Long Island Rail Road riders have endured a litany of problems this year — worse than at any time in recent memory, setting aside major natural disasters. The repeated problems of late trains and signal problems are exhausting, but for many riders the struggle begins before they even reach the station because of lack of parking spaces.
No one is charged with ensuring that Long Island riders can reliably find parking at the stations that are in the communities where they live or closest to their homes.
Sure, some communities have built housing within walking distance of LIRR stations, provided public buses to some stations, created shared-ride models to ease the burden, and staged events like the recent Long Island Car Free Day. Those are valuable resources, but for many riders, the only option is getting to the station in a private vehicle.
Also, parking supply and demand is unevenly balanced across the Island. Despite that tight parking supply, some local governments have increased restrictions on parking, but the officials have not ensured that creation of unrestricted space keeps pace. This is a precarious situation for LIRR riders under the best circumstances, but especially when shocks to the system — including facility closures such as at the Hicksville station, severe weather, events or projects for which local governments use parking space or a major service disruption — lead parking imbalances to escalate to a point of crisis.
We recognize projects have been built and proposed that have and will expand the number of parking spaces and improve some station conditions, but these incremental steps don’t resolve more complicated underlying challenges. By the LIRR’s count, there are fewer than 70,000 commuter parking spaces and more than twice that many riders on the railroad. Further, the number of available spaces at some stations is only a fraction of the number of riders who need parking, while other stations’ parking is not yet at capacity. Stations such as Port Washington and Ronkonkoma are examples of stations in each county with severe parking issues.
With expected commuting changes — including expected increased ridership stemming from regional development projects such as the second and third tracks and the ultimate completion of East Side Access — conditions could get much worse. East Side Access will add up to 45 percent more capacity to the LIRR, including for reverse commutes, making the commute by train more palatable than driving. East Side Access should ultimately reduce the number of cars on the road and attract riders who need to travel to Grand Central Terminal on the East Side. These riders will need parking. We simply can’t afford to rely on the existing system any longer.
We propose a bold step. Establish a limited number of parking authorities that operate on a countywide or island-wide basis to thoughtfully consider current and future needs, coordinate existing resources and planned improvements, and replace an unworkable system that relies on a uncoordinated roster of facilities under LIRR, county, or local government operation, and which fails to serve our commuters well.
The authorities could better balance resources with needs, comprehensively plan for the future, and work with the LIRR and advocates to provide incentives needed to meet the demand for parking and reduce private vehicle use. Even though LIRR stations might not ever be car free, there’s no reason why they can’t be car smart.
Mark J. Epstein is chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council.