There will be no other way to describe the disastrous consequences if almost $2 billion in funding to improve Long Island Rail Road service is lost because of the reckless and self-interested politics of most of our state senators.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s long-awaited investment to modernize the LIRR’s Main Line is critical to the future of our region — its economy, jobs, home values and track safety. Yet, for more than a month, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has refused to allow it to move forward. And he can have his Senate representative to the MTA’s review board veto it at any time in the next three weeks.
Flanagan may hold the weapon, but the masterminds of the crime are Sens. Elaine Phillips and Kemp Hannon, who want to continue to demand more loot in exchange for their approval.
Conspiring with them are Sens. Kenneth LaValle and Carl Marcellino, who have their own priorities. Phil Boyle and Tom Croci, who publicly support the third track, haven’t done enough to pressure Flanagan to do the right thing.
With varying degrees of comprehension of either the magnitude of the plan or the complexities of the current transit woes, some senators seem to think emergency repairs at Penn Station could somehow be done with MTA money pegged for the third track. That can’t happen. Amtrak owns Penn, the tracks and the current crisis. And powerful national railway unions won’t allow others to touch their tracks. The MTA could show up with bushels of hard cash and it wouldn’t make a difference.
It’s also an argument that doesn’t affect all LIRR riders; a third of them don’t commute to Manhattan jobs.
The senators responsible for stalling the third track are Republicans, the same senators who like to remind us every two years that GOP control of the State Senate is good for Long Island. The two area Democrats, Sens. Todd Kaminsky and John Brooks, support commuters. And why not? There is no downside to a $2 billion LIRR upgrade.
The need for 9.8 miles of new track on the Main Line never has been more clear. Monday is the start of the so-called “summer of hell,” because Amtrak let Penn’s tracks deteriorate. It’ll mean fewer ways for LIRR trains to access platforms at Penn, resulting in canceled and diverted trains, and the need to consider buses and ferries.
If, heaven forbid, one or both of the tracks were out on the Main Line, there’d be a similar crisis. There would be nowhere for trains to go. Only one train could pass at a time from Floral Park to Hicksville. It’s happened before, causing hours of inconvenience when a train was derailed or stuck, or an accident had to be investigated. From January 2013 through September 2016, there were 110 incidents that each caused 10 or more trains to be late or canceled — that’s at least 1,100 trains disrupted, creating misery for hundreds of thousands of riders.
It’s time to call the senators’ bluff. This is about their pure self-interest: the concern that someone who lives near the construction will vote against Hannon or Phillips because there is too much noise or inconvenience in eliminating deadly crossings or erecting state-of-the-art sound barriers — ones that will actually stop the noise.
And it’s about not knowing when enough is enough. The state and the MTA have agreed to a slew of demands for local improvements, such as upgraded stations and the removal of seven dangerous crossings at major intersections that cause traffic snarls and accidents. Then, they added all sorts of construction agreements, from establishing a 24-hour hotline for residents to involving village representatives in sound-wall design.
But that’s not enough for Flanagan, Hannon and Phillips, who have a constantly growing wish list that now includes hospital and health care funding, economic development dollars for a public works garage, and even stopping New York City from utilizing now-idle Queens wells. Tomorrow, it will be calls for peace on Earth before the Republicans will allow the LIRR to be upgraded.
This obstructionism affects every corner of Long Island. Everyone will get something out of this project, including more-frequent trains, more trains going in the other direction from rush hour destinations — think of Stony Brook University students trying to get to morning classes — and an end to the bottlenecks because of accidents and malfunctions. And better public transportation means fewer cars on the road.
In the end, the villages along the third track will get the most. They’ll look better and be better places to live and offer faster commutes, which will increase property values.
Among the many benefits are these that would reaped in the districts of the two most obstructionist senators, Hannon and Phillips:
- Upgraded stations in Mineola, Garden City, New Hyde Park and Westbury, and three new elevators in Floral Park.
- Sound walls, rail vibration controls, road improvements, seven grade-crossing eliminations, six new parking garages and a new surface parking lot.
- A pedestrian underpass in New Hyde Park, and a pedestrian plaza in Westbury.
- A $20 million community fund for unanticipated expenses and related needs, with more promised if construction is delayed.
- Regular consultation with the team designing and building; advance notifications throughout the process; a 24-hour hotline to handle concerns.
- Construction that works around the Floral Park pool schedule.
- Builders to provide off-site parking and a bus for workers, so they don’t take up local parking spots.
- Consultation with village representatives on placement of utilities during construction, and on design and height of sound walls.
- A program to give builders incentives for good community evaluations.
It’s long past time to get on board. As Long Islanders prepare for a summer of challenging commutes, the MTA is preparing for the future.
Senators, let it get started.