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LIRR mobile app, new rail line will need boost, MTA says

MTA officials say they'll need help to move ahead with two initiatives that could shape the future of commuting on the Long Island Rail Road.

The LIRR said Monday that the long-awaited rollout of mobile ticketing for LIRR customers is hinging on cooperation from railroad unions, which have raised concerns about the reliability of the technology.

And the construction of a new rail yard along the Huntington/Port Jefferson Line will require Suffolk municipalities, which have fought similar proposals in the past, to come up with a location for it, officials said this week.

At a Monday meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Capital Oversight Committee, LIRR officials said they expected to complete development by the end of 2015 of a mobile application that would allow customers to purchase and present train tickets using their smartphones.

Riders on the MTA's sister railroad, Metro-North, will be able to use the app, being developed by Masabi of London, starting early next year. But the LIRR said it would not introduce the new ticketing system until it reaches an agreement with labor unions.

"We are engaged in many discussions with our workforce, our collective bargaining units," Mark Young, LIRR chief financial officer, told the committee. "It's a priority for us to have a rollout plan that all parties agree is the best approach. Our labor relations teams are working on that."

Union leaders have questioned the reliability of mobile ticketing, citing Internet connectivity problems on trains and the potential for mobile-phone batteries to die before customers present their tickets.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents LIRR conductors, said his organization was looking for ticketing tech that improves fare collection and "is the right fit."

"It does not make sense to just put a technology in place for the sake of saying we have it. We need to get it right first," Simon said. "And we are confident we will get there."

LIRR officials said that once an agreement is reached with the unions, it will take another 19 months to roll out the technology. In the meantime, the LIRR has hired Colorado engineering consultant CH2M Hill to develop a long-term fare collection plan that "will serve as the foundation for a future system that is cost effective, customer convenient, operationally efficient, interoperable and revenue protective."

Meanwhile, the MTA has also approved spending $8 million to begin developing a new yard on the Huntington/Port Jefferson Line, as part of the MTA's five-year, $29 billion capital program. Now the LIRR needs somewhere to build it.

A dozen years ago, the LIRR proposed locations for such a yard, but all were soundly rejected by residents in the suggested communities. This time around, the LIRR is leaving it up to municipalities to come up with a suitable location for the facility, which would allow the LIRR to run more trains along the line.

"For those people on the Huntington and Port Jefferson Line who have been yelling for increased service, now is your chance to put your land where our money is," MTA board member Mitchell Pally said Wednesday. "Without the land, the money is nice, but it's not going anywhere."

In a statement, Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the county "will proactively work with the MTA" to find a home for the yard, "as this effort will support upgrades to Long Island's transportation infrastructure and complements our Connect Long Island Regional Plan."

But Linda Henninger, vice president of the Kings Park Civic Association, which opposed proposals to build the yard at two Kings Park sites in 2003, said she expected the group would do much the same today.

"Name something that's changed. Really, nothing," Henninger said. She added that the group would be open to hearing new proposals, but not the same old ones. "The locations they were looking at in Kings Park all had problems, and those problems still exist."


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