MTA chairman Joseph Lhota testifies before the New York State...

MTA chairman Joseph Lhota testifies before the New York State Legislature's Budget Hearing in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. Credit: Albany Times Union / Skip Dickstein

MTA chairman Joe Lhota vowed to state lawmakers Thursday that he will resolve the crippling problems that have plagued the Long Island Rail Road in recent weeks, including by hiring more Long Island residents to help communicate with riders.

Testifying at a state Senate transportation hearing in Albany, Lhota acknowledged that the LIRR “is off to a poor start this year” and reiterated his commitment to turning things around. Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) told him his constituents have “never seen things this bad.”

“You have my word that this will get fixed,” said Lhota, who wants to see the railroad return to the performance it showed during and in the weeks immediately after Amtrak’s so-called “summer of hell” Penn Station repairs, when LIRR customer communications improved and service disruptions fell considerably.

“That same level of vigilance needs to be applied 365 days a year — not just because there’s going to be outages in Penn Station due to work by Amtrak,” Lhota said. “The lack of urgency, more than anything else, is the thing that concerns me most.”

Lhota said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already begun “taking corrective steps,” including by making personnel changes. LIRR senior vice president of engineering, Bruce Pohlot, resigned Wednesday.

“Nothing concerns me more than communications with our customers,” said Lhota, who also said the agency is looking to beef up its government and community affairs staff with Long Island residents who live in the communities impacted by the railroad’s issues.

Kaminsky, a frequent critic of the LIRR, urged Lhota and other MTA representatives to attend community meetings to hear themselves from frustrated riders. He also urged Lhota to pressure Amtrak to expedite its repair plans for the East River tunnels that were badly damaged by superstorm Sandy.

Lhota said MTA officials are “pushing as hard as we can to get Amtrak to focus on that.” Kaminsky also praised Lhota’s response to the 2012 storm during his first run as MTA chairman.

“This is a disaster that we’re facing,” Kaminsky said of the LIRR’s recent struggles. “Now, too, we can really use your leadership.”

During his testimony, which lasted about three hours, Lhota also revealed that the MTA’s “Freedom Ticket” program, which would provide LIRR discounts for residents in New York City communities with limited public transportation options, will begin “relatively soon” this year.

Lhota also said that the railroad will get the centralized “command post” that LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski called for earlier this week to improve response times to incidents and communications with riders.

Also Thursday, Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) wrote Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to request emergency funding to expedite the development of a centralized control station at the LIRR, which would consolidate the train dispatching operations currently conducted at 11 towers throughout the LIRR territory.

“I see firsthand the frustrations that daily commuters have with the LIRR,” said Solages, who said she regularly rides LIRR and Amtrak trains to get to and from the State Capitol. “This recurring issue with the LIRR needs to be fixed because the livelihood of Long Island’s economy depends on it.”

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