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Roads likely to be more crowded than rails as LI reopens

Vehicles on the Northern State Parkway head east

Vehicles on the Northern State Parkway head east in Carle Place on Thursday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Mike Radzicki’s reaction to his company’s announcement that he’d be working remotely for the rest of the year was to express on Twitter that, thankfully, he would not have to ride the Long Island Rail Road into his financial technology firm in lower Manhattan.

“This makes me a happy guy,” read his May 13 post. “Sorry @LIRR you will not be getting any more of my money or time this year.”

He reiterated his gratitude that he wouldn’t have to commute after Long Island on Wednesday began to “open up,” allowing for commercial activity.

“I get back almost $6,000 a year in my pocket,” the Lindenhurst resident said in an interview a day after the Island entered Phase 1 of the lifting of restrictions due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “If everything goes perfectly, you put three hours a day of my commuting time back . . . I don’t have to wake up at 4:30 to catch a 5:30 train to be in the office at 7.”

But many workers will not have the option to work remotely once their companies return to some sense of normal operations — and that could have serious implications, said transportation experts. They believe the lifting of restrictions will spark a flood of traffic on already heavily-traveled roads like the Long Island Expressway as more people opt out of the LIRR, due to cost, convenience, or worries about traveling with other people in the wake of the pandemic.

“I think they are going to be more and more crowded,” said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, which monitors road traffic. “We’ve seen congestion picking up already on Long Island, in Westchester and New York City.”

Stephen Canzoneri, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the agency “observed a slight increase in traffic on Long Island’s state highways Wednesday, “but volumes remained significantly below those measured before the implementation of NY on Pause.”

Nassau County Police spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun said the agency has not reduced any patrols or crew on highways since the pandemic struck.

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LIRR wary of rider concerns

LIRR officials said they are aware of the reservations that some commuters may have of traveling in enclosed spaces with strangers even as the pandemic eases, a concern that has hit the service’s bottom line.

LIRR ridership was down 96% percent in April compared to January, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority data. The decline is from 7.2 million riders in January to just 253,571 in April.

“From aggressively disinfecting trains to sanitizing high-touch surfaces at stations more than twice daily, our workforce … has been providing service for essential employees every day throughout the pandemic,” said LIRR president Phil Eng, in a release about Essential Service Plan Enhancements implemented when the state eased restrictions on Long Island on Wednesday.

He added: “We continue to monitor ridership and make adjustments as necessary. …  everyone who travels with us is required to wear a face mask. We all need to do our part to keep each other healthy and safe.”

LIRR officials said they have added 105 cars and increased capacity by 15% to accommodate social distancing and allay jittery commuters' health concerns.

“There is this fear of using transit,” said Sam Schwartz, a prominent transportation engineering and traffic safety expert and former New York City traffic commissioner. “It’s not going to be terribly convincing to most people for a while that they should use transit. . . . More of those people are going to opt to use cars and, as activity gets closer and closer to normal, we’re not just going to have people who are on the LIE that normally drive the LIE. We will have people who were on the LIRR also on the LIE.”

Take the train? Eventually

But Valley Stream’s Philip Coiro and his wife, Lauryn Ciardullo, won’t be among the first wave of returning commuters.

Coiro, a drummer, and Ciardullo, an actress who performs in "Aladdin," both work on Broadway, so their livelihoods are dependent upon people gathering in closed spaces reserved for entertainment. Under the state’s reopening plan, those kinds of businesses will be among the last to reopen.

So Coiro said he believes he will be able to ride public transportation once he is required to return to work in Manhattan.

“They’re not expecting Broadway and theater to open for this calendar year for sure, so we haven’t been too concerned about it because we don’t have any reason to be on that train yet,” he said, adding that Ciardullo normally commutes to Manhattan six times a week.

“We’re basically flying in the dark seeing how this all plays out with the virus getting better or not. . . . If we’re at the point where theaters are opening back up for us, then it’s probably going to be safe enough to get on the train.”

That could be awhile, said Larry Penner, a transportation historian, writer and advocate who worked for 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration in New York.

He said commuters may still shy away from the railroad and buses for some time, but that New York City’s congestion — both its traffic and severe lack of parking spaces — may force some Long Islanders to opt for the trains.

Radzicki said he thinks many companies have seen the benefits of telecommuting during the lockdown and state-mandated bans from workplaces, and that they won't be hasty in bringing people back to offices. Such a trend, he said, could help prevent spikes in traffic on the roads as much as commuters' fears of traveling in crowded cars does.

"No one is going to want that middle seat on the Long Island Rail Road,” Penner said, acknowledging that the LIRR’s efforts to add cars will provide only a little relief.  

Other pending concerns include the upcoming congestion pricing in Manhattan — drivers will be charged a toll for driving below 60th Street — and whether it will deter some drivers and lure some back to public transportation. “… it’s become more and more difficult for people to drive into Manhattan,” Penner said.

With Matt Clark

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