck Schumer requested $8,000,000 for a flood mitigation construction project. Neither request made it into the final appropriations bill.

Federal representatives have not submitted requests this year to fund the Army Corps project in Riverhead during the next fiscal year, a review of the members’ websites show.

Thomas said the raising of Heidi Behr Way and the bulkhead is important, but not an immediate priority. Other construction in the town square will help mitigate flooding on the riverfront, she said.

Thomas is hopeful the town will eventually receive the RAISE grant, hopefully within the next two years, avoiding the need to borrow a lot of money to fund the public project.  

“We’re always disappointed, obviously, when we don’t get the award,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, the projects move forward and get more distilled. And so as that happens, the application becomes clearer and more definite and less risky for the investor — who’s this federal government — to put that money into.”

“We just keep moving in a direction where the application gets better and better,” Thomas said.

The Department of Transportation announced the recipients of this years’ RAISE grant awards on Wednesday. The only entity on Long Island to win a grant from the program was Suffolk County, which received $3.8 million for the planning and design of the 50-mile long Long Island Greenway East Trail. The portion of the trail funded by the grant will stretch from Montauk to Riverhead.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com