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An ambitious $5.7B to-do list for the LIRR

Long Island Rail Road President Phillip Eng on

Long Island Rail Road President Phillip Eng on Jan. 22, 2019 in Woodbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

If Long Island Rail Road head Phillip Eng had a priority list for the nation's largest commuter railroad, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $51.5 billion capital plan  would seem to satisfy much of it, from upgrading signals to finishing two enormous projects, East Side Access and the Main Line third track.

The plan, which includes $5.7 billion for the LIRR, is a welcome, ambitious effort that could significantly improve commuters' experiences. It also would benefit the 50% of LIRR riders who use the subways by earmarking $40 billion to modernize New York City mass transit.

However, details are too few, and there is no certainty the work will get done in a timely, cost-effective manner. The MTA, after all, isn't known for being timely or cost-effective. Exhibit A is the long-overdue East Side Access effort to connect the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal. 

So, completing the massive amount of work in the 2020-24 capital plan will take strong leadership, oversight and accountability, funding from all levels of government, new vehicle tolls in Manhattan's central business district and, perhaps most significant, a culture change throughout the bureaucracy.

Questions abound. Will the MTA get the federal funds it needs, along with  $3 billion each from the state and the city? Will the authority be able to issue bonds for billions more? An economic downturn could jeopardize all of that.

Can the MTA deliver in faster and less expensive ways, an ability that has eluded the agency before? Will long-discussed procurement and contracting changes, and the rest of the authority's "transformation" plan, like union work rule changes, become reality? They must for any of this to work.

Holding down costs is key. The Second Avenue subway's next phase comes with an awfully high-sounding $6.9 billion pricetag, split between the MTA and federal dollars. Find ways to bring that down.

There's a lot we don't know. It would be better if the MTA would release a complete plan before the board votes to approve it next week.

But what we do know seems to hit the right notes. Most important, the plan provides funds to complete East Side Access and the third track, which, together, will transform the region, improve the LIRR's capacity and reliability, and provide access to Manhattan's East Side and the opportunity for reverse commuting.

Beyond that, the plan allows for:

  • Replacing nearly a third of problematic LIRR switches, and upgrading signals on three branches.
  • Upgrading tracks, including at always troublesome Jamaica. 
  • Adding 160 new electric cars. 
  • Electrifying the Central Branch, connecting the Babylon and Ronkonkoma lines.
  • Making seven more stations, one in Copiague and six in Queens, accessible to riders with disabilities.

Plus, the subway system will get 66 new accessible stations, modern signals on six train lines and 1,900 new cars. 

There's a lot to do. It will take a lot to get it right. It won't be simple, but this plan could put the MTA on the right track. — The editorial board