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LIRR chief says record 87.6M riders shows need for 3rd track

Long Island Rail Road President Patrick Nowakowski discusses

Long Island Rail Road President Patrick Nowakowski discusses proposed LIRR improvements Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, at a Long Island Association meeting in Melville. Credit: Ed Betz

The Long Island Rail Road carried 87.6 million passengers last year, showing the need for a third track on the LIRR’s Main Line, railroad president Patrick Nowakowski said Monday.

Nowakowski garnered support for the latest incarnation of the third-track project at a Melville meeting of the Long Island Association, a business, planning and political organization. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month announced a renewed push for the effort, which aims to expand LIRR capacity by adding a track between Floral Park and Hicksville.

Nowakowski said he believes it could take about six years to complete the project from when construction begins. That could have it finished around the same time as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $10.2 billion East Side Access megaproject linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022. Cuomo’s office has said the project will cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest $10 billion if you’re not going to take advantage of that increased capacity,” Nowakowski said. “We need to resize the rest of the system to be able to run the additional trains that we need to run to take advantage of that $10 billion investment.”

As evidence of the need for increased capacity, Nowakowski pointed to the 87.6 million riders the LIRR carried in 2015 — the most in decades, edging out 87.4 million in 2008. The ridership total is second only to the agency’s record of 91.8 million set in 1949.

The 2015 total was up 2.1 percent from 2014, when the LIRR carried 85.9 million. Rush-hour ridership grew by 2.1 percent, while off-peak trips also increased 2 percent.

“So people are certainly taking advantage of our service,” Nowakowski said. “Our ridership is always tied to the economy and jobs, and obviously that’s something that has changed for the better throughout the area.”

Several of Long Island’s business and political leaders who attended the meeting said they would need to work together to build support for the third-track project, which they said could give Nassau and Suffolk an economic boost by providing more commuting opportunities both for Long Islanders traveling to New York City to work, and for reverse commuters working on Long Island.

The project has faced opposition in the past from residents near the LIRR line, because the railroad will need to acquire some private property to build the track and the disruption from additional trains. Republican Sen. Jack Martins, who led the fight against the project a decade ago as mayor of Mineola, has called the proposal “dead on arrival.”

“It’s a billion-dollar project with multiple billions of benefit for our region,” Long Island Association president Kevin Law said. “There is going to be some localized opposition. We need to demonstrate regional support.”

Nowakowski said the LIRR aims to hire a consultant by March to perform an environmental study for the project and to complete that study by the end of 2016. He predicted “the most obvious environmental impact” will be at grade crossings, where gates will be down more frequently because of the additional trains passing through, potentially causing more traffic congestion.

“We’re going to have to work with all the communities along that corridor to mitigate those environmental impacts,” Nowakowski said.

LIRR Ridership:

2015: 87.6 million—highest in 66 years.

2008: 87.4 million—previous most recent record

2014: 85.9 million

1949: 91.8 million—all-time record.

2015 rush-hour ridership: Up 2.1 percent

2015 off-peak ridership: Up 2 percent

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