The Long Island Rail Road is at a critical junction.
Weekend ridership is at more than 80% of pre-pandemic levels. On weekdays, commuters are beginning to return, too, as nearly 150,000 of them rode the LIRR in a single day last week, but that's still 50% of where weekday ridership was before the pandemic.
But it's likely to ramp up more as people return to the workplace and resume visiting the city for dining and entertainment, and as the lure of off-peak fares continues through the end of the year.
As we work to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the wish is that the pre-pandemic trend of getting out of our cars and onto public transit resumes as well.
That's why the larger projects — those planned and those under construction, some for decades, are even more important now. And the LIRR and local government officials must work together to keep those efforts on time and on budget.
According to Metropolitan Transportation Authority statistics released last week, the LIRR has 115 ongoing projects, costing $2.5 billion. That includes work large and small, on stations, signals, tracks and more. Much of it connects with two central LIRR efforts — the massively important East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal and the equally key Third Track expansion of the Main Line.
Both projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of next year. And there's been some good news on both. The MTA says it has finished "major construction" on East Side Access, although there's still work to do. The escalators, concourses and platforms are in place. The to-do list includes electrical work and track testing to make sure it's ready to go by the end of next year.
The Third Track effort, meanwhile, has brought immediate benefits, as the authority recently eliminated the last of the project's eight grade crossings, creating safer, quieter, less traffic-filled intersections. And all but one of the new bridges are done, too.
But that one bridge remains a trouble spot in the story of Long Island's major transit infrastructure initiatives, as it's now at the center of a dispute between the village of Garden City and the MTA that could end up delaying the rest of the Third Track work.
Construction delays aren't new to the MTA. The early decades of East Side Access were riddled with delays and cost overruns. But while some LIRR work experienced delays more recently, in part due to the pandemic, East Side Access and Third Track have, miraculously, remained on time over the last few years, with both setting end-of-2022 deadlines. That momentum must continue.
Although East Side Access continues to progress, the current risk of delaying the completion of Third Track is concerning. That has nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with one village's misguided approach to dealing with the MTA.
By refusing to provide a road permit for the Denton Avenue rail bridge, Garden City officials have stalled what had been a fairly smoothly running construction effort. They are holding the bridge permit for ransom, unhappy about the large, steel, storm-resilient utility poles that, like the bridge reconstruction itself, always were part of the Third Track project. Village officials are trying to placate residents upset over the change in landscape but this is a fruitless approach. The MTA has filed a lawsuit demanding the permit be issued but in a schedule as complex as Third Track's, the damage has been done.
MTA chairman and chief executive Janno Lieber said Wednesday his staff would "twist themselves into pretzels" and "work our tails off" to get Third Track done on time. But if the Denton Avenue bridge can't be expanded, there will be no Third Track.
The residents of communities along the Main Line and beyond, including Garden City, already are benefiting from station and track improvements and will gain more once the full third track is in place. That track will keep service running when problems arise while also providing reverse commute opportunities, new stations, upgraded infrastructure, environmental benefits and other improvements.
All of that is especially important now, as companies look to Long Island for potential future office space and as employers rethink how their employees work and where. Long Island must have the tools to build its post-pandemic future. And that starts with East Side Access and the Third Track.
But it doesn't stop there. Long Island also will depend on other big ideas coming to fruition, like the LaGuardia AirTrain, which the Port Authority must continue to push forward, despite unfounded objections.
It's in the interests of everyone, from individual villages and their residents to Long Island's future more broadly, for the region's expansion efforts to move forward, without any more red signals ahead.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.