Elected officials, organizations and residents called for the MTA to expand electrification on the LIRR’s Port Jefferson line. They said it will be better for riders and the environment. Newsday TV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

A bipartisan group on Tuesday called for the Long Island Rail Road to prioritize the electrification of the Port Jefferson branch, and of the rest of the railroad’s “diesel territory,” where locomotives chug along the tracks much as they did nearly 100 years ago.

Electrifying the Port Jefferson branch would improve service, boost Suffolk County’s economy and reduce the LIRR’s carbon footprint, according to lawmakers, environmentalists and community leaders.

“We’re asking for 20th century technology — electrification. Diesel is a 19th century technology. We haven’t even asked for 21st century technology," Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said to the group gathered at the Stony Brook station. “We’re going to keep beating on the MTA until they stop shortchanging Long Island and do right by us.”

MTA spokesman David Steckel on Tuesday noted that the agency has "undertaken a feasibility study for improving service on the Port Jefferson Branch." Using the study's findings, the MTA will compare a potential electrification effort to "other regional proposals," considering factors including cost and ridership. The analysis will help determine which projects receive "potential consideration."

The railroad's 45 diesel engines typically are less reliable than the electric trains, which make up the majority of the LIRR's fleet, and often require riders to transfer to and from electric trains when traveling to and from New York City.

After decades of pleas to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, Suffolk lawmakers and advocates are seizing on opportunities to advance the electrification of the Port Jefferson branch, which, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was carrying about 19 million riders — more than any LIRR line.

The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill signed into law last year by President Joe Biden is expected to deliver more than $10 billion to the MTA. Advocates said that money could help pay for the electrification of the 24-mile span between Huntington and Port Jefferson. The LIRR previously estimated the cost of the effort at $18 million per mile.

Supporters said the project could be included in the MTA’s next five-year capital program, which would fund infrastructure projects from 2024-29.

Conservationists hope the state’s 2019 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85% below 1990 levels spurs the railroad to do away with its diesel fleet.

“The Climate Action Council is mandating things now to private industries. They should mandate to the MTA that it is your responsibility to electrify all the lines on Long Island that have not been electrified,” said Mitchell Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute and a former MTA Board member. “Only in that way will the mass transit system that we have not only transport our people, but do it in an environmentally sensitive manner.”

Asked about the potential electrification of the Port Jefferson branch during a meeting with the Long Island Association in March, MTA chairman Janno Lieber called it a “significant investment” that “needs to be justified.” He noted that modern diesel trains pollute less than those from decades ago, and that “there are things that can be done short of full electrification to really increase the capacity and reliability” of the railroad’s diesel territory.

Among those things, LIRR officials have said, could be battery-operated trains. Since April 2021, the LIRR has been testing the experimental technology, which would allow a train to run on third-rail electric power, then switch to battery power to operate on tracks that are not electrified. Battery chargers at train stations would allow trains to power up at different stops. LIRR officials said they are evaluating the results from early tests of the technology.

Pally said even if successful, battery-operated trains would not be a substitute for electrification, which speakers at Tuesday's news conference noted could boost property values near the LIRR, create jobs and increase enrollment at Stony Brook University, which is served by the Port Jefferson branch.

High gas prices are adding urgency to the call for electrification, Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) said.

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