Looks like the Long Island Rail Road finally has discovered Brooklyn.
Or, at least, how popular Brooklyn has become.
Now, the question is whether the LIRR can provide a smooth ride to the many people who already knew Brooklyn is a place to be.
When LIRR officials first described plans to improve the station at Jamaica, which included adding a platform and track on the southern end, they emphasized the amenities, from “glass-enclosed, heated waiting areas” to Wi-Fi. But there wasn’t much talk of how to accommodate riders to and from Brooklyn who want a one-seat trip.
The Jamaica Capacity Improvements project is designed to allow the station to handle more train traffic, while modernizing and improving the complex system of switches that slows trains there.
Eliminating the crawl through Jamaica is both necessary and welcome. The only way riders will reap the benefits of coming LIRR improvements, like the East Side Access connection to Grand Central Terminal and the third track, is if change comes to Jamaica, too. The hub, which sees 280,000 trips a day, is the critical connective tissue.
But as it now stands, the Jamaica plan would mean the end of the one-seat ride from Long Island to Brooklyn and back, a direct ride 137 trains make each weekday. Instead, riders would have to switch trains — with quite a bit of effort. It would mean heading up and down stairs, making their way to the station’s south end, and boarding a shuttle train. That would add considerable minutes to the trip and would be far from ideal for those with mobility issues, strollers or baggage.
What’s more, Brooklyn’s recent economic growth has generated significantly greater use of Atlantic Terminal, which now is the beginning or end to about 21,800 trips a day. A lot of Long Islanders work in Brooklyn, and many in Brooklyn want to go east. Plenty of Long Islanders jump on the many subway lines there to reach lower Manhattan. Too often, job candidates turn down offers from Long Island employers because of the lack of reverse-commuting options.
It seems some of the original plans were shortsighted and didn’t account for the revival of Brooklyn and shifts in rider behavior. But some of that was predictable, and had begun when these plans were nascent. Barclays Center opened in 2012, and change was already coming to Brooklyn then. Additional rider shifts happened after 2017’s “summer of hell,” when some passengers switched to getting off at Atlantic during track work at Penn Station, and never switched back.
LIRR President Phillip Eng promises to take another look. The LIRR should find a way to continue to operate some direct trains to Brooklyn, while stopping others. Eng will have to find a balance so that all riders still will benefit from upgrades and expansion.
There is another lesson from the need to revisit the Jamaica plans. As LIRR officials plan for the opening of East Side Access and the possible loss of some train slots at Penn, they must have the personnel and data to predict changes in rider patterns from future job growth. That requires a flexibility that might be new to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But if the MTA builds and expands with an eye to the future, then everyone could benefit. — The editorial board