Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and MTA leaders vowed Tuesday to avoid the missteps that doomed past proposals to build a third track on the LIRR’s Main Line — namely asking too much from property owners while communicating with them too little.
While some transit and builders groups praised the proposal, residents and political leaders in communities most likely to be impacted by the plan say their concerns today are no different from a decade ago.
Facing mass opposition, the Long Island Rail Road shelved its plan to construct a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville about six years ago. But according to sources close to the situation, the LIRR, bolstered by a task force of supporters empaneled by the nonprofit Rauch Foundation, based in Long Island, quietly kept the project alive, advancing it in small steps with hopes of an opening to get it on the agenda. Smaller infrastructure projects in recent years, such as the replacement of the Ellison Avenue bridge in Westbury or flood-mitigation efforts in Mineola, were all done with an eye on the third track, sources said.
When Cuomo’s office began looking around in the fall for big ideas on Long Island, members of the Rauch task force, which included Long Island Association president Kevin Law and Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitchell Pally, pushed hard for the third track project. Last month, Cuomo came on board.
The LIRR began re-engineering the project in earnest to make it more digestible, including by keeping most of the construction work within the LIRR’s right of way and reducing the number of properties encroached upon to about 50 from nearly 200. Of those, about 20 are homes, and the average amount of land that the LIRR would need from each of those is 5 feet. Nearly all of those are within a 1-mile radius of Mineola station. By using an existing track on the Hempstead branch near Queens Village, the new third track will also be shorter than previously proposed — 9.8 miles as opposed to 11.5.
“The infrastructure of the Long Island Rail Road has been pretty constant for 50 years,” MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said. “The addition of this track capacity is going to provide benefits to the region that they haven’t’ seen before: half-hourly service on the Main Line; truly the option to get out of their cars and use mass transit.”
Sen. Jack Martins, who has fought the project since his days as Mineola’s mayor, said he learned of the new proposal in a 10 p.m. Monday phone call from Cuomo’s office. His response: “You’ve lost your mind.”
Martins, who called the project “dead on arrival,” said his concerns aren’t just about homeowners losing their property, but also the potential effect on communities from the LIRR running substantially more trains than it does today “literally 40 feet behind people’s houses” and with little benefit to Long Island.
“There is no White Plains in Nassau County. There is no destination for thousands or tens of thousands of reverse commuters,” Martins (R-Mineola) said. “Someone should be able to articulate, as part of this discussion, where those reverse commuters are going to commute to.”
The plan “seems to be a dressing up of the same proposal,” said Dennis McEnery, a Floral Park resident and member of the village’s Third Track Task Force, which helped defeat the plan in 2008. “We’ve not seen a scenario under which the burdens to the local communities are outweighed by the benefits to them.”
Cuomo said that community opposition should not block the project, but acknowledged that the LIRR’s past third track outreach “left something to be desired.”
Cuomo and MTA officials said they will begin their outreach in the next 30 days, including by scheduling public meetings and contacting property owners. The LIRR will also expedite the environmental review process by hiring a contractor to conduct a study in the next month and hopes to begin construction by 2018.
The resurrection of the third track was met by praise from transit and infrastructure advocates. Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said that while he is “sensitive” to concerns by impacted residents, “it is time to move forward with these vitally important LIRR improvements and to increase the Rail Road’s capacity to handle its growing ridership.”
Denise Richardson, executive director of the General Contractors Association of New York, called the proposal “amazing in terms of its breadth and scope,” and said it will take Long Island “smartly into the 21st century.” Lauren Harris, president of the Association for a Better Long Island, called it “exactly what is required to ensure Long Island has a vibrant economic future.” And Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, praised Cuomo’s “resolve” and said he looked forward to working with him “on the Third Rail project as well as additional vital infrastructure projects on Long Island.”