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Don't put off double tracks for Hicksville-Ronkonkoma line on LIRR

LIRR commuters wait for a 7:10 a.m. train

LIRR commuters wait for a 7:10 a.m. train at Ronkonkoma station (Dec. 28, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

In 1987, when the Long Island Rail Road launched electrified service from Hicksville to Ronkonkoma, it was an immediate success -- even though trains east of Farmingdale ran on a single track.

Ever since, a second track on that line has been the transit equivalent of the Holy Grail for central Long Island. It would open the door to more commuting from New York City, allow trains to be routed around delays, and even help unlock the potential of Long Island MacArthur Aiport. A new stop could be added to serve the pulsing employment center of Route 110 near the Nassau-Suffolk border.

Unfortunately, we won't be getting that second track anytime soon. The reasons illustrate why it takes so long to build such projects in New York, why they cost so much, and how important it is to launch them when the need -- and the opportunity -- first arise, instead of putting them off or building them bit by costly bit.

Just this week, state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and other Long Island lawmakers called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to accelerate the double-track project. That's a great idea, but all they could offer was exhortation. The reality: Unless someone comes up with a lot of money fast, the double-track initiative will chug along as before -- slowly.

What we're talking about is merely a 12.6-mile length of track. The right-of-way, normally a costly and contentious item to acquire, is already in hand. The stations are in place, and are already double-tracked. Yet this little stretch of electrified track is expected to cost up to $400 million and take four or five years -- assuming it could begin today.

But it can't, because there's no money. The LIRR has budgeted for design work, and hopes to do construction in stages as money becomes available, which will almost certainly cost more than building it all at once.

The second track would have been a lot more affordable had it been added back in the '80s, as part of the electrification project. Sadly, money wasn't available then, either. So Long Islanders have lived all these years without a more flexible and robust LIRR main line. The costs of going without include time commuters have lost when stuck behind a stranded train, the postponed development that might have occurred by now around rail stations in Wyandanch and Ronkonkoma, and the jobs and tax revenue that such development might have produced.

There's no way to turn back the clock -- or send a check back to officials in 1987, so they could do what they couldn't afford at the time. Yet as maddening as the wait has been, it's all the more reason for all parties to join forces in doing what Fuschillo has merely suggested, and get this project built as quickly as possible, in one fell swoop. If the money can be found, the new service might well pay for itself in time saved, reduced driving and economic development.

The time for action is now, lest the second track turn into another Second Avenue subway. Planning for that line in Manhattan began in the 1920s, when the passengers might have included flappers, and the first sections of tunnel were dug in the 1970s. It's still not finished.

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