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LIRR will get a critical expansion, but we’re not done dreaming big for regional transit

The east cavern of the East Side Access

The east cavern of the East Side Access project is framed by a tunnel opening several stories below Grand Central Terminal, where four train tracks on two levels will eventually deliver passengers from Long Island. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Christmas came to Long Island in July.

But even as we were given one gift we really wanted last week — the approval of the Long Island Rail Road’s third-track project — we’re not done dreaming of ways to remake the region’s transportation infrastructure, from roads and rails to bridges and ports. The wish list remains long.

The effort needed to push the third track forward showed everyone that big change doesn’t come easy; there will always be retrograde forces trying to stop progress, and the hurdles may at times seem insurmountable. But the effort to modernize the LIRR showed what’s possible with broad support, leadership and focus.

That’s especially true for transportation, a particular trouble spot as of late. The roads seem more crowded and train commuters face a summer of schedule changes during emergency repairs at Penn Station. The region’s network must get to a state of good repair, but Long Island also needs to think about travel across the region in the next 10 or 20 years.

The third track is a nearly $2 billion project that will take three or four years to construct. Now the region must confront other problems and begin to form a consensus around solutions. Here’s a snapshot of our transportation wish list, which could change the way Long Island lives and does business and give our region chance to thrive.

  • The Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Created in 1965, the MTA was a political solution to a fiscal crisis — the funding of mass transit, especially for NYC Transit and the LIRR. But the management structure developed more than half a century ago doesn’t serve it well. Newly appointed MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota is reviewing the authority’s setup. It’s worth a try to break down the LIRR, Metro-North and New York City Transit departmental structures, and instead focus on the type of work that’s being done. Employees who are experts in signals, for instance, should be able to work across regional lines, so every system has access to the same know-how and upgrades. The MTA is an inefficient byzantine bureaucracy. It has to find smarter ways to manage itself, harness talent, spend effectively and communicate with customers. And it must explore public-private partnerships, which can be innovative and cost-effective ways to get projects done.
  • Planes: The overhaul of LaGuardia Airport has to be matched by a better way to get there. In May, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo chose a firm to handle early engineering and analysis for a potential AirTrain from the airport to Willets Point, where riders could switch to the subway or LIRR. If this is the best way forward, make it happen.
  • Trains: The MTA is studying how to tackle subway repairs and upgrades in the nation’s largest system. Clearly, reversing neglect is a priority. Overcrowding must be addressed. The faulty signal system must be re-imagined by the best minds in the world. Longer platforms at Jamaica’s LIRR station would help, as would the electrification of the Port Jefferson branch and the east end of the Montauk branch. Finish the LIRR East Side Access line to Grand Central Terminal. Extend the Second Avenue Subway north to East Harlem. Both are critical.
  • Cars: The prospect of driverless cars requires us to rethink how we use our roads. New cashless tolls help traffic flow. Cuomo is using what he called “the summer of hell” to test congestion pricing by charging trucks lower bridge and tunnel tolls when entering Manhattan overnight. If this idea succeeds, expand it to include higher tolls during peak traffic hours. Adopt other congestion pricing measures, including elements of the Move NY plan that advocates tolling East River bridges and charging drivers who cross 60th Street in Manhattan. This would incentivize off-peak travel and reduce traffic.
  • Boats: To get trucks off Long Island roads, you need another way to carry cargo. A deep-water port at Shoreham could be the answer. A feasibility study is underway. And there are other ways to use our waters. The Glen Cove ferry pushed into emergency service this past week should be studied carefully. It could be the start of more efforts to move more commuters via water.
  • Tunnels: The Gateway trans-Hudson rail project should be at the top of the list. A breakdown of the current Hudson River tunnel would paralyze Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route and block New Jersey Transit commuters, quickly crippling the economy. A new tunnel is an absolute necessity. The project, which could cost as much as $29 billion, also includes an expanded Penn Station, upgraded electrical infrastructure and more. The House of Representatives this month appropriated $900 million for it in next year’s budget. Now it’s on to the Senate, which, we hope, will do its part, too.

With all of these ideas come challenges. Increased contributions from federal, state and city pots will be necessary. So will reducing costs and adding revenue streams through real estate development, public-private partnerships and other means.

We have to keep thinking big.