MTA board OKs $28.1 billion for regional projects

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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted Wednesday to spend $28.1 billion to improve transit infrastructure in the region, including the tackling of major projects on the Long Island Rail Road.

At a Manhattan meeting, the board voted to adopt the MTA's proposed five-year capital program, which would fund large transit projects from 2010 to 2014. The proposed budget still requires approval from the four voting members of the state's MTA Capital Program Review board.

MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin called the capital plan critical toward maintaining "the region's lifeblood."

"Today's board vote was another key milestone in the ongoing discussion," he said, "and we look forward to engaging with the Legislature to have a plan in place by the end of the year."

For the Long Island Rail Road, the plan includes $137.9 million to build a second track between the Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma stations; $65 million in funding to improve parking at the busiest stations, including by building garages; and funding to create frequent shuttle service between some infrequently served stations and Main Line stations.

Among other projects included in the plan are development of a "smart card" fare payment system that would bill customers and would not require swiping; development of "countdown clocks" at subway stations to inform riders when the next train is coming; and purchase of hundreds of subway and rail cars.

Responding to concerns raised by some transit advocates, the MTA recently revised the plan to address two of Long Island's most pressing transit needs. The plan now includes funding to study the viability of creating a regional bus authority in which the MTA would take over ownership, expand and improve existing bus systems in Nassau and Suffolk. Funding also is included to conduct an environmental impact statement for the long-discussed project to build a third track between Hicksville and Floral Park.

"It's an opportunity for reverse commuters, and I think putting it off is very hurtful to Long Island and the region," said board member Ira Greenberg, adding he was "very happy to see" the late additions to the plan.

A state Legislature rescue package adopted in May to address the MTA's financial problems included funding for only the first two years of the five-year plan. MTA officials have said they still are about $10 billion short of the proposed plan's total cost, and state lawmakers and auditors have warned against heavy borrowing to cover the entire plan.

"My overriding concern continues to be how this plan will be funded," said Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who sits on the MTA Capital Program Review Board. "We need to know if this is a realistic plan, or a wish list."

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