It took timing and teamwork for a small group of advocates to win over the governor — and much of Long Island — to kick-start one of the most potentially transformative projects in the region’s history, the LIRR’s Third Track, according to a new report.
A discussion of the Rauch Foundation report, titled “Breaking Through: How smart partnerships overcame decades of resistance to modernize America’s busiest commuter railroad,” drew a crowd of business leaders and public planners at a Melville meeting hosted by the Long Island Association on Friday. Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the nonprofit Rauch Foundation, said the report aims to use the once highly controversial LIRR Expansion Project as a case study on how to execute ambitious public works projects on Long Island.
“The question that I was really asked was: ‘How did the Long Island Rail Road succeed in pushing through this $2.6 billion Third Track project, after so many previous efforts had failed?’ ” said Elizabeth Moore, a former Newsday investigative journalist who was hired by the Rauch Foundation to put together the report. “How was this big project set in motion on Long Island, which, as we know, is generally known as the place where big ideas come to die?”
Construction began last year on the project, which aims to build a 9.8-mile Third Track between Floral Park and Hicksville. LIRR officials have said the track, combined with the East Side Access effort to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, will increase rush hour capacity on the railroad by 45%, improve the railroad’s ability to bounce back from service disruptions, and increase property values. It is scheduled for completion in December 2022.
Largely because of concerns that the railroad would have to acquire several homes to build the Third Track, the project faced opposition for decades, including from elected leaders who “cut their political teeth fighting the Long Island Rail Road,” Moore said. In 2008, the LIRR formally removed plans for the track from the MTA’s Capital Program.
“Politically, the Third Track was declared dead,” Moore said.
That’s where the Rauch Foundation stepped in, and began a grassroots effort to resuscitate the project. Former Greenport Mayor David Kapell was enlisted to help, and seized the moment at a December 2015 reception at the State Capitol to pitch the project to its most important future champion — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“You have an unusual opportunity to bypass the palace guard and catch the ear of an important public official from time to time,” Kapell recalled. “I placed myself in the right location, so he had to get past me to get where he wanted to go.”
During a five-minute exchange, Kapell made his case to Cuomo about the project’s benefits. In the weeks that followed, Long Island Association president and Cuomo confidant Kevin Law further advocated for the project. And in January 2016, Cuomo announced at a Woodbury reception that the Third Track was back.
The Rauch Foundation report said several key changes in the project helped make it more palatable than in the past, including that the track would be built entirely on the LIRR’s property; that the railroad would eliminate eight grade crossings along the project path; that the railroad would turn down federal funding in order to have more control over the project; that a single firm would be hired to design and build it — with financial incentives for finding ways to do it cheaper and faster; and that project officials would go out of their way to listen to, and address, the concerns of impacted communities.
//BEGIN TRIM//“That model, I think, is one that’s has made an impression on everybody in the region, everybody in the state,” said Janno Lieber, chief development officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who believes the Third Track project has taught an important lesson about the importance of building public support “in an environment where people are justifiably suspicious.”
“So we’ve done something very important apart from the creation of this project,” Lieber said.