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Experts: Dim future for big LI transportation projects

An eastbound LIRR train enters the Freeport station.

An eastbound LIRR train enters the Freeport station. (March 1, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

With Long Island's dour economy, shrinking state revenues and strong "not-in-my-backyard" tendency, the prospect of new large-scale, government-funded transportation projects being launched anytime soon in the region appears bleak, experts said Sunday.

Reacting to Newsday's special section Sunday focusing on Long Island's transportation woes, experts said smaller, less costly solutions funded locally are more likely in the near-term.

"That's why a group like ours and some other planning groups are pointing to small-scale, transit-oriented developments and not the big-budget items," said Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island.

He said it's hard to justify pushing for funds for big new mass-transit projects when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is cutting rail and bus lines it operates now.

Maureen Michaels, chairwoman of the LIRR Commuter's Council, said the Long Island Rail Road third track project to accommodate reverse commuters and others riding between Floral Park and Hicksville is necessary for the railroad's future. But she blamed political gridlock, inertia and the economy for its stagnation.

"It'll never get approved in an election year, but it's got to happen," she said. "But given the history of the railroad, not much has changed in 175 years."

The biggest political roadblock to the third track is state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who has a seat on the MTA Capital Program Review Board and is a staunch opponent.

"We're not going to see any megaprojects in the foreseeable future," Johnson said. "The best thing is to try and ensure that we are reducing the spending that occurs with regard to any megaproject. Now is not the time to be contemplating the big projects."

But U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said there is federal transportation money available. If the region's leaders can agree on a project, he said he will seek funding in the federal transportation bill due in 2011 - an appropriation that Congress takes up every five years.

"My advice to Long Island, both on the highway side and the mass-transit side is to get together and come up with some big ideas, because I think we have the clout to push them through," Schumer said. "They should know that they can think big and this is the year to do it."

For projects under way, like the East Side Access tunnel connecting the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, and the Second Avenue subway line in Manhattan, short-term economics are less important because federal transportation projects have a dedicated revenue stream from the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon.

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