The third track project is still underway on Sept. 16...

The third track project is still underway on Sept. 16 in Carle Place. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The saga of the decades-long struggle to approve and build a third track on the Long Island Rail Road's Main Line is a tale of frustration and success, political cowardice and courage, compromise and steadfastness.

But even amid fits and starts, and the obstacles the project faced, the ultimate approval and current progress of the $2.6 billion Main Line expansion — which will add nearly 10 miles of third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, modernize six stations, add  13 elevators and eliminate eight  dangerous grade crossings — is a testament to the importance of leadership, coalition-building, imagination and persistence. 

When combined with the LIRR's East Side Access connection to Grand Central Terminal, the third track will improve reliability, expand rail service by 45% at peak times and provide for more inter-Island and reverse commutes.  "Breaking Through," an extensive report underwritten by the Rauch Foundation about the project's history,  was released Friday. It tells a story with lessons to be learned and shows Long Island is capable of making big ideas become reality.

Interest in and advocacy for building a third track along the Main Line, and getting rid of grade crossings, dates more than 70 years to the days of master planner and builder Robert Moses, who stymied the expansion of rail service so he could build bridges and highways. The political roadblocks and local objections date that far, too. In the decades that followed, there were plans and brief spurts of advocacy, but none of it went very far. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority included the third track in its initial 2005-09 capital plan, only to pull it back in the face of enormous opposition. 

It wasn't until 2014, that reviving the notion of a third track took hold after a Rauch economic analysis showed it could add $5.6 billion  to the region's economy. That led to some important coalition-building, led by Long Island Association chief executive Kevin Law and former Greenport Mayor David Kapell.

But the game-changing moment came in late 2015, when Kapell put the third track on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's radar screen. Cuomo, Kapell, Law and others then began a campaign, which included gathering critical support from business leaders, unions, village mayors and others with doubts. Newsday's editorial board strongly supported the project. Also key: using the design-build method of streamlining the contracting process and avoiding taking residential property, after initially expecting to take parts of as many as 250 parcels. 

 For 70 years, opposition killed the project again and again.  But 2016 and 2017 were different. Every time someone punched the project down, someone else picked it up. Every time a mayor raised a concern, a coalition member, supporter, or sometimes Cuomo himself, was there to listen and find a way forward. Even at the end, as two state senators and two village mayors remained holdouts, advocates, especially union labor, didn't give up — and kept up the pressure until the MTA's capital program review board finally gave the go-ahead.

recommended readingHow the Third Track happened

Now, the third track is in full construction mode, deftly overseen by MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber. It might be hard to believe, but the MTA says the project is under budget and on schedule, to be completed by December 2022. About a quarter of the work is finished. Station improvements, signal upgrades, and eliminations of grade crossings continue.  A specific team handles communication with surrounding neighborhoods. Significantly, parts of the contractors' bonuses are tied to the results from surveys taken of local residents.

MTA officials say the project is a model for how they hope to do  future capital construction. But the process is itself a model, and Long Island advocates and elected officials would be wise to use it as a blueprint.   

Could, for instance, Amazon's plan to bring a second headquarters to Long Island City have gone differently if local, state and company officials had used the same strategies to cultivate support and tackle on-the-ground concerns? Would economic development move forward more easily with such coalitions? There already is a good example in place, as the Nassau Hub's redevelopment is being aided by a community benefits advisory committee. 

The LIRR's expansion, especially when combined with East Side Access, is the Island's most significant infrastructure project in recent memory. With meaningful development at Belmont Park and the hubs in Uniondale and Ronkonkoma also moving forward, Long Island officials and regional thinkers can consider a larger question:

What's next? 

What's the next big idea that will require the region to come together and fight for its future? There's certainly more to do to modernize the LIRR and address our traffic-clogged roadways. There are industries to attract and housing to build. There are developing renewable energy industries, like offshore wind, and sustainable communities. Then there are even more complex issues to conquer, like high taxes, educational inequities, rising sea levels and the protection of the region's drinking water.

When solutions to the region's next big challenges are proposed, we now will know what to do.