The MTA says its plan to get through the Long Island Rail Road’s so-called “summer of hell” will provide enough options and redundancies to serve all of the LIRR’s daily riders.
At the same time, experts warn there’s ample opportunity in the complex plan for something to go wrong, and the consequences could be severe.
The multifaceted plan is designed to accommodate all of the LIRR’s daily riders — numbering 300,000 on any given workday — despite operating with three fewer tracks at the railroad’s primary hub, Penn Station, to accommodate long-delayed track improvements.
To maintain its existing capacity, the railroad is lengthening some trains with extra cars, running additional trains just outside the rush hours, and supplementing rail service with first-of-their-kind express bus and ferry routes. The LIRR is also relying on customers’ willingness to travel to alternative stations, such as Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, throughout the summer, and will offer reduced fares as an incentive to do so.
In addition, construction work on river crossings, including the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, is being hastened to make it easier for those who take to their cars.
The MTA has said it will be flexible with its plan, and re-evaluate and change it as needed throughout the summer.
“The proposal we’ve put out we’re going to test on day one. And after the morning commute we’re going to come together and evaluate what we’ve done, determine what went right, what didn’t go right, what needs to be changed in time for the evening commute. And we’ll do the same thing after the evening commute,” said MTA chairman Joseph Lhota, just tapped on June 21 to manage the pressured agency. “We’re asking Long Islanders to change the way they go to work. . . . My hope is that they’ll try one [option], then they’ll try a second one, they’ll try a third one and they get the one that fits them the best.”
Some things are sure to go in the LIRR’s favor, including the likelihood that many commuters will avoid the system altogether, either by taking summer vacations or working from home. Toward that end, the MTA has sent letters to major employers encouraging flexibility with their workers.
But for Long Islanders who simply have to get to Manhattan this summer, there’s ample opportunity for something going wrong on a commuter railroad already operating at the brink.
“It could be a very difficult summer if some of these exacerbating things occur. . . . You could really fret about that,” said Martin Robins, director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. “But maybe we’ll get away with none of those horrible disruptions occurring. . . . Contingency planning should be the order of the day.”
Here’s a look at the moving pieces in the plan, where things stand and what problems may lurk.
On an average day, the nation’s busiest rail hub is a crowded, confusing and chaotic place. With construction blocking access to three of Penn’s tracks, and Amtrak and NJ Transit sharing tracks that the LIRR usually has to itself, it could be especially hectic.
To reduce the pressure on Penn, the LIRR is counting on some commuters choosing other options, including subways and other LIRR city terminals. But the vast majority of LIRR trains will still go to and from Penn Station.
“I think the idea of incentivizing people to stay away from Penn makes sense, but there’s a major cross-section of commuters who are going to have to go to Penn,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has closely followed the LIRR’s commuting crisis. “And I certainly don’t think we’re able to say that their commute is going to be just fine, without any problems.”
Although the LIRR has said only peak trains will be affected by the service disruptions, Penn may also be more crowded than usual during off-peak hours. Some late-night travelers will also be impacted, as the LIRR is canceling three overnight trains to and from Penn throughout the summer.
“I don’t know what to expect at Penn Station. I know that riders aren’t flooding to take trains to other stations,” said Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council. “Some people don’t know where they’ll be every day for work. It’s not always at an office building on Fifth Avenue.”
On the upside, the newly opened west-end concourse at Penn, beneath the old Farley Post Office, provides new space for commuters to congregate and disperse. It will be especially important once the LIRR starts running longer trains that release more commuters than usual onto a platform all at once. Because of the various service disruptions there, some commuters and advocates have pushed the MTA to reduce fares to and from Penn Station this summer, but so far the MTA has opted not to do so.
They are typically the stepchildren of Penn Station, but this summer could be the coming-out party for the LIRR’s other NYC terminals — most notably Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens. With six tracks, a relatively new customer concourse, and connections to several major subway lines, Atlantic is equipped to handle more riders than it does now.
Hunterspoint Avenue is another story. Old and rickety, it could experience unprecedented strain in being asked to handle more than the 2,900 commuters a day — about 3 percent of Penn’s rush-hour ridership — who now use it.
As an incentive for riders to use the alternative terminals — and help make up for the inconvenience of having to do so — the LIRR is reducing fares to and from Atlantic and Hunterspoint Avenue by an average of 25 percent this summer. But many commuters have said commuting to and from stations in Queens or Brooklyn doesn’t work for them, both because of the added distance from their workplaces and the infrequency of service. At Hunterspoint Avenue, for instance, trains operate only during rush hours.
“It seems to me that the upcoming schedule/fare scheme is biased toward commuters that work 9-5 while those of us who work outside those hours may be left in the lurch,” said Patchogue commuter Neal Kassner, who has considered commuting to and from Hunterspoint Avenue this summer.
An MTA spokesman pointed out that off-peak service is not affected by the summer plan.
The LIRR’s summer plan will lean heavily on the MTA’s subway system to carry customers to their jobs from key transfer points, such as Jamaica, where riders can grab the E, J and Z trains, Hunterspoint Avenue, where passengers can catch the 7, and Atlantic Terminal, which connects to many of the city’s main subway lines.
The MTA says it has more than enough capacity to handle the extra riders. Railroad spokesman Shams Tarek noted that even if every affected commuter chose to ride the subway — an “impossible scenario”— it would add less than 1 percent of the subway’s usual ridership of 1.6 million every morning.
But the extra riders will come at a time when the subway system is under considerable strain itself, with growing delays caused by overcrowding on trains and at platforms. The recent problems led the MTA to take on a top-to-bottom review of the subway system, and prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to declare the system in a state of emergency Thursday.
“I don’t know how they can say that [the extra LIRR riders]will be a drop in the bucket and won’t affect things,” Epstein said. “It could go really smoothly, or it could be a disaster.”
Even if the extra riders eventually disperse through the vast subway network, the lines to get into a subway station and onto a train at Jamaica and near Hunterspoint Avenue could be brutal — especially in the summer heat.
As a further inconvenience, the MTA has only offered to cross-honor LIRR tickets on its subways in the mornings, meaning Long Island commuters will have to pay for the subway ride to their LIRR trains on the way home.
Among the more murky elements of the MTA plan is the creation of new ferry routes. The MTA has yet to name the vendors that will operate the routes, and securing vessels in the peak summer season is a challenge, experts said.
Under the plan, the newly built ferry terminal at Glen Cove would operate separate routes to and from East 34th Street and to and from Wall Street. But residents and officials from neighboring Sea Cliff have threatened legal challenges, saying the plan has not been adequately studied for its environmental impact and will bring unwelcome car traffic.
Glen Cove Deputy Mayor Barbara Peebles said the village has long been preparing for ferry service out of the new terminal and has worked with the MTA, the state and others to make sure it goes smoothly.
Peebles said two vendors have already been identified to provide the service using two vessels that can each carry about 150 people; that the village, working with a private developer, has secured 350 parking spots near the terminal; and that the Army Corps of Engineers has dismissed any concerns about the need to dredge waters beforehand.
An MTA spokesman said the U.S. Coast Guard will also have to certify the ferry service before it begins.
“The city would never enter into something like this if we thought there were safety or environmental issues,” Peebles said. “We’ve got our ducks lined up. Believe me.”
The necessary infrastructure is also already in place at Long Island City, where the MTA plans to hire a vendor to operate a ferry out of the existing NYC Ferry Hunters Point South terminal. Shuttles will be provided between the LIRR’s Hunterspoint Avenue Station and the ferry terminal.
The MTA says the Glen Cove and Long Island City ferries will accommodate 2,300 people.
It’s unclear how popular the new service will be, but New York City’s ferry system has struggled to meet growing demand, even chartering extra boats in recent months.
The MTA previously said it was looking into setting up a third ferry route to serve South Shore Nassau commuters, including those on the Long Beach and Far Rockaway lines, but it has yet to materialize.
“My understanding, from the last time I was briefed, is that there’s a dearth of ferries available — especially during the summer season,” Kaminsky said.
The MTA says it has secured 200 coach buses both from its own fleet and from two New Jersey-based private vendors — Coach USA and Academy Bus — to carry 10,000 commuters to and from eight designated locations on Long Island, and three in Manhattan: at East 34th Street near the Midtown Tunnel, near Penn Station, and near Grand Central Terminal.
But the buses will have to navigate the infamous traffic on the Long Island Expressway and connecting roads, a deterrent for commuters looking for predictability.
“I don’t know if people are going to be utilizing the buses as much as they’re hoping. . . . That’s not how people usually get to work,” Epstein said. “I talk to riders. . . . I don’t know anybody who is taking that option.”
The MTA has said it will be flexible and could opt to reduce the number of buses provided if there are too few takers. But it also notes the buses, which will be stored in Long Island City and Hoboken during middays, could provide a backup during unanticipated service disruptions.
The buses will travel in the high-occupancy vehicle lane of the Long Island Expressway, which ends at the Nassau County/Queens border, and in the HOV lane in effect during mornings inside the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. DOT officials say they will closely enforce existing HOV regulations.
To help make the buses a slightly more attractive option, the MTA plans to provide free food and drinks at their designated origin locations on Long Island.
It also remains to be seen whether some of those locations — including the already-popular Park & Ride in Melville near the LIE — will be able to handle the extra cars. The MTA says it’s identified 2,900 total parking spots at the bus locations. One of the locations, the Seaford LIRR station, has been designated as a “kiss & ride” drop-off site with no parking for drivers.
The LIRR plan also counts on promises to help ease the traffic on some of the region’s roadways.
Cuomo has said several construction projects going on at the MTA’s crossings will be rushed along and finished by July 8, only two days before the Penn work begins. In some cases that will require finishing six months ahead of schedule.
While wrapping up the ongoing roadwork in the next five days is a massive task, Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, a constructions trade group, said if Cuomo demands that, it will happen — even if it means “working 24 hours a day.”
“If he puts a time frame there and he puts his own personal capital into it, whatever he calls for, he’ll make sure that happens,” Herbst said.
The progress has been apparent at the construction sites, including at the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, where a new Manhattan-bound on-ramp is rapidly taking shape.
New York State Department of Transportation officials say other work on state roads will be suspended or moved to nighttime hours to further minimize traffic.
The MTA’s plan also offers 50 percent toll discounts to truckers overnight to get them off the roads during the days. Also helping matters will be the recent implementation of cashless tolling at some major crossings, including the Midtown Tunnel and RFK Bridge.
Despite Nassau and Suffolk having more registered vehicles than any other county in the state, Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for American Automobile Association’s NY chapter, is optimistic that the combined impact of streamlining roadwork, getting some trucks off the roads during daytime hours, and the summer getaway season, may offset additional LIRR commuters on the roads.
“Don’t forget: the kids are out of the schools, as well. So you don’t have to worry about that traffic,” the AAA’s Sinclair said. “It might not be so bad.”
John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, a nonprofit subway advocacy group, is counting on commuters appreciating the benefits of public transportation, even at its worst.
“As miserable as the summer of hell will be on trains, it’s always worse in a car,” Raskin said. “And most people recognize that.”
Then there’s everything else that can go wrong.
Having the nation’s busiest commuter railroad operating at reduced capacity during the two hottest months of the year could lead to all kinds of problems, experts said, ranging from heat-related broken rails to the communication meltdowns with which riders are all too familiar.
Anthony Simon, leader of the LIRR’s largest labor organization, has “insisted” that the railroad keep its train crews in the loop about service conditions throughout the summer, but said that can be tough to achieve during “real-time” emergencies. He asked for riders’ patience. He implored riders not to take their frustrations out on train-crew members.
“There’s a lot of people who have every reason to be upset, but it shouldn’t be at our front-line conductors,” Simon said. “They don’t want to see these service disruptions any more than the commuters do.”
To communicate service options to riders, the LIRR has promised an “aggressive public awareness campaign.” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said the railroad began running print and digital ads last week and will begin running a television ad Wednesday.
The MTA also launched a dedicated website for the LIRR’s summer service: lirrsummerschedule.com.
Epstein said he’d also like to hear from the LIRR about how it will respond to unexpected service problems that could arise — such the third-rail power problem Thursday that took out 12 of Penn Station’s 21 tracks at the height of the evening rush.
The LIRR typically defaults to so-called off-the-shelf reduced service plans with designated train cancellations when capacity problems arise. It’s unclear what the LIRR will do in such a situation over the summer, but Simon noted that, with the LIRR’s rush-hour capacity already down 20 percent, it wouldn’t take much to “lose half the system.”
“It’s very nice that they’re telling us about the planned outage. What happens when there’s also an unplanned outage?” Epstein said. “I’ve asked: ‘What’s the backup plan?’ And I still haven’t gotten an answer.”
The LIRR has said it will increase staffing during the summer at key locations, including crews equipped with chain saws and water pumps to address weather issues. The railroad will also “pre-position locomotives at strategic locations to help clear any trains if they become disabled,” Donovan said. Amtrak said it will also position extra “rescue” locomotives near Penn.
MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook has said he expects buses and ferries to play an important role in moving commuters into and out of Manhattan during an emergency situation.
Lhota said the MTA would also further rely on subways if an unexpected LIRR outage occurred over the summer.
“That’s the standard operating procedure when you have that type of thing,” Lhota said. “We’ll be ready for it. We’re going to have operations centers at various different locations able to deal with what we’re seeing and be able to react quickly.”
THE FINISH LINE?
Amtrak has said it will finish its work — focused on a complex set of tracks and switches just west of Penn Station’s platforms — by Labor Day. However, by Amtrak’s own account, that will require condensing two to three years of construction work into eight weeks.
“It’s a monumental task, as far as getting the workforce, materials and equipment,” said Herbst, the director of the road contractors association.
But some have expressed skepticism about Amtrak’s ability to get the work done on time, given its track record. After an April train derailment that snarled Penn Station service for several days, Amtrak repeatedly promised full service would be restored in time for the beginning of the morning rush hour but missed their deadline by a few critical hours, snarling the early commute.
“My great worry about Amtrak is that their forces will be available for them and be able to maintain a force level what will be sufficient to carry this out,” said Robins, of Rutgers University.
Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said Friday that the agency is “working diligently” to complete the project on time, and that some early work that is already underway “is progressing on schedule.”
T]To ensure it makes its deadline, Amtrak has also hired a private consultant to help manage the project. Amtrak and the LIRR say they will both closely monitor the work and provide frequent and regular progress reports to riders.
“We’ll know long before Labor Day if they’re not keeping their word,” Lhota said. “My hope is that Amtrak can get it done when they said they’re going to get it done. But if they start to become late, that’s going to become known to the world. . . . And if that happens, we’ll adjust accordingly based on reality.”
If Amtrak doesn’t hit its mark, Kaminsky said, the consequences could be severe because rush-hour ridership tends to rise again after summer.
“Doing this in July and August is a problem,” Kaminsky said. “Doing this past Labor Day is unfathomable.”