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Long IslandTransportation

LIRR riders lend voices, support in debate over third track

New Hyde Park Mayor Robert Lofaro spoke on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 to village residents at an informational meeting about the upcoming public hearings on the Long Island Rail Road's plans to build a third track on the Main Line. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo)

Thousands of Long Island Rail Road customers are throwing their support behind the contentious plan to build a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville — an effort they hope can provide some relief to an often-torturous commute.

One year after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans to resurrect the decades-old Main Line expansion plan, supporters have compiled more than 4,500 signatures from LIRR riders backing the project.

Petition organizers, who plan to deliver the signatures at a series of public hearings this week, say riders’ voices have so far been underrepresented in the broader debate over the project. Although the plan has met resistance from residents and elected officials in communities near the LIRR’s tracks, Dave Kapell, executive director of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition, a pro-third track group, said the feedback from commuters has been “overwhelmingly supportive.”

“I can make an argument that they’ve got more at stake in this project than anybody else,” Kapell said. “The project is going to have a dramatic, beneficial impact on the frequency of delays, reliability, and a 50 percent increase of capacity. It’s really transformational.”

Since October, coalition representatives have been visiting LIRR commuter hubs in Nassau and Suffolk to gather support for the $2 billion project, which promises to construct a 9.8-mile new track, entirely within the LIRR’s existing property.

The third track project has moved swiftly since Cuomo announced it at a Woodbury meeting on Jan. 5, 2016. In November, project officials published a draft environmental impact statement, which will be the subject of six public hearings to be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in New Cassel, Hempstead and New Hyde Park, respectively.

The LIRR is already evaluating potential contractors for the project and expects to begin construction this year. Project officials say it will take about three to four years to complete.

“In just more than a year, we have transformed this project to add a third track to the Main Line so that it not only enables better and more frequent LIRR service, but also provides tangible community benefits in the towns up and down the line,” Cuomo said in a statement last week. “We are excited that this project is moving forward with strong public support.”

The pace of the project remains alarming to some opponents, including New Hyde Park Mayor Rob Lofaro, who has asked the railroad for more time to digest the massive 21-chapter environmental review. A public comment period lasts until Feb. 15 — having recently been extended by two weeks.

Lofaro and other residents and elected officials in communities along the LIRR’s Main Line have raised concerns about prolonged construction, and have suggested that other improvements on the LIRR, such as modernized track switches, could achieve similar results.

“I think commuters should derive the benefits, but I think there’s other ways this can be done,” Lofaro said. “The bottom line is, every opportunity we have to speak out on our behalf . . . we’re going to do so. We’re the ones who have to live with it.”

But Jon Tolpin, 50, of Jericho said it’s voices of commuters, like him, that haven’t been heard.

“Our voices are somewhat irrelevant. . . . We have no choice but to commute by railroad. We have no choice but to pay what we pay,” said Tolpin, who called his daily commute “very frustrating.”

LIRR statistics bear that out.

Through November, the LIRR reported 16,138 delays and another 1,138 cancellations. The railroad’s overall on-time performance for the first 11 months of last year was 92.9 percent — somewhat better than the 91.4 percent the LIRR posted for the same period in 2015, its least-punctual year since 2000.

“It takes us, on average, 48 to 50 minutes to travel 28 miles. And then add delays on top of that, or any issue at all, and the entire system shuts down — the largest commuter rail system in the country,” Tolpin said.

A third track could be a “real game-changer” for commuters, and should not be stalled by opponents — especially those who don’t commute, he said.

“People who live near the railroad — if they’re objecting, well, they chose to live near the railroad,” Tolpin said.

Third track’s first year:

  • January 2016: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces the resurrection of a decades-old plan to construct a third LIRR track between Floral Park and Hicksville.
  • March 2016: Cuomo announces that, unlike past proposals, the new third track plan will not require building on residential property and will include the elimination of seven railroad grade crossings.
  • May 2016: Project officials release a preliminary scoping document, which outlines some parameters of a planned environmental review, open a project information center in Mineola and hold six public meetings about the document.
  • August 2016: A final scoping document is issued that promises to consider the project’s impact on parking, air quality and emergency response times.
  • November 2016: A draft environmental impact statement is released that includes new details on the project, including its estimated $2 billion budget and plans to create nearly 2,500 new parking spaces. The LIRR begins considering potential contractors for the project.

What’s ahead:

  • Six public hearings are scheduled for this week to discuss the recently issued environmental review. They are Tuesday, at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., at the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel, Wednesday at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the David S. Mack Student Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, and Thursday at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at The Inn at New Hyde Park.
  • Public comments can be submitted until Feb. 15 at amodernli.com/contact-us/
  • The LIRR expects to issue a final environmental impact statement and award a contract for the design and construction of the project in the coming months.
  • The state Capital Program Review Board must amend the MTA’s $29 billion five-year capital plan to include the third track project.
  • Project officials have said they expect construction to begin before the end of 2017 and to last three to four years.

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