The best view of Long Island's endless traffic jam is from behind the steering wheel. But the best view of the way out requires more of a 30,000-feet vantage point. We must look at it regionally, realize we're all in it together, and get past our fears about how some pieces of the solution will inconvenience us. In short, we must think outside the jam.
As a detailed Newsday special report Sunday showed, there's no way we can build ourselves out of this mess by adding to our roads. As long as development continues here, the growth of traffic will always outpace any new carrying capacity that we may add. So what does that leave us?
Time for a new development strategy
First, as in a 12-step program, we have to admit we have a problem: Our existing land-use patterns have led to the traffic jams. Long Islanders love single-family homes, but separating homes from retail and commercial makes us rely on cars even for a quart of milk. If we keep doing all our future residential construction that way, ultimate gridlock is inevitable.
So we need a lot more transit-oriented development, at Long Island Rail Road stations and in our downtowns, to make our existing mass transit more efficient and new forms possible. That requires greater density - more units to the acre - plus taller buildings and additional rental units. Yes, Long Islanders fear density, but in the right locations it can work to our advantage.
Changing land-use policy alone isn't enough. We also need to develop north-south transit, on Route 110 and wherever we can. We have to explore carefully ideas such as the proposed tunnel from Oyster Bay to Rye, greater use of rail freight and even tolls on parkways. Nothing should be off the table.
We also need to build the capacity of the mass transit we have. On the LIRR, that means such projects as the third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, and East Side Access to allow a direct link to Grand Central Terminal. The third track is the third rail of local politics. Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) opposes it adamantly. That has to change.
But, as the continuing budget woes of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority make clear, none of it will be easy.
Less transit, when we need more
In terms of funding better public transportation here, the well is beyond empty. The MTA just announced service cuts affecting trains on nearly every line of the LIRR and eliminating 13 bus lines. What's more, the MTA still has a $378-million deficit to close, partly as a result of Gov. David A. Paterson's budgetary swipe of $143 million from MTA coffers. Cash-starved, the MTA hasn't crafted a new capital plan, on which East Side Access and the double track depend.
Our elected officials have the responsibility to honestly fund the MTA so it can develop solutions to our gridlock. Last year's payroll tax, which was supposed to solve the problem, has raised too little money. And seven Suffolk town supervisors have just sued to get out from under the hated tax.
If our leaders - and we - don't do our part, we'll never get out this jam. hN