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LIRR ridership up, especially during non-rush hour, new report says

A westbound train pulls out of the Huntington

A westbound train pulls out of the Huntington Long Island Rail Road Station on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

More Long Island Rail Road riders than ever are using the system outside rush hour, but some MTA officials warn the agency needs major changes in its infrastructure plans to handle the growth.

So-called "non-commutation" ridership has increased by 66 percent since 1984, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority report released Monday. MTA board member Norman Brown noted that while the authority celebrates the growth of nontraditional ridership on the LIRR, it is not taking the necessary steps to support it.

Brown said the LIRR's failure to move forward with a plan to build a third track on its Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville will further hamper the railroad's ability to carry reverse commuters once East Side Access is complete in 2022 and the LIRR adds even more trains and riders heading west in the morning and east in the evening.

"While we observe all these great trends in ridership growth . . . we're doing one bad thing, and we're not doing one great thing," Brown said. "It's more than just strangling service to Long Island. It's a bad use of your capital resources."

Brown and LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said capacity constraints already prohibit the LIRR from running any eastbound trains out of Penn Station for about an hour and a half in the morning, and no westbound trains for nearly an hour in the evening. Brown questioned how much worse that will get after the LIRR adds a second Manhattan terminal as part of East Side Access, projected to add thousands of new commuters.

The ridership report came on the day MTA chief financial officer Robert Foran reiterated that without help from the state and other funding partners, the agency will be forced to rely on fare hikes as large as 15 percent.

While Nowakowski and other MTA officials said the ridership increases are a testament to the importance of the MTA capital plan, which funds infrastructure investments, the agency's proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 capital plan currently faces a $15 billion shortfall.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he is working on providing more revenue to the MTA, dismissing some early estimates of the agency's needs as posturing during state budget negotiations. He had no immediate comment Monday.

The report said the LIRR -- the busiest commuter railroad in the United States -- carried 85.8 million riders last year, a 3 percent increase from 2013 and the third-highest ridership in nearly 70 years.

Most notably, according to the agency, traditional commutes -- during peak hours to and from Manhattan and points east -- constitute only 57 percent of all LIRR rides, compared with 71 percent in 1984.

"What you're seeing is really quite fascinating, because it's a generational trend in using transit for all sorts of way-of-life trip purposes," MTA director of Special Project Development and Planning William Wheeler said Monday. LIRR Chief Financial Officer Mark Young said some of the biggest ridership increases are in areas the LIRR has restored service that had been cut due to budget constraints, and where transit-oriented developments have arisen, including West Hempstead.

On the LIRR's Brooklyn line, which carried 26,540 riders on an average weekday last year, there were about 6.4 percent more than in 2013. While events at Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn account for much of the increase, Brooklyn ridership also increased during typical rush hours.

Brown also pointed out that even as the LIRR sees unprecedented growth of its Brooklyn ridership, it plans to "degrade" Brooklyn service by replacing it with "scoot" shuttle trains that will require all borough riders to transfer at Jamaica, where they'll have to walk upstairs and across to a newly built platform dedicated to Brooklyn trains. The change is expected to coincide with completion of East Side Access.

Nowakowski said the third track project remains a need for the LIRR, but has been sidelined due to "great political discontent." He said instituting shuttle service on the Brooklyn line is necessary because of capacity limitations at Jamaica.

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