Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, looking 20 years into the future, said the county should consider a $41 million driverless shuttle between the Ronkonkoma train station and Long Island MacArthur Airport in his State of the County address Thursday night.
The proposal is one of several options laid out in a study commissioned by New York Metropolitan Transportation Council to improve the existing train-to-plane link over the next two decades. ARUP group — design, engineering and business consultants — conducted the study.
“As Suffolk County and the greater region continue to grow, this plane-to-train connection helps fulfill a regional transportation need such as system linkage, economic growth and travel demand,” said Bellone and Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter in a letter accompanying the report.
The proposals come as the Ronkonkoma Hub, a transit-related development, is already underway north of the station while a recent plan surfaced to build a $1 billion sports arena south of the tracks.
The Long Island Rail Road Ronkonkoma Branch serves 17,000 riders daily, according to the study, while the airport serves more than 2 million passengers annually. The study also states the Federal Aviation Administration estimated in 2007 that about eight percent of airport passengers use the train to get to the airport. Currently taxis, Uber and Via or Lyft provide the main connections, the report states, noting that county bus service between the sites is infrequent.
In the short term, the plan calls for upgrading the existing taxi fleet with 10 new cabs costing $1.1 million in the next one to two years, an improved shuttle service with three battery operated buses for $8.5 million in five to seven years and an automated vehicle shuttle.
Looking ahead, the study calls for the automated vehicle option, with an estimated cost of $41 million, and includes construction of new roadways and tunnels to connect the train station and airport. That estimate does not include operating capital and annual operating costs because there is not enough information currently available. No funding source is identified.
The study says approvals for automated vehicles would be needed from the state Department of Transportation, which currently does not have rules for such vehicles, and the FAA. But the study also says pilot projects are underway in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Shelley LaRose Arken, town airport commissioner, said the short term solutions advocated by the study were “very realistic.” She added the idea of driverless vehicles is “very exciting,” but she cautioned further study was needed, specifically a demand analysis, to determine whether the number of riders coming from the trains would justify the $41 million construction cost.
Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi, head of the GOP caucus, was critical of the idea: “For someone who talks a lot about connectivity, the county executive sure sounds disconnected from reality. Suffolk County government is billions of dollars in debt. If he has $41 million to spend, we need to first maintain our existing roads, bridges, parks and buildings before we spend it on underground tunnels.”