James Bernstein

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How WellLife Network’s CEO Leads By Example In Turning Loss Into A Positive

Unimaginable tragedies change people’s lives dramatically — some for the better and some not.

In Sherry Tucker’s case, her life became a compendium of untiring efforts to help other people, after the tragic death of her 8-year-old son, Zach, who succumbed to brain cancer, on May 9, 2006, in Florida.

“Life stopped,” says Tucker, 55.

But not for long. Tucker, her husband, Dirk, and their daughter, Lexi, embarked on a journey that is still unfolding. Last July, Tucker was named chief executive officer of Queens-based WellLife Network, one of the New York metropolitan area’s largest care organizations.

WellLife is a $100 million nonprofit serving some 25,000 individuals through 100 programs that cover behavioral health, family developmental disabilities, addiction recovery services, vocational training, and food pantries. It employs more than 1,800 people, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and direct-support professionals.

About 50 percent of WellLife’s work focuses on the developmentally disabled and the other 50 percent on those suffering with mental health and drug abuse issues. Established in 1980, it also operates group homes and is funded by New York City, New York State, and Nassau and Suffolk counties.

May is Mental Health Month, and Tucker said WellLife will staff a table at the National Alliance on Mental Ilnesss’ May 10 walk-a-thon. WellLife is also hosting a community service day May 17. About 100 volunteers, composed of community members and staff, will work on beautification projects at its facilities.

Sitting at a conference table in her third-floor office, Tucker, a native Midwesterner, says she doesn’t think she would be WellLlife’s CEO had it not been for what she and her family went through.

“I think all of that enlightened me,” says Tucker, a CPA by training. “It awakened me to spirituality. My husband and I focused on what was coming next and what we had to do.”

Before Zach’s illness, the family was living a “very typical and normal” life in Florida, where they moved to escape the deep and long Midwestern winter.

“Our family was living the middle-class American dream,” Tucker wrote in a book she published in 2008, Unfinished Love: Walking By Faith Through Pediatric Cancer.

Her CPA job and her husband’s engineering position provided a good living. There were soccer games, music lessons, swim meets, and basketball.

Then Zach had trouble moving his arm, then a leg. The couple panicked.

“We certainly never thought about pediatric cancer,” Tucker wrote.

The mourning was deep. But according to Tucker, one day, the couple’s daughter, then 11, said, “’Mom, Zack would not want this. He would want us to celebrate his life.’”

“That knocked me over,” Tucker recalls.

So, the family went out and took popsicles to the local swim team. Tucker decided, she says, that God had a mission for her, to help others heal.

She started an organization in Tampa, Giving Hope through Faith Foundation, which offered services to children fighting cancer at local hospitals. She gave out $100 coupons to Wal-Mart so parents could buy food, toys, fuel, or simply go to a movie. Even the small dollar amounts helped.

“One mother said, ‘Thank you. I used the money so I could buy a dress to bury my daughter in,” Tucker recalls.

Through a business connection in Florida, Tucker hooked up with an agency, then known as Promoting Specialized Care and Health (PSCH), which later became WellLife. She signed on as a consultant in 2010, became chief financial officer in 2015 and CEO on July 1, 2018. The family now lives in Roslyn. She replaced Alan M. Weinstock, who retired last year after 11 years.

Joshua Lamberg, founder and CEO Lamb Insurance Services, which works exclusively with nonprofit and social service agencies, has come to know Tucker well.

“Sherry has been outstanding in the way she has managed her staff and moved WellLife into the forefront of the industry,” says Lamberg, who last year was honored by the agency for contributions to its programs.

Tucker is guided by seeing to it that she follows principles her son would favor.

“I want that moment when I see my Zack next,” she says, her voice steady and strong. “He will say, ‘Mom you made me proud. You made a difference in life.’”

Long Island’s Silent Pharmaceutical Industry Boom

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the resulting demise of Long Island’s once mighty aerospace and defense industry, local leaders have been searching for a new economic engine to fuel the region.

The software industry was once seen as a possibility, but the largest of the companies, now called CA Technologies, sputtered in scandal and moved its headquarters from Islandia to Manhattan. Biotech was also once a possibility. But a bio-tech park in Farmingdale failed to get off the ground, and new companies did not materialize.

But while the leaders were searching about, one industry that had been overlooked was growing: pharmaceuticals. That includes companies that manufacture over-the-counter and prescription drugs, others that package them, and still others in the process of marketing and selling everything from cold and sore-throat pills to weight-reduction formulas.

“Yes, these types of companies are growing,” says John Lombardo, associate vice president of workforce and economic development at Suffolk County Community College, who has monitored LI’s economy for more than two decades. “They do employ a lot of people because some of these companies run three shifts a day. Some of these companies have two locations on Long Island and some have more than five or six.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says that pharma has been a quiet economic engine.

“As a driving force in our region’s innovation economy, the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for the creation of thousands of high-quality, high-paying jobs for Suffolk County residents,” he says. “For more than five decades, it has silently woven itself into the fabric of our business community. My administration is proud to play its part in supporting the network of companies that lead and support the industry’s expansion and we will continue to explore new pathways with our economic development partners to keep it moving forward.”

New York State employment data supports the idea that the pharma industry is growing on the Island. In 2018, the industry employed about 13,007 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties, up from about 10,000 a decade ago. State figures say the industry tends to be high paying, having spent about $293 million in wages in 2018, up from about $500,000 in 2003. The industry employees a number of scientists and researchers, whose salaries are in the six-to-seven-figure range.

There are about 25 companies in the industry, the majority of them in Suffolk, where land prices are cheaper.

Shatel Patel, Long Island regional economist for the state labor department in Hicksville, characterizes employment growth in the pharma industry here as “moderate,” but says the industry is “one of the drivers of manufacturing overall on Long Island.”

“The pharmaceutical and the food and beverage industries have been increasing manufacturing on Long Island,” Patel says.

The largest of the companies on the Island is Amneal Pharmaceuticals, a nearly $2 billion  corporation headquartered in New Jersey that employs about 1,100 in Suffolk, according to a company spokesman. In February, Amneal said it is planning another expansion of its huge office and factory in South Yaphank, adding that the move will create about 400 new jobs in the next year or so. Amneal is the fifth-largest U.S. manufacturer of generic drugs.

Less-well-known companies in the industry are also growing. Mark Wolf, president of Contract Pharmacy Corp, says that the company operates out of 11 buildings in the Hauppauge Industrial Park.  The company, founded in 1971 in a former gasoline station in Danbury, Conn., moved to LI in 1975 and has about 1,000 employees. The privately held company does several hundred million in sales a year.

“We’ve had tremendous growth in the last three years,” says Wolf, son of the founders, his parents, John and Harriet Wolf. The company recently added hemp, a dietary supplement, to its core products of over-the-counter drugs.

ScieGen Pharmaceuticals in Hauppauge is only eight years old but already has 300 employees and is planning to add a new building, which will mean adding another 200 to 300 workers, says Siva Reddy, the company’s vice president of formulation. The company works on drugs to treat hypertension and other prescription drugs.

“Business has been good,” Reddy says.

Suffolk and the Towns of Islip and Brookhaven have been particularly active in providing pharma companies with tax breaks and other incentives, to make sure they remain here and to help them grow.

Some recent examples:

Amneal received a $600,000 rebate check from the local utility tied to a $150 million energy efficient project it recently completed in South Yaphank. Amneal is also eligible for up to $3 million from New York State for the energy-efficiency project.

A&Z Pharmaceutical Inc., a manufacturer of dietary supplements, was granted $742,500 in tax breaks and a 55 percent reduction in property taxes over 10 years, by Suffolk’s Industrial Development Agency.

Evaric Pharmaceuticals in Hauppauge, a generic drug maker, is working with the Suffolk IDA, which has voted to approve tax breaks to assist with development plans.

But the industry is not without its problems. With unemployment low on the Island, finding and retaining scientist and technicians is difficult, says Wolf, of Contract Pharmacal.

“We take from one another,” Wolf says.

Others in the industry, who asked to remain anonymous, are not as diplomatic.

“We steal from one another,” one says. The competition for top-flight scientists and engineers is intense, and can impact the bottom line.

Food and Drug Administration regulations can be arduous and expensive for companies to comply with. And the industry is intensely competitive, so much so that companies are even naming the OTC brands they supply. Even such small knowledge might provide a competitor with valuable information.

Will all this be the prescription for what ails LI’s economy? As they say, results may vary.

Custom Computer Specialists CEO Greg Galdi Eyes Tech’s Future

Greg Galdi is founder and CEO of Hauppauge-based Custom Computer Specialists

Gregory Galdi is the founder and CEO of Custom Computer Specialists. Before founding Custom in 1979, Greg worked as a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on projects such as radioactive waste management and hydrogen storage processes. It was there that he was introduced to technology and its ability to increase speed and productivity. Greg is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a three-time Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, and recipient of Southampton College’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. He is an auto racing enthusiast and a member of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association. Greg graduated from Long Island University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.

What does Custom Computer Specialists do? We consist of three companies. The first part manages the operation of Interventional Radiology Departments at hospitals. This software schedules procedures and maintains inventories of stock of perishable medical devices such as stents that maintain blood flow in arteries. We are also a reseller of Infinite Campus, a K-12 student information management system that is a best-in-class, top-tier system. Used by many Long Island districts to manage student records and record student progress, it also has a student portal where parents can monitor their child’s progress and check homework. The third division is an infrastructure and Unified Communications technology design and managed service support organization. We supply technology support, solutions and resources for cities, towns, school districts and healthcare facilities from Philadelphia to Boston.

How did you begin your career? I began my career as a chemist at Brookhaven National Lab, working on radioactive waste storage. Part of my job was to work with computers. I would work daytime at BNL and nights I would write computer programs. I had a keen interest in that. My dad had a Wall Street business, and I also did computer work for him.

When did your company get started? In May 1979. We had three employees back then. Now, we have 300. We have 100,000 square feet of space in Hauppauge. We also have a location at One Penn Plaza in Manhattan and a facility in Rhode Island. Our sales are about $60 million a year.

Tell me what’s most important about your business these days. Back in 1980, hardware was very important. Now, it’s all about professional services. All our staff members have to interface with customers. Everybody has to have a customer service gene. We even evaluate their abilities for that during the hiring process.

Is everybody here computer literate? In 1990, I had 80 to 90 people here. I was the smartest one. By 1991, I wasn’t the smartest one. That’s how fast this industry changes. It’s very difficult these days for someone to know everything. At the highest levels here, only maybe 10 percent can reach a point where they grasp all the software defined network designs and nuances.

You mentioned earlier an interesting meeting you had in 1985 with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others. What did you come away with from that meeting? That opened the door for me to meet with senior executives of Apple and Microsoft. I was able to meet with them and bring back information about the industry to Wall Street and other firms. I also remember Jobs and Gates were talking on a pretty out-of-the-box level. It was fascinating.

Tech is growing so rapidly it’s sometimes scary. Do we know where it’s all going? It is going fast. These days, you have someone like Elon Musk. He’s the Leonardo da Vinci of our times. We saw him launch rockets and retreive them intact. standing
straight up! Right out of the 50s science fiction movies. These times are similar to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of people then were left behind by progress. But things smoothed out. I think we will see that happen again. Technology does present challenges when it enters personal relationships, as it does today. But we will find better ways to use technology.

What’s the biggest advance you have seen in your years in the industry? That would be when the internet emerged from the labs. We were then able to communicate instantly around the world as we never had been able to do. It has all had a tremendous disruptive effect.

Where are we headed? When I founded Custom 40 years ago, I never imagined technology would be where it is today. I see in the future more virtual reality, more robotics and 3-D printing. Virtual reality allows someone to transport themselves, like maybe a surgeon who wants to assist in an operation. It’s the modern-day technological equivalent of the industrial revolution. We’re just in our infancy with all of this now. We should enjoy how rapidly technology is changing our lives today… Because it will never move this slowly again!

Sam Ash: A Family In Harmony

Sammy Ash, chief operating officer of Sam Ash Music Stores, was named after his grandfather, who founded the company nearly a century ago.

Sammy Ash is a third-generation music retailer, with 45 years in the business that was started by his grandfather, Sam Ash, a violinist and teacher, in 1924. Sammy and his team have built the company into one that boasts 45 stores, 1,600 employees and 250 music teachers. Sammy is head of customer service and is responsible for all physical aspects of the company. That includes opening new stores and designing the stores. He has lived on Long Island all his life, and now resides in Suffolk County with his wife and two sons, Alex and Jason.

Have you worked for Sam Ash all of your life? I have been working for the company for more than 45 years now. I did everything from clean the bathrooms, drive and load trucks, warehouse, sales, sales manager, manager and so on. Our father made sure we knew every single aspect of the company.

What is your title now? I am the company chief operating officer. I oversee all physical aspects of the chain, I build and move the stores. I am also head of customer service. There has been an Ash on the other side of the phone, now email, for 95 years, and that will not stop any time soon. If there is a problem that the stores can’t fix, I fix it.

How old were you when you started at the company? I started getting paid on the books at 15. Prior to that I got paid in hot dogs and a few bucks my father would give me.

What did you do before working for Sam Ash? I was a rebel and I didn’t want to work for “my daddy’s business,” so I parked cars, tried pumping gas, anything my friends were doing.

How many stores does Sam Ash have now? We just opened up our 47th location in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a 16,000-square-foot beauty with all of the benefits and features of all Sam Ash Music Stores.

Your grandfather started the business. Can you talk about his business plan? Goals? Do you think he would be pleased with the company today? My grandfather wasn’t much of a business man and didn’t have a lot of goals except to see that his bills were paid on time even in the Depression. It was my father and Uncle Paul that had the vision to become a chain. It was my brothers and I and a few very trusted members of our team that took it the rest of the way.

If you attend a wedding or a bar mitzvah these days, you hear a lot of electronic music, operated by a DJ. You don’t see a lot of instruments, and I love instruments. How has this affected your business? DJ is a rather small part of the overall music business. It is a segment of our live sound business. Yes, it is very popular in the bar mitzvah/wedding circuit, but in the overall scheme of things musical instruments still dominate. I personally love a band!

When I go into a Sam Ash store, I see lots and lots of guitars. Are these your biggest selling items? We sell a lot guitars, clearly one of our biggest segments of instruments. Right now we are seeing an explosion in the sale of acoustic guitars and ukuleles — yes ukuleles! They are huge. We sell more ukuleles in one month than we did in a whole year a decade ago. Everyone loves them.

What’s the next big seller? Technology. Keyboards and recording microphones.

When I went to school back in the Dark Ages, every kid was required to play an instrument. We all went to Sam Ash to pick out our instruments. Is this still the case today? Today we have lesson centers in a majority of our stores and will probably have taught about 110,000 lessons last year. That is my fastest-growing segment. On a Saturday morning, the stores are still packed with families buying or renting all kinds of instruments. It’s still a fun visit.

Where do you see the company going in 10 years? I have two sons in the business, Ben and Max, and my brother Richard has two, Adam and Derek. I want a business that they can run together for a long time as well. They have the capabilities to bring the company into the future as a team. They work very well together.

Leaders Confident Long-stalled Redevelopment of Nassau Hub Will Finally Advance

For decades now, Nassau officials and developers have talked about redeveloping what’s known as The Nassau Hub, the area smack in the county’s mid-section, by building offices, stores, entertainment  facilities, and parks on the 72 acres of parking lot surrounding Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The plans died each time. But now, ideas for the Hub are alive once again, and this time, local leaders and builders feel sure it is going to happen. But if all the excited talk in political and governmental circles about the Hub — on the largest tract of undeveloped land in the county, off the Meadowbrook Parkway and Hempstead Turnpike — sounds familiar, it should.

Since 1998, there have been five serious proposals to develop the coliseum parking lot into something that would include all the amenities of a “new suburbia,” as it has been described.

And each time, all the hoopla turned into nothing more than crumpled piles of paper and aging charts. One of the more memorable plans was in 2004, when then-Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi secured a bid from late New York Islanders owner Charles Wang and Long Island developer Scott Rechler to build a project called the Lighthouse. The $3.8 billion project, which was to include office towers, a renovated coliseum, restaurants and businesses, never materialized.

But in December, the Nassau Legislature approved a plan and lease amendment giving the coliseum’s operator, BSE Global, and Rechler’s RXR Realty exclusive rights to redevelop the land.

Fueling the excitement, in early February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed to spend an additional $40 million for pedestrian bridges and a medical research center at The Hub.

“This is the closest we’ve ever come to make this happen,” a gleeful Nassau County Executive Laura Curran says.

Brett Yormark, BSE Global’s CEO, said in a statement that this may be “the last chance” to redevelop the Hub.

Supporters feel confident, in part because the Hub has acquired its first long-awaited anchor tenant. Northwell Health last year agreed to build a 225,000-square-foot research and development center on the vacant land at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Earle Ovington Boulevard, across from the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University/Northwell.

As a result, Long Island business leaders are breathing easier these days.

“We’re pleased to see this proposal come forward,” says Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit that promotes smart growth. But, he adds, “Nothing is ever a done deal. The deal is open to outreach from the community.”

Developers are to meet periodically with community residents to discuss their concerns.

As it stands now, the developers propose to build a $1.5 billion project that is to include 500 units of housing, primarily for millennials, 600,000 square feet of office and biotech research space, two hotels and 200,000 square feet of entertainment venues, and out-of-the-box retail outlets.

Cuomo’s proposed $40 million for the pedestrian bridges and a medical research center bring to about $131 million the amount New York State has committed to the project.

Rechler says the current plans differ from those of the past. Under the Lighthouse proposal, he says, the coliseum was slated to be rebuilt. That’s now unnecessary since it was renovated by BSE Global, formerly known as Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. Rechler says BSE Global and RXR have accepted the “low-density zoning requirements” of Nassau, requiring more open space, adequate parking, and walkways.

And, Rechler says, the project has bipartisan support. The Nassau Legislature voted 19-0 late last year to approve the Hub plan.

“We should have the first shovel in the ground in the next 18 months,” Rechler says.

Not everyone is happy. Richard Cardozo, president of the Carman Community Organization in Westbury, says the organization’s members are uneasy.

“Nobody wants to make this the sixth borough,” Cardozo, says. “And nobody wants the traffic. But it’s going to happen. The powers that want to do it are so big.”

He acknowledged that Nassau would benefit from construction and other jobs the Hub will bring. But, he says, “The philosophy seems to be that open space is a bad thing.”

The deal still has a way to go.

Developers must enter into a labor agreement with local building trade unions. They must also submit quarterly project updates and hold meetings with the public. Still to be worked out are financial details for Northwell Health’s so-called Innovation Center. And, the developers say they will need subsidies from Nassau to offset taxes in the building of residential units.

That is something county legislators are not anxious to approve, as residents pay some of the highest taxes in the country. The question remains: Will this time be different?

ProHealth Dental CEO Norton L. Travis: Advancing The Needle

Norton L. Travis is chief executive officer of ProHealth Dental, which operates multispeciality dental offices on Long Island and in Queens, New Jersey, and Westchester County. Its mission is to promote the importance of oral health as an important element of overall health. Travis worked as a lawyer, specializing in health care, for more than 25 years before assuming his current position in December 2015. He was also project coordinator and a consultant for the New York Proton Center. a cancer care center in Harlem, for which he helped raise $350 million. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

How do you define ProHealthDental? Well, let’s start with just ProHealth. ProHealth is a large, physician-driven organization that provides a full range of health services. Three years ago, there was a decision made that ProHealth should also provide dental services. ProHealth Dental is a separate organization from ProHealth, but our business model revolves around treating a person’s whole health. At ProHealthDental, we are all about attaching the mouth back to the body so we can provide full-health services.

What’s meant by “attaching the mouth back to the body?” Taking proper care of the mouth has an enormous effect on someone’s overall health. Our model also calls for us to educate the public about oral health.

But you do treat cavities, right? Yes, of course. If you look at a lot of dental practices, they are a lot about dental cosmetics. We do that, too. But we want to be the kind of dental office where people learn to lead healthy lives. It’s astonishing how many people on all socioeconomic levels are not leading healthy lives.

What’s the problem with getting people to do that? It’s first of all convincing them to see a dentist. Many people have a fear of dentists. The difficulty is also the way the healthcare system is set up. There is little, if any, insurance coverage for dental care. People seem to think there is little connection between overall health and dental care. The Harvard School of Dental Medicine is one of the few in the country breaking down the chasm between dentistry and medicine. They are very definitely connected. We have developed a clinical affiliation with ProHealth. We can coordinate care. It’s a proven fact that poor dental care has a major effect on people with cardiac problems, obesity and sleep apnea.

So how do you coordinate with ProHealth? We start at the intake process. We provide the latest technology to detect oral cancer. We … [ask patients] about possible sleep disorders. We do blood-pressure screening. We ask patients if they have a primary-care physician. We don’t just look in a patient’s mouth. If there is going to be a germ of some type in a person’s body, it’s going to be seen in an oral examination.
 
Can you give us an example how the coordination works? Well, there is a pediatrician’s office across the hall from us. One of the pediatricians saw something in a child’s mouth that concerned her. Her office asked us if we could see the child [in our office]. One of our dentists said, No. I will be over there in a second. And she was.
 
Why don’t all dentists adopt the same whole-health methods you do? It starts in the medical schools. Other than at Harvard Dental School, they don’t teach a lot about overall health. The problem is also exacerbated by the insurance companies. People seem to feel that, if there is limited dental coverage, dental issues can’t be all that important. We are working with Medicare to try and convince the federal government to cover periodontal disease. Studies show that if Medicare covered periodontal disease, less money would have to be spent later treating the conditions that result from periodontal disease.
 
Why do you think there is such little coverage for dental treatment? It’s historical. Remember, people used to get their teeth taken care of by barbers, who pulled teeth out with a string. People still seem to feel the mouth is not connected to the rest of the body.
 
Do you think your model is catching on? It’s just starting to evolve. Throughout the country, there are only a handful of other practices doing all of this. For us, there always has to be a mission. We believe we can run a successful practice and do good at the same time. We believe we are advancing the needle.

MTA Sees Light At End of Tunnel for East Side Access Project, But Skeptics Remain

The MTA says the first Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal will board in 2022. Photo by Bruce Adler

After decades of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority now says there is light at the end of the tunnel for the East Side Access Project — one of the biggest public works program of its kind in the nation — that will provide a direct route for Long Island Rail Road commuters to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for the first time.

The ESA, as it is known, is 72 percent completed, according to the latest MTA data. MTA officials say service to Grand Central is now slated to start in December 2022. When it does begin, the service will accommodate some 160,000 riders per day, the MTA said. LIRR riders will be able to skip changing at Penn Station for the East Side, saving them about 40 minutes of commuting time, round trip.

The MTA, to bolster its claim that the project is finally coming to an end, is lately providing reporters and citizens tours of the cavernous underground where some 2,500 sandhogs work in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A Long Island Press reporter and a photographer went underground recently for a tour.

The tour begins with a brief walk through the elegant Grand Central, filled with commuters rushing to work and others eating at the station’s classy cafes. We proceed to a metal door on the lower level.

As soon as the metal door opens, the grandeur of Grand Central quickly vanishes, replaced by subterranean darkness, the pounding of heavy machinery, dust, smoke, dim lights, tracks, mud, and MTA tour guides shouting to be heard above the din of construction.

We are about 140 feet below Park Avenue, and what we see through the half-light are clean slates of walls, made of stone imported from Turkey and Italy, and cut and molded in the U.S.  

The underground complex doesn’t look anywhere near finished, but the MTA says the December 2022 is “set in stone” and will be met.

We see tracks laden with mud. The MTA used gigantic boring machines to push through centuries-old bedrock, to build eight tracks and four platforms. There are escalators that look like magnetized ski slopes, jutting down 90 feet to a concourse that will house retail shops and a dining area.

“This is going to be a huge economic benefit to Long Island commuters,” says John Rizzo, the chief economist for the Long Island Association. “It will facilitate people’s ability to work on the East Side and increase real-estate values in Nassau County. ”

David Kapell, a consultant to the LIA, who was also along for the tour, labeled the project “Long Island’s Brooklyn Bridge,” opening access not only to the East Side, but allowing commuters to make quick jumps to trains to Westchester County and New Jersey.

We walk up and down steps, ride in a construction vehicle, and finally come upon some muddy tracks and a platform. One day, commuters will be here, we are told.

This is a project decades in the making. Planners began to talk about it as long ago as the late 1950s. Plans came and went. Initially, the entire project’s cost was put at $3.2 billion. The cost tripled, and is now pegged at over $11 billion. Poor management over the years, plus rising labor and materials costs, are said to be the reasons.

Chris Jones, the Regional Plan Association’s senior vice president and chief planner, said the initial time and cost estimates should never have been given wide credence.  

“It was never going to be done as first thought,” Jones says. He noted that the ESA project and the Second Avenue Subway were the first major projects the MTA undertook in decades.

But, he says, the ESA “is a project of major benefits. You start with the amount of time it will save for thousands of commuters.” It is estimated that it will relieve overcrowding at Penn and will create more capacity and flexibility in the entire rail system.

Even now, there is some concern as to whether the 2022 opening date will be met. Mark Epstein, chairman of the Long Island Commuter Council, says a survey of the project — determining more precise costs and a beginning date — has not been done in a decade.

“I don’t think they [MTA officials] know” full costs or when the project will be done, Epstein says. “We have been calling for a new study … It’s an incredible project. But there are a lot of unknowns.”

Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman, says the agency regularly performs “origin and destination” surveys. He says the last was done in 2014. No survey is currently underway.

“We are discussing the data-gathering needed” for the project, he says.

Donovan adds that Janno Lieber, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently appointed to oversee the ESA project, “has taken a careful look at the ongoing construction and is satisfied that all is going well, that we’re past the halfway point, and all will be completed on time.”