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LIRR, Nassau officials prep for Belmont Stakes after last year's transportation meltdown

The Long Island Rail Road and the New

The Long Island Rail Road and the New York Racing Association are approaching the home stretch of a $5 million effort to upgrade Belmont Par's transportation facilities with the goal of avoiding the long delays and overwhelming crowds that plagued last year's Belmont Stakes. Credit: Uli Seit

With the Belmont Stakes less than a month away, state and local officials are making preparations to ensure there's no repeat of last year's transportation chaos, when massive crowds overwhelmed track parking lots and Belmont's Long Island Rail Road station after the race, causing wait times of several hours.

Paid attendance at this year's race will be capped at 90,000. The LIRR has spent $4 million to construct two new station platforms and to extend the existing tracks at Belmont, increasing train capacity from eight to 10 cars.

Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said the department is conducting a risk assessment of the expected Belmont crowd and will continue to evaluate the situation as Stakes Day approaches.

But county officials say it's premature to calibrate preparations based on a crowd size prediction until after next Saturday's Preakness. If Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah takes first place in the race, a Triple Crown will be within reach at Belmont.

Last year, more than 102,000 fans gathered at Belmont -- the third most in the track's history --- to watch California Chrome make an unsuccessful bid for the Triple Crown.

A record-setting 36,000 passengers used the LIRR last year to come and go from Belmont, overwhelming the system. Frustrated straphangers waited up to three hours for a train while motorists complained of standstills in parking lots and on area roadways.

If American Pharaoh falls short at the Preakness, crowds are expected to be much smaller for the Belmont Stakes on June 6. The combined average attendance from 2011 to 2013, with no Triple Crown up for grabs, was just above 63,000.

But the New York Racing Association is taking no chances, announcing in the past week that regardless of the Preakness result, paid attendance at Belmont will be capped at 90,000.

"This step is similar to the policies and practices of professional sports teams, and will not only result in an enhanced experience for Belmont guests, but will further improve access to and from the Belmont property," the NYRA said.

To stagger crowd exit times and discourage fans from leaving at once, the Goo Goo Dolls will perform a concert in the winner's circle after the final race.

NYRA said it's also working on new traffic patterns in Belmont's parking lots, adding additional entrance and exit points and removing turnstiles from park entrances and exits. A new system uses electronic ticket scanning for admission.

The agency is also spending $1 million to refurbish an aging transit rotunda on the west end of the grandstand.

The work includes reopening a pedestrian bridge that leads from Belmont's grandstand to the train station. It was temporarily shut down by the state fire marshal after last year's race because of concerns about its structural integrity.

The LIRR said it will provide extra service during the Stakes and that station improvements, including two new elevated platforms, should provide for faster and more frequent departures.

LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski has said the agency could use tracks on the nearby Hempstead branch to line up trains that can be dispatched to Belmont coming from the east as soon as one pulls out westward. Inbound trains previously had to wait until an outbound train cleared the track.

The goal, he said, is to nearly double the number of trains that can run in and out of Belmont on stakes day.

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