A key MTA official wants to bring the Long Island Rail Road to a redeveloped Nassau Coliseum using nearby tracks that haven't been used to transport rail passengers in more than 50 years.
New LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said MTA board member Mitchell Pally's plan to bring passenger trains near the Coliseum using the little-known Garden City-Mitchel Field Secondary line is feasible. However, a recent study commissioned by Nassau County, which owns the property, rules out the proposal as "fatally flawed."
"We can get a track close to there. We can build a station close to there," Nowakowski said last week. "The challenge is, would anybody use it?"
Pally first publicly proposed creating the transit link during a meeting last month of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board's LIRR Committee, which he chairs. Pally said he had a preliminary discussion with representatives from the Coliseum's new developer, Forest City Ratner, and from the county to urge them to consider the idea.
STATIONS AT OTHER VENUES
Under the proposal, the LIRR would run trains along a 3-mile spur that branches off the Hempstead line and runs parallel to Stewart Avenue in Garden City.
The line -- a 19th-century vestige of the old Central Railroad of Long Island that later was absorbed by the LIRR -- served the Mitchel Field air base during World War II and other stations until the LIRR discontinued passenger service on it in 1953. And when plans for development of a "Nassau Hub" that included the Coliseum were floated in the late 1990s and during the administration of County Executive Thomas Suozzi, the line was mentioned as a possible connector in the transit visions for that area.
Today, it continues to be used largely for storage and -- once a year -- by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus to bring its animals to the Coliseum, which is just south of the tracks.
Pally, explaining his rationale, drew comparisons with the LIRR's service to Citi Field for Mets games and New Jersey Transit's service to MetLife Stadium for NFL games. Similarly, he said, when the Nassau Coliseum hosts events, the LIRR could run shuttle trains between the venue and Hempstead, where customers could transfer for points west. To catch the shuttle, passengers could walk to the proposed station from the Coliseum, Pally said.
Pally, of Stony Brook, who represents Suffolk County on the MTA board, acknowledged that the service would not be a good option for Long Islanders east of the Coliseum because customers on most other lines would have to travel west to Jamaica to come back east on the Hempstead branch.
He noted, however, that the Coliseum remains the only major sports and entertainment venue in the region inaccessible by train. The LIRR's Atlantic Terminal is across the street from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- also a Ratner property -- and new rail stations opened in recent years both at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey.
"Unfortunately, the only entities that get to the Coliseum by train at the moment are the elephants," Pally told the committee. "To me, that is not only unfortunate, but a significant anomaly in our mass transit system."
FUNDING AN ISSUE
Nowakowski, while not taking a stance for or against the idea, said that logistically Pally's plan could work. But achieving it, he said, would require going through an environmental approval process and making some investments, including electrifying the tracks along the line and building a station near the Coliseum. The LIRR does not have a cost estimate for that work.
If the LIRR could run to the Coliseum site, Nowakowski questioned whether there would be enough demand to justify the expense.
"I don't think there's a market there today for service. The question would be: Are they going to do something that's going to create a market?" Nowakowski said. "Our business is to run trains and move people. And if we can accomplish that mission, we're willing to participate. But given the fact that this is centered around county lands and a developer, I don't know that our role is to lead right now."
The recently completed Nassau Hub Study Alternative Analysis Report, which considered several options for public transportation to a redeveloped Coliseum, nixed the reopening of the Garden City-Mitchel Field Secondary "because of the generally single-family, low-density residential land-use patterns in the vicinity of this segment of the alignment, which are not consistent with transit operations."
The study also noted that a 2003 state agreement with the LIRR limits the use of the tracks to the annual circus train, "thereby further complicating potential future transit operations."
Brian Nevin, spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, when asked for the administration's position on bringing a mass transportation link to the Coliseum site, said only, "Bus rapid transit is a critical component for the future success of the Hub."
Ratner spokesman Barry Baum said public transportation, "including the LIRR, has been a major key to our success at Barclays Center" and that the developer "would welcome any additional public transportation options to Nassau Coliseum, whether rail, rapid bus service or other options."
IF NOT THERE, WHERE?
Pally said the findings of the county's study should not be the final word on the possibility of bringing the LIRR to a redeveloped Coliseum.
As long as the LIRR has a right of way leading to the Coliseum site, he said, the railroad should remain a logical option -- regardless of any potential resistance from residents near the tracks.
"Just because a line doesn't operate through their community doesn't mean it couldn't be resurrected for a very important reason," Pally said. "Now is the perfect opportunity to take a new look at this and not make the same mistake we made back when . . . the Nassau Coliseum was built."
Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit think tank, agreed that restoring LIRR service along the dormant line would make sense -- not only to serve the Coliseum, but other potential riders in the already dense Nassau Hub area, including students at Hofstra University and Nassau Community College.
"This is one of the most obvious places we would do this on Long Island. . . . And it really wouldn't be all that intrusive," Barone said. "If you can't do it there, then where can you do it on Long Island?"