Budget may derail LIRR plan for second track

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A plan to add a second track between the Long Island Rail Road's Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma stations may be on the chopping block if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is forced to scale back its proposed $28-billion capital plan, the LIRR's president said Thursday.

Helena Williams made the announcement during a public hearing in Mineola on the proposed plan, which aims to fund major infrastructure projects on the MTA between 2010 and 2014.

The hearing was organized by State Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who sits on the MTA Capital Program Review Board and has veto power over the plan.

During the hearing, Johnson, who called the plan "a wish list," sought answers on how the MTA plans to fund the entire proposal, which includes $2.75 billion in LIRR projects.

A state government rescue of the MTA passed earlier this year included funding for only the first two years of the five-year plan, leaving it nearly $10 billion short of its goal.

"Where's the money coming from? . . . I'm a little concerned that what we have is an MTA board that's stuck in an old mindset of 'Let's just ratchet up the size of the MTA capital plan,' " Johnson asked Williams. "I think [the MTA] board is getting a little overambitious with an attitude of 'We'll let the Legislature handle it.' "

Williams said that while there is no clear plan to fill the capital budget gap, the review board's approval of the plan would buy the MTA two years to find funding sources - including from the federal government.

But when Johnson and State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), a nonvoting review board member, pressed Williams on what projects the LIRR would cut from the capital plan if forced to do so, Williams said that a $137.9-million plan to begin work on a project to add a second track on a busy, single-track portion of the LIRR in western Suffolk might have to go.

"Could I operate in the future on a single track? Yes. It's not my best alternative, but I could continue the operation I have today," said Williams, who listed "core" infrastructure maintenance projects, such as the replacement of track ties, as projects that the agency cannot do without.

The "double track" project is among the most ambitious - and politically popular - of the LIRR's proposed capital projects, which also include building a new platform in Jamaica to accommodate shuttle trains to Brooklyn and the construction of new rail yards.

While Johnson said he was encouraged that Williams could prioritize her agency's needs, he said he believed building a second track along the busy 17.9-mile stretch is one of the LIRR's more important initiatives.

The four-member review board has until the end of this year to vote on the MTA's capital plan.

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