(TNS) — As we enter 2021, the five-year fight to extend the HOV lane on the Staten Island Expressway (SIE) wages on, now with an exorbitant price tag hovering over the proposed project.

Since 2017, Councilman Steven Matteo ( R-Mid-Island) has petitioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to extend the borough's HOV lane to span the entire length of the Staten Island Expressway, from the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to the Goethals Bridge.

The Staten Island Expressway HOV lane currently stretches from the Verrazzano to the Victory Boulevard exit.

In October, Matteo wrote to the NYSDOT requesting an estimate on how much it would cost to extend the HOV lane from its current end point to the Goethals Bridge. A month later, the state responded with what Matteo described as an "astronomical estimate" of $500 million to $800 million to complete the HOV lane in both directions, and $300 million to complete it in just one direction.

"An extension of the lane would require major reconstruction of multiple mainline and ramp structures on the SIE and the SIE/West Shore Expressway interchange. In addition, there would be a need for large retaining walls, extensive wetland mitigation, and significant amounts of new pavement," wrote NYSDOT regional director Craig Ruyle.

"An extension of only the eastbound or westbound HOV lane would still involve many of the same costly elements noted above," Ruyle added.

In response, Matteo sent another letter to the NYSDOT on Monday, asking the department for a detailed breakdown of the provided cost estimates.

"These numbers are astronomical, particularly when compared with the $111.07 million price tag when the lane was extended from Slosson Avenue to Victory Boulevard," the councilman wrote.

"I ask that you provide a breakdown in as much detail as possible of the cost estimates that you provided, so I can understand how such a project could potentially cost almost a billion dollars," he added.

In the letter, Matteo goes on to inquire about any potential federal funding that may become available for the project once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, noting that the aforementioned $111.07 million extension was funded in large part by $76.29 million in federal funds.

He also asked if a potential extension project on the Staten Island Expressway is "shovel-ready" should it receive funding and, if not, what work would be required to prep the site.

The councilman went on to inquire whether it would be possible to construct the extended HOV lane in phases in order to drive down the initial project costs.

"While this would not be the ideal scenario, it would provide momentum toward the eventual completion of the project," Matteo wrote.

A representative from the NYSDOT said the agency will review the councilman's letter and will work with elected officials to find a cost-effective means of reducing traffic in the borough.

"We will review Councilman Matteo's letter when it is received. The New York State Department of Transportation is committed to working with the City of New York and local elected officials to find cost effective measures to improve mobility on Staten Island," said NYSDOT spokesman Glenn Blain.

How We Got Here

Matteo first started petitioning for the extension of the HOV lane in October 2017, arguing that the forced merge at the terminus of the HOV lane directly contributes to daily traffic build-up.

"Many Staten Islanders and other New York residents frequently travel in the other direction, heading into New Jersey for work or to bypass heavy traffic in Brooklyn. That is why a segment of the Staten Island Expressway that is close to the Goethals is constantly choked with traffic, in either direction," Matteo said in his Oct. 10, 2017, letter to Sonia A. Pichardo, regional director of the NYSDOT at the time.

Pichardo responded by claiming that the HOV lane was functioning exactly how it was designed, by capturing "all HOV vehicles from the West Shore Expressway, Goethals Bridge and the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway," adding that there were no plans at the time to extend the lane further west.

The councilman responded in January 2018, frustrated with NYSDOT's immediate dismissal of the request without further investigation.

"While I am certainly aware there may be logistical difficulties or budget restraints to extending the HOV further west on the Staten Island Expressway, the NYSDOT is dismissing my request without providing any of that information," he said at the time.

In July 2018, following additional requests from Matteo, the agency again denied the extension, claiming it would provide "little benefit to traffic flow in the area."

"My staff and I have reviewed your request and determined that extension of the HOV lane from the current terminus near Victory Boulevard to the Goethals Bridge would provide little benefit to the traffic flow in this area," wrote Ruyle.

Matteo, unhappy with the response, fired back at the NYSDOT in a follow-up tweet.

"Do they actually believe what they wrote that finishing the lane would provide 'little benefit'? When it comes to traffic on Staten Island, anything we can do to help alleviate congestion helps," Matteo retorted.

NYSDOT claimed it had done its due diligence, and that research indicated that "...slow-downs in this segment near the westbound terminus of the HOV lane are, most likely, due to the closely-spaced interchanges in this area."

The 1.5-mile stretch of the westbound Staten Island Expressway, between the Victory Boulevard exit and South Avenue entrance, includes seven interchanges, with four exit ramps and three entrance ramps located within the short span.

In January 2019, the cause was picked up by other elected officials, with former-Congressman Max Rose and Assemblyman Michael Cusick ( D-Mid-Island) joining in the calls for HOV lane extension.

At the time, the lawmakers sent a letter to Cuomo requesting an expedited study to examine extending the westbound HOV lane to the Goethals Bridge or creating a new, additional lane of traffic.

"Staten Islanders have endured a commuting nightmare each and every day, and this is a common-sense idea for the state and federal government to work together to create jobs, reduce traffic bottlenecks, and improve our quality of life," said Rose.

The letter encouraged the state to conduct the study as soon as possible in order to establish a set plan that would allow it to leverage both state and federal funding.

"With the help of Congressman Rose, Staten Island is in a position to benefit from federal funding for dire infrastructure needs," said Cusick. "It is important that the State is prepared for when that time comes and that is why it is imperative this study is completed."

At the time, the governor's office deferred comment to the NYSDOT, which claimed it was happy to discuss the issue, though little progress appears to have been made to this point.

"The NYS Department of Transportation is happy to discuss the issue with Rep. Rose and Assembly Member Cusick and review our assessments of an additional travel lane or an extension of the HOV lane. We always look for ways to improve traffic flow on the Staten Island Expressway and have made several improvements to the highway in recent years. DOT will continue to maintain an open dialogue with the community on this issue and monitor the situation on the roadway," said Blain.

In Dec. 2019, Matteo wrote to Cuomo and implored New York's top official to convince NYSDOT of the glaring need to extend the HOV lane on the Staten Island Expressway.

"Our HOV lane continues to be half-completed with a westbound terminus and eastbound commencement at Victory Boulevard. This configuration makes little practical sense. The fact that it does not run the entire length of the Staten Island Expressway is a constant source of frustration for Staten Island residents who continue to experience unnecessary traffic delays because of it," Matteo wrote.

He went on to voice his frustration with NYSDOT's continued refusal to even study an extension, despite the councilman offering funding for a feasibility study back in January 2018.

"Unfortunately, state DOT is unwilling to finish the job, and has refused to even investigate how to finish the project. As you know, despite several projects to help alleviate congestion, the Staten Island Expressway is still a source of excessive traffic congestion on a daily basis," Matteo continued.

When reached for comment regarding the councilman's request, NYSDOT did not specifically address the proposed extension of the HOV lane, but did note that the agency is working with local officials to reduce congestion on the Staten Island Expressway.

"NYSDOT has been working with the Staten Island delegation of the state legislature and the Borough President's office on potential options to improve traffic flow on the Staten Island Expressway," Blain said at the time.

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