The Long Island Rail Road plans to lay thousands of feet of new track in Nassau and Suffolk counties over the next six years to squeeze more trains onto the crowded network.
The plan, one of the biggest changes in the LIRR's layout in decades, is designed to support the 2019 launch of East Side Access, which will give Long Island riders direct access to Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.
But some commuter advocates, while supporting the investment in building or expanding train-storage areas known as "pocket tracks," question whether it's the best way to add capacity on the nation's second-busiest railroad, which transported 81 million customers last year.
Pocket tracks, typically located at or near stations, provide a place for trains to pull over and park without blocking the main tracks. Using such small storage tracks allows the railroad to start train runs near key origin stations, like Massapequa or Hicksville, rather than having to be dispatched or turned from storage yards farther away from stations, such as those in Babylon and Ronkonkoma.
"The whole point of all of this is to get our system ready from Jamaica to points east to capture the benefits of East Side Access," LIRR chief planning officer Elisa Picca said. "To make the best use of it, you have to have capacity improvements in little bits all over the system."
The railroad, under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's East Side Access project, plans to run 24 additional westbound trains during the busiest hour of the morning commute; the LIRR currently runs 37 trains into Penn Station. Travel to Grand Central is expected to save 160,000 commuters about 40 minutes a day, officials have said.
More trains sought as well
The LIRR also is looking to increase its fleet of 1,185 train cars to 1,234 by the project's 2019 opening. To fit so many more trains into a 179-year-old system already struggling with capacity constraints, small train-storage facilities are essential, LIRR officials said.
East Side Access "means more trains," LIRR customer service vice president Joe Calderone said. "And you need a place to put those trains."
Great Neck, Hicksville, Massapequa, Port Washington and near Ronkonkoma are locations where the LIRR is moving ahead with plans for new pocket tracks, extensions of existing pocket tracks and other train-storage projects. A new track and platform also will be built at Jamaica for all Brooklyn trains.
The projects, which sometimes are included in larger renovation plans, can cost tens of millions of dollars and usually are funded through the MTA's bond-backed capital plan. They have received support from state lawmakers, who must approve major infrastructure initiatives as part of that five-year capital plan process.
Elected officials and residents in some of the areas targeted for new train storage oppose the plans. Track extension proposals on the Port Washington branch would have a greater impact on communities than those on other LIRR lines, officials said.
North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio said recently that the proposal to store an additional 18 train cars on a larger pocket track in Port Washington "will completely ruin the character of the town" by transforming it into a train depot.
The LIRR, in expanding its operation at Port Washington and building another track, is looking at two options to find that space -- buying a parcel in an adjacent parking lot now owned by the Town of North Hempstead or using part of a parking lot the railroad owns along Haven Avenue. Either way, scores of parking spots would be lost.
The railroad has said it will reconfigure parking to minimize the impact and is committed to working with communities to address concerns. The agency is opening an information center at the station for a week beginning Monday to engage with the public and better explain the project's benefits.
The LIRR also has reached out to residents in Great Neck over a plan for a 1,200-foot pocket track extension there. The agency agreed to study ways to reduce noise after hearing from elected officials and homeowners.
But that's not enough for some residents whose homes abut the tracks.
"We're not saying, 'Don't have trains go to Grand Central.' We're just saying, maybe you don't have to park behind our houses to do it," said Willa Morris, 69, of the Village of Thomaston. "It is going to be just terrible."
Steven Hirsch, 48, also of Thomaston, said that as an LIRR commuter, he's "all for the greater good," but building a train yard in a residential community is a lot to ask of homeowners.
"The fact is they're going to be here constantly," Hirsch said while standing in his backyard seconds before a train roared by. "This is nothing. This is a few times an hour."
Push for third track
The LIRR also faces concerns from some transportation advocates who say smaller-capacity expansion projects don't go far enough.
"These pocket tracks are a short-term solution to address the capacity need that's going to arise from East Side Access," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
To truly grow the LIRR, he and others said, a third track on the Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville in Nassau County is essential to accommodate reverse commuters traveling to jobs on Long Island. That project, first proposed about 20 years ago and estimated to cost $8 billion, has been deferred indefinitely by the LIRR because it lacks funding and political support.
"We can run service to Grand Central without a third track," Picca said.
But Jeffrey Zupan, senior transportation fellow for the Regional Plan Association, said he doesn't believe the LIRR -- and all of Long Island -- will realize the full potential of East Side Access until a third track is built.
"These pocket tracks are sufficient, but in the long run, the third track is necessary," he said.