The Long Island Rail Road’s plan to build a third track several feet from a $6.75 million public pool complex that opened in Floral Park a year ago has stoked concerns about the disruption of suburban quality of life that are shared by others in communities along the project’s 10-mile path.
Supporters, however, say the third track will be a major boon to the region, allowing the LIRR to run more trains in both directions, bounce back more quickly from service disruptions, create jobs, boost property values, and keep more young people in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Dave Kapell, executive director of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition, a consortium of businesses and organizations in support of the third track, said while “every conceivable measure” should be taken to address residents’ concerns, they should not be allowed to stop the modernization of the 182-year-old railroad’s “obsolete” infrastructure.
“This is an absolutely critical project to the future of Long Island,” Kapell said. “And it does need to happen.”
Homeowners from New Hyde Park to Westbury say they are already burdened by the noise, traffic and other inconveniences of being the LIRR’s neighbors, and worry that those problems will be compounded by a third track — considered one of the most ambitious public works efforts on Long Island in decades. “Every community has a similar issue,” Mineola Village Clerk Joe Scalero said. “You don’t have to have a pool sitting on the tracks to be impacted.”
Without the funding — an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion — and the political support for the project, it had long been considered all but dead before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resurrected it six months ago. He has suggested the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s recently approved $27 billion, five-year capital program will be amended to include the project, but has offered few specifics on how the MTA and the state will pay for it, other than by borrowing.
Project officials have offered assurances that they will work with communities to address concerns, minimize negative impacts, and, in some cases, leave communities better off.
“We’re in close contact with community leaders in the project area and, along with engineers, we are working to identify potential impacts and ways to avoid or minimize them,” project spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement. “Ultimately the project will improve service, safety and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people who live, work or travel on Long Island.”
Objections to the track are sharply focused in Floral Park, where the village’s 13-acre recreation center abuts the LIRR’s Main Line. The center’s main attraction: the pool complex that opened in June 2015. Village officials say when they designed the pool, they believed the railroad had no plans to build a third track.
The village, which led efforts to defeat the LIRR’s last third track proposal in 2008, consulted with both the MTA’s five-year Capital Program and reviewed its 20-year “Needs Assessment” document before moving forward with its plan to replace its 52-year-old pool complex with one slightly closer to the tracks. Neither included the Main Line expansion project on the agency’s to-do list.
Although the 20-year look ahead did not specify a third track, Tarek said it did reference plans for ‘expanding Main Line track capacity’ in Nassau.
Had the village known of the railroad’s plan, “The pool might have been built differently,” Mayor Thomas Tweedy said, adding that certain parts of the complex were positioned near the LIRR’s property without the expectation that a new track would be built.
Sixty percent of the village’s residents are pool members, paying $485 annually per household. Officials say just 3 feet separate the pool complex’s fence and the LIRR’s right of way. Nearest to the tracks is a children’s water slide, where the landing at the top of the stairs is eye level with passing trains.
Although up to 325 trains can come through on a single day, village officials say they don’t get many complaints because residents are used to being near the tracks and knew what they were getting into when they approved the plan to build the pool complex. But the community fears the situation will worsen.
“We have two tracks running through our small community as it is,” said Heather McClintock, 44, a 14-year village resident. “How much more do they want from us?”
In New Hyde Park, volunteer firefighters fret about responding to emergencies while some streets are shut down months at a time.
In Garden City, residents are worried about the construction disrupting wildlife at a bird sanctuary at Tanner’s Pond, near the tracks, in Westbury, they are concerned about how children will get to and from school when School Street is temporarily closed as part of a plan to eliminate a grade crossing there, and in Mineola, officials are concerned about how the construction, including the elimination of the Main Street grade crossing, will affect the village’s downtown redevelopment plans.
MTA officials said they are aware of communities’ concerns and have protocols in place to address them. Tarek said first responders are trained to work around construction, and that the planned removal of seven grade crossings “will eliminate obstacles that close roads for prolonged periods during the day.”
New Hyde Park Mayor Robert LoFaro and the other “Main Line mayors,” as they call themselves, have urged the LIRR to move forward on other capacity-improvement projects that have been considered in the past, including more modern track switches, storage tracks, and new rail yards, before building another track.
“We already have the track in our backyard. So it’s not, ‘Not in our backyard.’ It’s, ‘How much in our backyard?’ ” LoFaro said. “How much more can they tolerate?”
Worries about pool cracks
In Floral Park, villagers said that digging near the pool complex could cause cracks in the pool, that workers and equipment will encroach on village property, and that the work could force temporary pool closures. “Think of the dust, the dirt,” Tweedy said. “This [the pool] becomes almost impossible to use.”
Once the project is complete, residents fear that the increased train traffic on a new track even closer to the pool will become unbearable.
“I have a swimming pool in my backyard. My children don’t want to be there. They want to be here. Why? Because their friends are here,” said McClintock, a mother of two who called the pool the “heart and soul” of the village. “And for them to come and encroach upon our pleasant way of living . . . it’s very unfair to us.”
Project officials have said they don’t expect the construction would be unusually disruptive. They say they should be able to work near the pool when it is not in use for nine months a year.
Although the LIRR’s tracks could come closer to the pool property, a sound barrier wall could reduce overall noise and visual impact, compared with now.
Vow to gather input
To address concerns as part of an ongoing environmental impact review that will probably be completed later this year, project officials have already held more than 150 meetings with affected communities and six public hearings, and opened a project information center in Mineola.
Cuomo has said local concerns cannot be allowed to derail the plan.
“You can’t let all opposition stop projects . . . ‘NIMBY’ and the shortcomings of bureaucracy have stolen our capacity,” Cuomo said as he announced the project in Woodbury in January. “These are properties that are already within earshot of the railroad. It’s not like a train is going through a piece of property where nobody had any expectation it was going to exist.”
Project officials, who hope to begin construction in 2017, said they have encountered similar challenges to those being raised by affected communities, and have the technology and know-how to work around them and deliver a project that, ultimately, could improve conditions in Floral Park and other communities.
Some residents in those communities agree. At most of the public hearings held in May, detractors were outnumbered by supporters, including Nassau and Suffolk officials, major employers and construction union workers, all praising the proposal as potentially transformative for Long Island.
In New Hyde Park, 28-year village resident Anthony Scala said he would welcome the project, which would eliminate three grade crossings at the village — improving safety, easing traffic congestion, and reducing noise from train whistles.
“People are afraid of change — that it’s going to take too long, that they’re going to lose their parking spots in front of their house. But in the long haul, it’s going to be well worth it,” said Scala, 62, who lives a mile from the tracks. “I know it’s going to inconvenience the people while it’s being done. But, once it’s done, they’re going to be thankful.”
Other Main Line community residents are skeptical of the project’s promised benefits, and that construction could be completed in five years, as officials have said. Floral Park pool member Christine Reisig, 52, points to the MTA’s history when it comes to delivering major construction projects, including East Side Access. The effort to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal has seen its budget nearly triple and its completion date pushed back a dozen years.
“You show me somebody’s track record and I will show you their future,” said Reisig, who has also voiced concerns about construction affecting commuter parking, property values and village businesses. “We are here begging the MTA to reconsider.”
Tarek, the project spokesman, noted that because the MTA will use a single firm to design and build the project, and because of the agency’s “commitment to outreach,” officials are confident it will be a success. The LIRR took a similar approach to its reconstruction of the Ellison Avenue Bridge in Westbury — a project that came in on time and within budget.