The Long Island Rail Road's Third Track project, key to expanding capacity through a bottleneck in Nassau County, had been stalled for decades by local opposition over the impact of construction.
Then, in 2017, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority devised a new strategy to help win support for the effort: Create a $20 million pot of money that local governments could tap into for projects.
Much of the political resistance cleared away, and last year the $2.5 billion Third Track was completed.
Following a nine-month fight for public records, Newsday obtained a partial list of projects made possible because of the fund. It helps illustrate how the MTA won a critical mass of support for an effort that once was considered politically impossible.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The MTA's $2.5 billion effort to build a 10-mile long Third Track through the Long Island Rail Road's Main Line in Nassau included a $20 million "Community Benefits Fund" that local governments could tap for projects.
- Newsday obtained a list of projects approved as of December. They include some with seemingly little connection to the Third Track, including the construction of a pickleball court in Floral Park and the repaving of a station parking lot on a different branch than the Third Track.
- MTA and local elected leaders defended the fund, which they said helped win political support for the project and addressed the reality that communities near the Third Track were disproportionately impacted by its construction.
Although some of the money from the "Community Benefits Fund" went to address concerns raised by construction, millions more paid for projects including a pickleball court in Floral Park, a "Welcome to Garden City Park" sign valued at $9,000, and other improvements with seemingly little connection to the LIRR's Third Track.
MTA officials and local leaders defended the fund as a means to keep the project on-schedule and on-budget by preventing potential roadblocks put up by local governments. It also was an acknowledgment that construction disproportionately impacted communities near the megaproject’s corridor.
Some project opponents and fiscal watchdogs have criticized the tactic as an overt attempt to curry favor with politicians through earmarks unrelated to the Third Track effort, funded, in part, by commuters and taxpayers.
Among them: the $1.6 million reconstruction of a parking lot at the Nassau Boulevard station in Garden City, which is about a mile away from the Third Track, on an entirely different LIRR branch. The expenditure "left a lot of us scratching our heads," said Garden City homeowner Richard Corrao, who is among a group of residents who have pushed the MTA and their village to address concerns over light pollution, noise and eyesores that they say have come from the renovation of nearby Merillon Avenue Station as part of the Third Track effort.
“All of that money could be spent right here, and should be spent right here, because we’re the ones who have been impacted and have had our neighborhood completely changed," Corrao said. "In the end, we’re probably seeing where the railroad got what it wanted, a bunch of elected officials got what they wanted, and the rest of us are left holding the bag."
In December, Newsday, through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, requested records of all projects approved through the Community Benefits Fund. In August, after correspondence from Newsday's attorney, the LIRR provided a list of about $11 million in projects approved only through December. MTA officials told Newsday to file a second records request for the remaining projects approved since then.
The list of approved projects include:
- The reconstruction of a multipurpose court at the Floral Park Recreation Center to include roller hockey, basketball and pickleball courts at the cost of $223,000.
- $461,000 for the purchase of a debris vacuum truck and two new snowblowers for Westbury.
- $141,000 for new ambulance equipment in New Hyde Park.
- $2 million in upgrades for three Town of North Hempstead parks.
- $20,000 total for three new “Welcome to …” signs in Garden City, Carle Place, and New Cassel, and another $9,000 for a similar sign in Garden City Park.
- More than $823,000 for a snow removal truck that Nassau County said it needs for new undergrade crossings.
- Nearly $2 million paid to lawyers and consultants for environmental, architectural and engineering work to review the MTA's plan. Nassau County alone received $1.4 million for such “professional services,” according to MTA records.
Some expenditures appeared to be closely related to the Third Track work, including paying traffic enforcement personnel to manage road closures and detours during construction, landscaping and sidewalk upgrades near stations, funding for murals on newly erected sound walls, and the installation of a protective screen to keep debris out of the Floral Park village pool, which abuts the LIRR’s tracks.
MTA external communications chief John McCarthy acknowledged that one of the objectives of the fund was to prevent potential hurdles in the project’s way, including lawsuits filed by municipalities or duplicative environmental and engineering reviews that could have slowed the pace of work.
“This project was on a very tight schedule, and we made a big issue about getting this project done on time and on budget," McCarthy said. "And, in order to do that, you have to [do] that dance with jurisdictions to make sure approvals come in, roads get closed, roads get reopened."
The fund “incentivized” local governments not to obstruct the project, McCarthy said, because money set aside for a community that wasn’t spent on lawyers, architects, engineers, or labor costs could “be used as they saw fit, as long as it fell into the rules we had put in place.”
“And this is the kicker: It worked,” said McCarthy, who noted that the Third Track was completed on time a year ago, about $100 million under its $2.6 billion budget, and with minimal litigation. Only Garden City sued the MTA, over the placement of utility poles in the village. The MTA won that suit.
But Ken Girardin, fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, a conservative think tank that has been critical of MTA spending, said, “This practice is an invitation for future shakedowns."
“Infrastructure projects should always stand on their own merits. They shouldn’t require letting some mayor or village trustee play Santa Claus,” said Girardin, who questioned whether the projects chosen for funding by some local lawmakers fully reflected the priorities of their constituents. "None of those neighbors were listening to construction sounds or breathing in construction smells thinking, ‘Thank God my village is going to get a new welcome sign.' "
Officials defend 'inducement' to sign on
The amount allocated to each municipality was determined by how much construction work took place in them, MTA officials said. The MTA did not disclose total allotments for each municipality, but of the $11 million in projects included in the provided list, the Town of North Hempstead received the most funding, about $3.5 million.
North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, in a statement, said her town “has sought to do the greatest good possible with the funds available under the Community Benefits program," including through park improvement projects resulting "in a vastly improved quality of life for our residents." The town provided a list this month showing it had been awarded $3.8 million.
Westbury Mayor Pete Cavallaro said his village needs items purchased through the fund, like the snowblowers and vacuum truck, to maintain a new plaza built near the Westbury train station as part of the project. Cavallaro said, coming out of the project's $2.5 billion budget, the $20 million Community Benefits Fund was "relatively minor" and "the fair thing to do."
Cavallaro also acknowledged that the fund served as an "inducement … to get the municipalities that were holding out to sign off on the project.”
Christopher Boyle, spokesperson for Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, said in a statement, "The County Executive will not speculate on the motives for decisions made by county officials prior to him taking office."
When the Third Track was finished in October 2022, Mineola Mayor Paul Pereira issued a statement complaining of the ongoing “mess and inconvenience of all the construction.” Mineola was not included among the municipalities that received money out of the Community Benefits Fund as of December.
But, speaking at an event last month celebrating the Third Track and related improvements at Mineola station, Pereira said project officials since have approved funding for several improvements in his village, including new “big belly garbage cans,” benches, lighting upgrades, and parking payment kiosks in its downtown area.
“Our residents and our commuters put up with a lot of disruptions during construction for many years,” Pereira said. “I feel like the residents of our village bore the brunt for the longest, and I feel like it is right and it is understandable and it is fair that there would be a community benefits fund.”
Officials from the incorporated villages of New Hyde Park and Garden City, which also received money from the fund, did not respond to requests for comment.
Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA construction and development, said the fund was “administered extremely professionally,” with municipalities submitting applications to a team of Third Track project executives for review.
Although proposals would be preapproved for a certain amount of funding, the MTA only reimbursed municipalities once they could show that “the money was spent on the purposes it was provided for,” Torres-Springer said.
Applications could only be submitted by municipalities, but Third Track project officials encouraged residents and community groups to partner with their towns and villages on proposals. A suggestion form was available for download on the project's website. The Third Track project team even hosted a contest in which school students were invited to come up with ideas for projects that could be funded.
Third Track boosted capacity
Near the top of the LIRR’s wish list for decades, the LIRR Expansion Project, as it is formally known, allowed the railroad to boost capacity by 50% along an especially constrained 10-mile stretch of its Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville. The Third Track was critical toward getting the most out of the $11 billion East Side Access megaproject, which gave the LIRR a second Manhattan terminal at Grand Central Madison and increased service by about 40%.
Years after the LIRR shelved its Third Track proposal amid fierce opposition from residents and elected leaders, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resurrected the plan in 2016, with the promise that builders would be more considerate of, and responsive to, communities’ concerns.
The Third Track would not encroach on any private, residential properties; include major upgrades at train stations; eliminate eight grade crossings, and establish the Community Benefits Fund.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi, in a statement, defended the tactics used to win support for "a project that for decades everyone said was needed to relieve congestion on Long Island and facilitate future economic growth in the region." But, Azzopardi said, the effort was blocked "at every turn."
"Making the theoretical reality wasn’t easy, and we make no apologies for it," Azzopardi said.
Although the private contractor hired to build out the project, 3rd Track Constructors, or 3TC, continues work on what the MTA has called “punch-list items,” like station improvements, the Third Track was put into service a year ago.
"Historically, when we talked about the Third Track project, it was always that it was great for the region, and therefore the local communities that were directly impacted had to effectively suck it up,” said Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), once a vehement opponent of the Third Track. “The approach this time was a little different. And the difference was they went to the communities and said, ‘Let’s identify those impacts to your community and let’s offset them.’ ”
Torres-Springer said the transit authority is “very proud of the Community Benefits Fund.”
“The thing about building great railroad infrastructure, like this, is that the benefits are seen all across the region, but sometimes the impacts can be pretty direct and specific," Torres-Springer said. "So the innovation of the Community Benefits Fund was to be able to work with communities to address those impacts.”
Expert: Funds reduce resistance
Rick Geddes, founding director of Cornell University’s Program in Infrastructure Policy, has been studying the growing trend of including community benefit funds in major infrastructure projects for about 15 years. While he was initially skeptical of their place in publicly financed efforts, Geddes said he now appreciates them as a worthwhile investment in keeping a project on track, and on budget.
“Over time, I’ve come to realize that there are so many stakeholders in a large project that could hold up or delay or prevent a project, with enormous cost to the final bill for the project, that it makes sense to include these … just to reduce that resistance,” Geddes said. “Almost any group has a veto over a project. And I think that’s costly.”
At a recent North Hempstead town board meeting, Westbury resident Peter Gaffney complained about the Community Benefit Fund projects moving ahead as problems remain with the Third Track's construction, including the new Cherry Lane bridge leaking when it rains. Meanwhile, Gaffney said, hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Community Benefits Fund went to road repairs that should have been covered by the Third Track's contractors.
McCarthy, the MTA spokesman, said one of the purposes of the fund was to resolve such debates about who should pay for certain project-related repairs and upgrades.
Gaffney also questioned what would become of the unspent Community Benefits dollars allocated to the town.
"The community benefits was designed to go to communities affected by the Third Track project,” he said.
MTA officials said communities have up to two years from the "substantial completion" of the Third Track project — achieved this past April — to submit applications to the fund.
MTA officials would not say how much of the $20 million fund has yet to be allocated, but Third Track project executive Anthony Tufano said applications for funding “are still rolling in."
Floral Park resident Dennis McEnery — a co-founder of Citizens Against Rail Expansion, or CARE, an anti-Third Track group — said it made sense to let elected representatives decide how best to spend money available from the fund.
McEnery defended the projects picked by his village, including the upgrades at its recreational center to include a pickleball court. Contractors used the rec center, which abuts the LIRR Main Line, to stage much of their construction work in the village, McEnery noted.
“I would say that the railroad got the better of the bargain,” McEnery said. “The communities affected were getting all of the burden with none of the benefits."
David Kapell, co-chairman of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition — a group formed to help win support for the Third Track — acknowledged that funds to get projects passed is less common in publicly sponsored projects, and that some of the work paid for by the fund may appear as "window dressing" to some.
But “to the extent that it helped pave a path for the project, I support it," Kapell said. “I think it is a miracle that the project actually happened, when you look at the history of it going back over 70 years of opposition and controversy.”
With Anastasia Valeeva