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Critics pan LIRR plan to spend Sandy cash on Double Track

This view looking west, shows the stretch of

This view looking west, shows the stretch of single-track main line between the Pinelawn and Wyandanch stations on the LIRR's Ronkonkoma branch, April 16, 2012. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Long Island Rail Road wants to spend $300 million in federal Sandy money to complete its Double Track effort between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma -- a project that some critics say has little to do with protecting the LIRR from future storms.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials, who recently included Double Track in a $409-million wish list of disaster mitigation initiatives, said having extra capacity on the Main Line is imperative in case a storm again knocks out service on South Shore lines such as the Long Beach and Babylon branches.

"It's kind of impossible to see how this is going to be all that beneficial in terms of resiliency," said Erich Zimmerman, senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based group that closely monitors federal post-Sandy spending. "Do I fault the MTA for asking? Certainly not."

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg defended the classification of Double Track as a South Shore resiliency initiative. One of the agency's key goals after Sandy is to eliminate "single points of failure," he said.


'Absolutely vital' project

Double Track will add a second set of rails along an 18-mile stretch in western Suffolk, allowing the LIRR to run more trains on the Ronkonkoma line.

"This would be vital, absolutely vital, during an emergency that would shut down train service on the South Shore," Lisberg said. "If everybody on the South Shore starts surging up north to catch a train into the city that's running on a single track, you can imagine the chaos."

The LIRR did experience crowding on its Main Line after Sandy, in part because riders from affected lines, and commuters who could no longer easily drive into Manhattan, opted to use it.

The MTA has proposed resiliency projects across all its agencies, totaling $5.8 billion, but has not yet formally applied for funding.

The Federal Transit Administration has allotted $898 million to the MTA for mitigation projects. An FTA spokesman said another round of funding that will include more money for such projects is expected, but the amount has not been determined.


Compete for funds

The MTA will have to compete with other transportation agencies in the region, including New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, for a share of that money.

"We cannot speak to the merit of any particular project because the competitive resiliency program is still under development by the Federal Transit Administration," FTA spokesman Brian Farber said in a statement. "However, the FTA's highest priorities will be to fund those projects designed to protect existing infrastructure that millions of riders depend on each day and to reduce the risk that federal taxpayers will have to pay for the same transit infrastructure repairs a second or third time."

The LIRR is also proposing infrastructure projects with more obvious storm-protection benefits. Those include making the East River rail tunnels and West Side Yards more flood-resistant, and elevating key electrical components along the Long Beach line that were destroyed by tidal surges during the Oct. 29 storm.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Senate Transportation Committee member, said he will support using Sandy funds for Double Track as long as the railroad makes "a compelling case that this project has mitigation effects for LIRR riders."

"We need to make sure we are using these precious and limited dollars . . . to go towards projects that truly offer us protection from the next storm," Schumer said in a statement.

The $130 million first phase of Double Track, proposed in 2009, is fully funded and expected to break ground by the end of 2013. The LIRR had not previously identified where it would get the $300 million to complete the project.

"We look for all the resources we can," Lisberg said. "We'd be pretty bad stewards of the transportation system if we didn't."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's NYS2100 Commission, tasked with finding ways to improve the state's infrastructure in the face of natural disasters, included Double Track among its key projects. The commission reported that the second rail line would "provide a vital redundancy by allowing alternative routing" of trains and ensuring the delivery of resources to Suffolk.


Spending questioned

Some riders on the LIRR's Long Beach line, which did not have full service restored for a month after Sandy, questioned spending the money on Double Track.

"Having another line in Farmingdale isn't going to help me much and definitely not the people in this area," Jack Dock, 75, said as he waited for a train at his home station of Island Park, one of the most flood-prone stations in the LIRR system. "I'm not going to Farmingdale if I live on the South Shore."

MTA board member Mitchell Pally said using federal funding for Double Track would not come at the expense of other disaster mitigation projects. "There was nothing that wasn't going to get done," Pally said.

He added that freeing up money in the MTA's next five-year capital plan -- where the second phase of the project would probably have been included -- could allow the LIRR to tackle other projects that would help it withstand storms but are not eligible for federal funding. Those could include building new rail yards to store trains.

Some transit advocacy groups, including the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Regional Plan Association, support the use of Sandy funds for Double Track, which they said would provide some riders with a much-needed backup plan in an emergency.

"The mitigation aspects of it are not as obvious as they are for projects like drainage," said Christopher Jones, vice president for the Regional Plan Association. "But they're still real."

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