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Editorial: An improved LIRR crucial to Island's future

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train travels

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train travels a stretch of single-track main line between the Pinelawn and Wyandanch stations on the LIRR's Ronkonkoma branch. (Apr. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskeva

Long Island depends on the Long Island Rail Road, and one key to tapping the potential of Nassau and Suffolk to prosper is improving rail transportation. That's the conclusion -- one that can't be stated often enough -- of a report issued this week by the Rauch Foundation, a Long Island community group. At the same time, the LIRR unveiled plans for putting down the first phase of a double track on the Ronkonkoma line.

Improving the LIRR improves local prospects in key ways: Better rail transportation makes it more convenient for the workers of New York City to live in Nassau and Suffolk. As a recent study pointed out, this could increase the value of homes near stations by an average of $7,300. But LIRR improvements will also enable locals to get to Long Island employers, and allow city residents to "reverse commute."

The Rauch Foundation's Long Island Index report quantifies what most of us who live here already know: Our highways are jammed, the commute to Manhattan's East Side is long and balky, and intra-island rail travel is often difficult.

At least part of the answer lies in three LIRR capital projects, two already in the works that need our focus and continued support, and one that's still a proposal and should be a priority in the future. In this time of stressed finances, any major infrastructure project faces funding and construction challenges, yet completing the most crucial ones is a key to ensuring our growth and success.

The addition of a second track along 20 miles of rail between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, expected to start this summer and cost $430 million, should reduce congestion on that line significantly and improve commutes when it's completed around 2018. The lack of a second track along this stretch limits options for improved service in the best of times, but when a track or train failure blocks that single path, trains and commuters are truly stuck. The $140-million first phase of this project has been funded, and preliminary work is under way. But the $290 million needed for a later phase has not yet been dedicated, and finding that money is an absolute necessity.

The East Side Access tunnel to Grand Central Terminal is predicted to be finished in 2019 at a cost of more than $8 billion. Finding the money has been a sporadic process and the completion date always seems to be six or seven years away.

The addition of a third "fast track" to the Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville would be an important improvement. It has long been discussed but never been funded. It could cost $1.3 billion.

All three are necessary if this rail-dependent island is to continue growing its economy and increasing the value of its property. As our roadways clog, fuel costs rise and our vehicles emit pollution into an environment that's becoming more fragile each year, building and maintaining a great railroad needs to remain a focus of politicians and residents. These days it is so easy to knock any expensive public construction efforts, even the ones well under way, off the rails. But that can't be allowed to happen with these projects.