Mark Roche's engineering smarts brought him to the Long Island Rail Road’s $2.6 billion Third Track project, but his commitment to detail — and personal touch — have helped him win over opponents of an expansion that for decades was slowed because of residents' fears over its construction.
Roche was hired by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2016 for $240,000 a year partly because of his reputation for getting major projects done in New York. He was an advocate for so-called “design build” contracts, which streamline construction by having one firm lead a project from beginning to end.
Roche has brought that streamlined approach to the LIRR Expansion project, better known as "Third Track," which aims to construct a 10-mile stretch of track from Floral Park to Hicksville. The effort is widely regarded as one of the most transformational public works projects on Long Island since the days of Robert Moses, a planner who helped shape New York City by pushing for bridges, tunnels and highways.
“A project as important as Third Track deserves to have a single project leader who is fully empowered to make sure it’s delivered on time and on budget,” said MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber, who tapped Roche to lead the project. “I chose Mark Roche because of his proven track record on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and a range of megaprojects around the world.
"He’s a project management innovator who knows how to deliver.”
The LIRR has said the Third Track will allow it to more easily work around service disruptions on its Main Line and provide enough capacity to run extra trains, including for riders going in the reverse direction during rush hours. Supporters also said the project will increase property values and create jobs on Long Island.
Roche, the MTA's senior director of alternative delivery and chief executive of Third Track, has had to use his people skills to soothe fears about the project. That includes his handling of a situation in Floral Park.
Pinned on the wall near the front door of Roche's Westbury office is a photo of three people standing in front of a row of trees in Floral Park. An elderly woman is flanked by Roche and a construction manager for the project. The row of trees needed to come down to accommodate a new retaining wall.
“She contacted us one day and said, ‘Can we do something else?’ — because those trees were planted by her husband, who had died recently. And they were the last reminder [of him] that she had,” said Roche, smiling at the picture as he recounted how the construction manager avoided cutting down the trees.
The resolution — moving the planned work site “a foot or two” — is a constant reminder for Roche of his mission.
“That’s what’s important to us . . . That’s what we need to instill in people,” Roche said of how his team handled the concern of one of thousands of residents impacted by the project. “I’m not worried about delivering it. I’m worried about getting it done right."
Roche, 52, grew up in southeast Ireland, the son of a milkman and a shopkeeper. His twin sister, Mary, went on to become mayor of his hometown of Waterford — famous for its crystal manufacturer of the same name.
After leaving home at 17 and studying engineering in London, Roche worked on major public works projects around the globe, including in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaysia, where he helped build a rail system and also met his wife Prudence Cheah.
In 1997, Roche came to New York to help design the AirTrain linking the Long Island Rail Road’s Jamaica Station to Kennedy Airport, and stayed to work on several other major infrastructure projects, including the development of the new Moynihan Train Hall at the former Farley Post Office. He also consulted with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office on its plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge in Manhattan.
Late last year, Roche was charged with leading the Third Track project, which was resurrected by Cuomo in 2016. Past attempts to advance such a project were stymied by concerns that a third track would require building on private land. The current proposal keeps the project exclusively on the LIRR's existing property. The project is being funded by the state as part of the MTA's five-year, $33 billion Capital Program, and is a component of a broader expansion of the LIRR that includes the recently completed Double Track project between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma and the East Side Access plan to link the railroad to Grand Central Terminal by 2022.
As the final decision-maker for all aspects of the Third Track project, Roche is a fixture at near-daily meetings with residents and elected officials from the villages along the project’s corridor. On one recent evening, Roche and project director Anthony Tufano visited the home of a woman who was upset about the construction going on outside her home “and had coffee for a couple of hours.”
“I’ve been in meetings on the project where I’ve been cornered, and it’s been hard to get away from a lot of very angry people shouting at us, to be honest with you, initially,” Roche said. “The second time you meet them, they realize you’re actually listening to them, because you remember what they said the first time. By the third time, you’ve actually done something about it. And now, all of a sudden, we know each other, and we’re friends.”
Roche said the 80 people working in cubicles just outside his office are similarly committed to putting concerned residents along the railroad’s right of way at ease. That’s meant using electric chainsaws, instead of the louder gas-powered ones and addressing the unique needs of a family near one work site that includes a bedridden man.
Lawrence Montreuil, mayor of New Hyde Park — the seat of some of the most vehement opposition to the project over the years — said he has witnessed how Roche’s approach has put some of his constituents at ease.
“The worst fears were that it was going to be a construction project that’s driven by the monolithic MTA that folks feel is a very unsympathetic, large organization that doesn’t do construction well, and is just going to roll through the community on a scorched-earth type of project,” Montreiul said. “The governor expressed that he really wanted this project to be a model of state government working with local communities, and I think Mark has certainly reflected that.”
There’s another bit of experience Roche brings to the project, which is scheduled for completion by the end of 2022. Roche, who lives in lower Manhattan, is a reverse commuter who often boards a train in the pre-dawn hours to get to Westbury for a morning meeting, because of the infrequency of eastbound trains during the morning rush.
“What that means is . . . you can’t fit in more trains into the system without a third track,” Roche said. “Service is not what it should be in my book.”