Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is considering eliminating seven LIRR at-grade crossings as part of his $1 billion proposal to build a third track on the railroad’s Main Line.
Cuomo and the Long Island Rail Road are trying to convince opponents in villages along the 9.8-mile route between Floral Park and Hicksville. Many of them at an informational meeting in New Hyde Park last week said they remain opposed to a third track.
“I don’t think the project is right for this village,” said Ellen LaRegina, 49, of New Hyde Park, who was among more than 200 people at Thursday’s gathering. “I think you’re going to hurt a lot of people.”
Last month, at a surprise meeting with representatives of four villages along the Main Line, Cuomo offered what Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro called a “carrot for the communities” — the possibility of eliminating seven LIRR at-grade crossings. Communities along the route have sought for years to get rid of the crossings, which are dangerous and cause significant traffic backups during rush hours as motorists wait for trains to pass.
“I think that’s a significant benefit of the project,” said Cavallaro, who expected to meet with LIRR officials at the Feb. 19 meeting but instead was greeted by Cuomo. “It’s smart on his part to include the elimination of the grade crossings in the plan.”
Cuomo in January had resurrected the proposal to build the third track, eight years after the LIRR abandoned it after widespread public opposition. Railroad officials have said the extra track would reduce service disruptions by giving the LIRR more operational flexibility, allow the LIRR to operate more trains once it links to Grand Central Terminal as part of East Side Access, and make it easier for so-called “reverse commuters” to travel to and from jobs on Long Island.
In a statement, Cuomo spokeswoman Beth DeFalco confirmed the governor had met with elected officials from Floral Park, Mineola, New Hyde Park and Westbury, and “committed to a full review of all seven grade-level train crossings along the route, with the goal of working with the mayors and local communities to modify the crossings to reduce noise from train horns and crossing gates, reduce delays and air pollution from traffic jams at grade crossings, and greatly improve safety.”
Cuomo is encouraging village mayors to work with the LIRR and the state Department of Transportation on designs for the modified crossings, she said. The crossings could be eliminated either by elevating the LIRR’s tracks or by sinking roadways beneath them, as has been proposed for three crossings in New Hyde Park.
In part because of the high price tag and the necessity to build on private property, the DOT and LIRR have eliminated just two crossings on Long Island since 1998, both in Mineola. The LIRR previously has said each elimination could cost $100 million.
At a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting last month, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski spoke of the benefits of eliminating the crossings along the Main Line, where safety gates are down for a cumulative 24 minutes out of every hour during peak commuting times.
“There are existing, terrible impacts on those communities. And if we had a third track it would only get worse,” said Nowakowski, adding that the LIRR will “explore grade crossing elimination” as part of the project’s environmental study, expected to begin this year.
Cuomo’s description of the renewed effort has differed from the LIRR’s original proposal. The governor has said it would have relatively minimal impact on neighboring communities and reduced the number of private properties that would be encroached upon from about 200 to approximately 50.
“Governor Cuomo has said this project will set the standard for positive community engagement,” said DeFalco, adding that the project is being modeled after the state’s replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Those who live and work along the LIRR’s Main Line, however, fear increased train noise and prolonged construction that will hurt businesses, shut down roads and limit emergency vehicle access.
“The point we emphasized to the governor is that, at the end of the day, we want to maintain a suburban quality of life, as do the villages around us,” Larry Montreuil, chairman of the New Hyde Park LIRR Task Force, said at Thursday’s meeting.
Some elected officials who have fought the project said they appreciate Cuomo’s personal involvement and outreach to communities. But without more details, they expressed skepticism about his promises — including the timeline to complete it.
New Hyde Park Mayor Robert Lofaro said state officials told him each grade-crossing project would take six months to a year, and that total construction of the third track would take about five years.
The state’s last elimination of an LIRR grade crossing, at Roslyn Road, was completed in January 2009. It cost $24 million and took nearly four years to finish.
“Hopefully the governor will have the details we’ve been asking for in short order,” said state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Old Westbury), a longtime opponent of the project who says he now is “willing to listen,” along with his constituents.
“They need answers. They need clarity,” Martins said. “They don’t need promises. They need facts.”
These are grade crossings on the LIRR’s Main Line that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the railroad is considering eliminating to build a third track.
In New Hyde Park: Covert Avenue, 12th Street, New Hyde Park Road
In Mineola: Main Street, Willis Avenue
In New Cassel: School Street, Urban Avenue