When I commuted to work in New York City, I stood in the same spot on the same platform at the same Long Island Rail Road station every morning. Like thousands of Long Islanders, my day relied on the Babylon Branch, which turned 150 years old this year.
This summer, Amtrak’s emergency track repairs at Penn Station are upending many of the LIRR’s 301,000 weekday rides. The crisis at Penn Station — owned by federally funded Amtrak — is affecting the LIRR and the city’s transit system. And, it has underscored the importance of investing in our infrastructure.
Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked me to return to the MTA as chairman to take on the challenges facing our aging public transportation system. On June 29, he declared a state of emergency for the MTA and charged me with reviewing the agency’s organizational structure within 30 days, and reporting on how to improve the agency’s short-term and long-term operations within 60 days.
As we conduct the reviews, two things are clear.
First, our public transportation network is in dire need of upgrades and repair. For the sake of our customers, we must be more effective and more efficient.
Second, as we improve railroads and subways, we cannot let immediate challenges get in the way of also expanding and building up our system, including the critical LIRR third track. Such expansions are just as important to the long-term sustainability of our transportation network.
We need look no further than the disaster unfolding at Penn Station this summer to see what havoc comes from ignoring long-term projects. The MTA’s capital plan gives us an opportunity to transform the system. We don’t have to choose between short-term fixes and long-term expansion. We can do both.
In the short term, our review will identify faster ways to replace obsolete and vulnerable signal systems and to continue to modernize, like adding cashless tolling on MTA bridges and tunnels. It will focus on improving and maintaining customer-centric communications; acquiring rail and subway cars faster; maintaining all equipment and tracks in good repair, safe and reliable; and concentrating on our workforce and its development and training needs.
Already, we’re upgrading 16 stations across Long Island, building East Side Access to connect Long Island to Grand Central Terminal, and laying 27 miles of track along the LIRR’s busiest sections to reduce disruptions and increase capacity.
When they are completed, the 18-mile double track will run between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale and the 9.8-mile third track between Floral Park and Hicksville. If the latter is approved, it will add flexibility to the system so that a single broken-down train won’t back up other trains throughout the LIRR.
The third track, built within the LIRR right of way, would lead to new tracks, and upgraded signals and switches. It would eliminate seven street-level grade crossings, improve safety, ease congestion and reduce noise. The project would include major upgrades at Mineola, Garden City, New Hyde Park and Westbury stations, and add thousands of parking spots at six new garages and a new surface parking lot.
I have no doubt that the MTA is up to the task. I saw firsthand the ingenuity and dedication of MTA men and women during superstorm Sandy, when they came together to quickly reopen the subways, as well as our railroads, bridges and tunnels. Today we face a new challenge, but we are making the same unrelenting commitment to our customers: to build and operate a modern, resilient and reliable transportation system worthy of the Empire State.
Joe Lhota is chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.