Epstein: How some of MTA's extra $40M could improve the LIRR
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As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approaches its meeting next week and the next chairman takes the reins, there's a new opportunity to improve travel on the Long Island Rail Road.
The 2013-14 state budget included a happy surprise for the MTA and, hopefully, the LIRR: $40 million more in dedicated tax revenue than the 2013 MTA budget projected. Now is the time for the MTA board to demonstrate its commitment to the commuters of Long Island.
Many uses have been proposed for this windfall, and the MTA promised its response by its meeting this month. The Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, the legislatively mandated voice of LIRR riders, has some thoughts on how to use this funding to improve travel and increase ridership. Though transformative projects like major track improvements may not be feasible, the LIRR should receive a substantial portion of these funds to meet long-standing needs.
Service: A tight 2010 budget forced LIRR schedule reductions as part of $93 million in MTA cuts. Some service was restored this past year, but seasonal Greenport Branch cuts, off-peak weekend Port Washington Branch cuts and discontinued West Hempstead Branch weekend service still require restoration. Service gaps of more than an hour throughout the system -- for example, between the 1:31 and 2:52 p.m. trains from Penn Station to Huntington -- need to be addressed. Regular, frequent service is critical in attracting riders to the LIRR.
Security: MTA police officers patrol 124 stations from Manhattan to Montauk, making a physical presence difficult except in the busiest stations. Police must have the tools necessary to keep us safe. Whether advanced technology, such as additional remote surveillance equipment like real-time cameras, or more traditional resources such as additional officers and patrol cars, security must be in the funding conversation.
Cleaning and maintenance: LIRR customer surveys show that riders want clean and well-maintained stations, tracks and trains, but they endure deteriorating conditions systemwide. Just look at the crumbling Greenvale station platforms and unsightly peeling paint at the Babylon station. As LIRR cleaning funds regularly come under attack in the budget process, debris accumulates on the right of way. The MTA must address such quality of commuting issues.
Waiting room hours: Last year, responding to our call, the LIRR launched a pilot program extending waiting-room hours at 41 stations. These changes should be made permanent, and the hours of other waiting areas with early afternoon closing times should be extended. One roadblock is the one-time cost of modifications needed to keep these stations open later. A small investment would significantly enhance the safety and comfort of riders who wait, often in bad weather, for a connecting train or their ride.
Wheelchair accessibility: At several stations modest accessibility investments could produce great results. One example is Pinelawn, which serves a national cemetery frequently visited by veterans, some of whom are disabled, and the families of those who died for our country. The Pinelawn station house is not equipped to serve cemetery visitors who have mobility limitations. Righting this wrong is well past due. The MTA should fund the modest cost of adding ramps and expanding doorways.
Fares: These funds should also be used to reduce the growing fare burden on riders. LIRR fares just increased by more than 8 percent, and the MTA's financial plan contains a similar increase in 2015. These increases are not sustainable, and we call upon the MTA to commit funding to reduce the 2015 hike.
By keeping in mind the daily needs of riders -- including service, parking and station upkeep -- and providing the LIRR its needed share of this $40 million, the MTA board can increase both LIRR rider satisfaction and boost LIRR ridership.
Mark J. Epstein is chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council.