In 2012, cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, heard that a nonprofit organization in Suffolk County, New York, was raising money to buy Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla’s last remaining laboratory. If the organization could raise $850,000, New York State would match the funds, giving the group a chance to obtain the property and eventually turn it into a science museum.
Inman, a self-described “geek” and a fan of the late inventor, launched an Indiegogo campaign to support the nonprofit. Within three hours and twenty minutes, he’d raised $100,000. Forty-five days later, he had nearly $1.4 million.
By the time the Tesla Science Center opens within the next few years, you’ll likely be able to ride there, car-free, thanks to another exciting project in the works: A 10-mile rail trail between the towns of Mount Sinai and Wading River.
While fundraising for the science center was a huge success, securing funds for the bike path proved far more challenging.
The idea for the project — using the old Long Island Railroad tracks to provide a place for people to recreate — dates back about 50 years, says Suffolk County legislator Sarah Anker, a champion of the trail. The trail was formally proposed in 2001, and the federal government earmarked funds for 80 percent of the approximately $9 million project more than a decade ago. But due to a number of issues, including concerns about liability from the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA, which owns the right of way), the project stalled and the county risked losing the funds. Local officials worked with state and federal lawmakers, including current Representative Lee Zeldin (R-1), to hold onto the funding, and in 2016, Zeldin announced that the trail was back on track. However, the project still needed county to approval.
On July 17 of this year, county legislators voted to borrow money (most of which will be reimbursed by the federal government) for the trail’s completion, which is slated for 2020. Local biking clubs and nonprofits such as the Boy Scouts will help minimize costs by volunteering hours for maintenance and beautification, Anker says.
To solve the liability issue, Anker worked with LIPA on an agreement, with some guidance from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and drawing on her own experience as director of energy for the town of Brookhaven. Under the contract, the county assumes responsibility for the trail by running it as a county park.
The trail will be a valuable resource for a region that Bicycling magazine once named the worst place to ride a bike in the United States. The path will parallel Route 25A, one of the most dangerous roads in the state, Anker says. “The project will not only provide a safe place to ride — it will also help support the local economy.”
In addition to visiting the schools, libraries, and of course, the giant statue of Nikola Tesla that will be located on the route, Anker hopes that bicyclists will frequent the variety of shops and restaurants in the six small towns along the trail. The chances are good: Research out of Portland State University suggests that customers on bicycles spend more on average than customers who arrive by car (grocery shopping excepted). If you don’t give people a reason — such as going for a bike ride — to travel to a store, they’re likely to shop online instead, Anker says: “We’re hoping to bring people out of their homes.”
Construction on the trail is expected to start next year. While the journey hasn’t been easy, Anker remains appreciative of the many organizations and bicycling enthusiasts who contributed ideas, funding, and volunteer efforts that will make the project successful.
“Make the most of your resources, because there’s a lot out there,” she says. “You can tap into them, and good things happen.”