The Long Island Rail Road plans to spend more than $200 million on improvements along its main line, including major renovations at the deteriorating Hicksville station and rebuilding a crumbling bridge in Westbury.
The money originally was targeted for the LIRR's stalled plan to build a third rail along the main line, which runs through the middle of Long Island from Jamaica station east to Greenport and carries 41 percent of the railroad's traffic.
Nearly half of the $203 million is being spent at Hicksville, which will undergo a major face-lift that includes new 12-car platforms, canopies, escalators, waiting areas and lighting, officials told Newsday.
Joel Berse, president of the Hicksville Community Council and of the Northwest Civic Association of Hicksville, welcomed the improvements.
"The thing is old. The thing is dingy. It's not friendly for somebody to have as a destination. . . . It doesn't look clean even when it is clean," said Berse, who was given a presentation of the project by LIRR officials last week. The renovation, he said, is "a really great idea."
The LIRR will also modernize the signal system at Hicksville -- a major switching point for the railroad. The plan includes laying tracks to connect the station to a nearby siding where trains pull over and are stored. Officials said the link will allow for increased train service at Hicksville during the morning and evening rush hours, and help the LIRR recover from any service disruptions.
The improvements at Hicksville are expected to start in 2014 and be complete by 2017.
Another $39 million will be used to rebuild the Ellison Avenue Bridge that crosses over LIRR tracks in Westbury by late 2014. The state Department of Transportation consistently rates the deteriorated bridge as among the worst on Long Island. The bridge is covered by steel plates and has weight restrictions for vehicles.
The LIRR also will work with the Village of Mineola to address drainage issues at that station, which is prone to flooding.
The total $203 million for the improvement projects is left over from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 2005-2009 capital plan. It was originally intended for the first phase of construction for the controversial plan to build a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville stations to create more capacity for reverse commuters -- those riding out to points on Long Island while most commuters are riding trains west toward and into New York City.
Lack of funds and political support has forced the LIRR to suspend the $1.5 billion project, which involved building on some private property. But proponents of the project, including MTA chairman Joseph Lhota, have called it critical to Long Island's economic future.
Williams said the main line improvements will deliver some of the benefits of the third track plan, including expanded capacity on the main line, without the lengthy wait for full funding and approvals.
"The third track will, of course, remain one of our larger needs . . . But we're being realistic," she said. "The funding is not available for that project. So the challenge to the railroad has been, What can we do to make improvements along the main line short of the third track?"
Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), a staunch opponent of the third track project, said he believed the LIRR is changing its priorities for the better.
"For years, the Long Island Rail Road has focused on these megaprojects," said Martins, whose district includes Hicksville, Westbury and Mineola. "It's important that we don't forget the commuter that uses the railroad every day, not just the one that will use it in 10 or 20 years from now."
Doubts on third-track plan
But boosters of a third track worry whether LIRR officials' decision to spend money originally set aside for the project is an indication of distancing themselves from the plan.
"Given the political climate, it's very understandable that the Long Island Rail Road is saying, 'Look, we have other things we can do with this money,' " said Jeffrey Zupan, senior transportation fellow for the Regional Plan Association. "The danger is that, as an institution, the Long Island Rail Road could quickly forget that the third track is critical."
Williams and other MTA officials insist they remain committed to one day building a third track.
Williams noted that the improvements to be made now would have been part of the larger project anyway. The rebuilt Ellison Avenue Bridge, for example, will be widened to accommodate a third track if one is ever built.
"That door is not closed," Williams said.
LIRR'S $203M IMPROVEMENT PLAN FOR MAIN LINE
The Long Island Rail Road will spend $203 million on improvement projects along its busy Main Line in Nassau. Here's what's planned:
Hicksville Station renovation: Hicksville will get new train platforms, lighting, canopies, waiting areas and escalators.
Hicksville track and signal improvements: The LIRR will lay new tracks to link Hicksville Station to a nearby siding, increasing capacity on the Main Line. It will also modernize the signal system at an important switching point near the station.
Ellison Avenue Bridge: The LIRR will rebuild the crumbling Westbury bridge, which carries cars over the railroad tracks, and also widen it to one day accommodate a third track.
Mineola drainage: The LIRR is working with the Village of Mineola to address recurring flooding at Mineola Station.
SOURCE: Long Island Rail Road