Most Long Island Rail Road riders have wish lists of what they say the railroad "needs." Whether their interests match those of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority remains to be seen.
Next week, the MTA is expected to release its 20-year needs assessment — an extensive document that jump-starts the process of determining new initiatives for the agency's all-important capital funds. And no one knows exactly what's in it.
Previously, the needs assessment was a to-do list and the basis of the MTA's capital plan and funding choices. This year, an MTA official said, it'll include more general, big-picture themes, and future capital planning won't be constrained by the document. While that sounds promising, with a chance for Long Island's voice to be heard, the assessment remains a formative, influential guide that helps establish the MTA's priorities. Yet, it's being put together behind closed doors — by MTA staff. That's not a good start.
The LIRR is at a key juncture. Some long-discussed projects are complete, but there's still much to do. So it's disconcerting such a valuable assessment is being finalized without many stakeholders knowing about it. Even if it's just a starting point — with future opportunities for public input, as the MTA official said — the agency owes riders and the region a more public process and explanation of its methodology, reasoning and plans.
MTA officials emphasize their LIRR accomplishments, from Third Track to Grand Central Madison. They focus on what they've done rather than what they'll do, especially as critics say too much already has been done for Long Island. But now it's time to look forward — and the MTA's needs assessment and future capital plans must capture the LIRR's interests.
Toward the top of that list is a word Long Island has shouted for decades: electrification. Eliminating the region's diesel trains must be part of any conversation about the system's future, especially given the state's climate and renewable energy goals. Relatedly, the MTA must focus on the effort to expand, improve and modernize service and infrastructure to the east. In Port Jefferson, that includes utilizing the shuttered Lawrence Aviation site for a potential rail yard and relocating the train station to that site. It includes projects supposedly in the works, like moving the Yaphank station nearer to Brookhaven National Laboratory. And it includes adding service on the East End, such as scooter trains to get residents and workers out of their cars for travel between communities on both forks.
There also are systemwide needs, like accessibility and state of good repair work, from tracks, signals and stations to connections and tunnels into and out of Jamaica and Brooklyn.
Everyone has a wish list. But MTA leaders must be more open and thoughtful about theirs. No matter what they've done for Long Island before, they must not leave the region behind as the train moves forward.
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