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LIRR ‘experiment’ during Penn work to test riders, experts say

The LIRR concourse at Penn Station after the

The LIRR concourse at Penn Station after the MTA unveiled its summer plan Monday, June 12, 2017. Credit: Charles Eckert

The plan for LIRR riders to survive the so-called summer of hell will test their resourcefulness and ability to adapt, relying on safety valves like buses and ferries in case something goes very wrong, transportation experts said Tuesday.

A day after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released details of its multipronged strategy for moving 88,000 daily commuters with three fewer tracks at Penn Station, experts dissected the plan, which they said will force upon commuters something unfamiliar to them: options.

“This is going to be a natural experiment. If you give people choices, what will they choose?” said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. “It’s empowering the commuter to choose. Up until now, they had no choice. It was just the Long Island Rail Road.”

Those choices will include continuing traveling to and from Penn Station by train, despite a 19 percent reduction in service. To accommodate the 9,600 impacted customers, the LIRR is adding trains just outside the height of the rush hours — including three new morning trains to Penn and two to Brooklyn — and also lengthening trains with additional train cars.

A Newsday analysis of service changes shows Babylon line customers will be most affected, with one train canceled and three diverted in the morning, and four trains canceled or combined in the evening. The Port Washington and Port Jefferson lines will also each lose two afternoon trains.

LIRR officials say with the tweaks, they will be able to move just as many people to and from Penn Station as they do now.

However, they are also supplementing railroad service with other modes of transport, including new ferry routes from Nassau’s South Shore, Glen Cove and Long Island City.

While the latter route already exists, it will not be operated by New York City, a city spokesman clarified Tuesday. Instead, the MTA will hire a vendor to run its own ferry service on that route.

The MTA also has to hire vendors for its other planned ferry routes, and to operate some of the 200 buses it plans to run between eight Long Island locations and Manhattan.

With just three weeks before the changes are set to take effect, the plan has already been met with skepticism and challenges.

Village of Sea Cliff officials have raised objections to the MTA running ferries through their waters. On social media, commuters have questioned the parking capacity at some of the designated park-and-ride bus locations, including the already packed Valley Stream LIRR station.

“Obviously, they have been planning the implementation of this far before they actually announced it,” said MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook. “I am confident that we are going to be able to implement the program in a reasonable manner, so that what was promised by the MTA and the state, and what is expected by the commuters, will take place.”

While some of the options, including buses navigating Long Island Expressway traffic from Melville to Manhattan, may not seem attractive now, Pally said they will be valuable fallback plans in case the LIRR faces an unexpected challenge while already stretched to the max.

“Whatever bad event happens in that eight-week period will be twice as bad as it would have been outside of the eight-week period,” Pally said. “Now, at least they’ll have an option.”

MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said that the LIRR will “strategically” deploy locomotives and crews at key locations to address “any issues posed by the new schedule.”

“LIRR will also have extra personnel on trains, and LIRR and NYC Transit will also have additional personnel at stations where connections to subways and ferries can be made, to assist customers,” Tarek said.

The MTA’s subway system will also be expected to shoulder some of the burden of moving LIRR commuters over what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has dubbed the “summer of hell.”

With 1.6 million riders taking subways on a typical morning, the MTA does not expect an extra few thousand to make that much of a difference. However, it’s still working to bolster service at key LIRR transfer points, including at Hunterspoint Avenue, where some 7 trains will be “short-turned” to provide more trips to Manhattan’s East Side.

“The thing that the subways have over the railroads is more flexibility,” said Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the nonprofit Straphangers Campaign, who is “worried” about the impact of extra commuters on the subways, but optimistic. “We need good weather and workers with experience who are going to be stretched to the limit.”

Others were less hopeful about the railroad’s plan going off without a hitch.

“It’s almost always worse than they say. The question is: How much worse?” said Peter Haynes, a former LIRR systems project specialist who now leads the LIRR Commuters Campaign, an advocacy group.

Haynes called the ferries and buses a “rat maze of alternatives” that won’t suit most commuters concerned about getting to work on time. “Savvy” riders, Haynes said, will be able to navigate the subways. But many more will default to what they know best — taking an LIRR train to and from New York City. “The Long Island Rail Road is sort of in a prison of its own infrastructure,” he said.

Moss said he’s not expecting “daily chaos” among commuters, who, he said, have shown a knack for adapting to difficult circumstances, such as major service reductions forced by severe weather. Over the eight weeks that Amtrak carries out its infrastructure renewal work at Penn, Moss said he expects commuters will take Mondays and Fridays off when they can, work from home or makeshift offices, and sample the other options available.

“Some of those might be ones that they invent, like driving to subway stations,” Moss said.

“I think commuters are very savvy. They’re going to find the best way to work,” he added. “The one thing we know is that people go to work. This is not a lazy culture.”


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