A third set of tracks for a key stretch of the Long Island Rail Road Main Line finally has the go-ahead.

The project has been discussed for decades and a political football for years, but gained traction after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo championed it in January 2016.

A Long Island Rail Road train travels down new relocation mainline track and under signal bridge as part of the Queens side of East Access Project.
Plans are advancing to add a third set of tracks along almost 10 miles of the Long Island Rail Road. Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-East Northport, said Tuesday he would not push for a veto to the $1.9 billion for the third-track and related improvements, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had included in its amended $32 billion, five-year capital program.

Flanagan previously impeded the project. State Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, a Flanagan ally, sits on a state review panel that must approve any MTA capital program changes. Opposition ranged from concerns about residential disruption on Long Island to the need for signaling modernization on New York City subways as a priority.

"We can and should have transformative investments that benefit Long Island -- that goes without saying," said Flanagan. "However, on a very basic level the MTA must get people safely from point A to point B. That too is extraordinarily, and perhaps beyond, important."

Flanagan said he has had "direct and frank" conversations with Cuomo, new MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota and his fellow Senate Republican colleagues who represent Long Island. "Each of these discussions has moved us closer to resolution."

The MTA’s board had approved the amended capital program – up from $29 billion – in May. At the June 30 deadline, however, the MTA pulled the capital program request and resubmitted it, buying 30 days of time.

Flanagan's change of heart removed the one remaining obstacle.

All this plays out during the “summer of hell,” with emergency repair to tracks and interlocking systems by quasi-federal Amtrak, Penn Station’s landlord, forcing track-related closures and delays for LIRR riders into Penn Station in midtown Manhattan.

The LIRR Expansion Project will construct a third set of tracks along a nearly 10-mile stretch of the heavily traveled corridor between Floral Park and Hicksville stations. It would enable two-way commuting at rush hour between the stations.

Completion is expected in 2021, barring further delays.

Supporters say that LIRR expansion would revive Long Island’s relatively stagnant job growth, which stands in stark contrast to New York City’s revival. They say it could increase Long Island’s young-adult, working age population. Opponents say the MTA's subway needs should be a higher priority, notably for more modern signaling.

“The LIRR needs a third track or it’s going to be what Penn Station is, and that is going to impact New York City also,” Cuomo said Monday. “It’s parochial and self-defeating to say ‘well I don’t care about the Long Island Rail Road and I don't care about Metro-North [Railroad].’ ”

Unlike previous third-track attempts, backers say, the latest iteration requires no residential property acquisitions and substantially reduces the need for commercial land acquisition by building the track within an LIRR right-of-way. Construction, they add, will attempt to minimize the effect on daily routines. Municipalities are involved with mitigation efforts.

The project will also eliminate the seven grade crossings along the route and involve upgrades to stations, new parking facilities and other infrastructure. Plans call for two new garages in Hicksville, Westbury and Mineola.

“Investing in transportation infrastructure is vital to growing the economy on Long Island and the New York metropolitan region,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, whose district on Nassau County’s south shore encompasses part of the third track route.

“Look no further than the current Penn Station fiasco to see the dire economic consequences of failing to make key investments years ago. We must seize this opportunity and think big for Long Island's future.”

A 2014 Rauch Foundation-Long Island Index study commissioned by HR&A Advisors Inc. claimed that a third track would boost Nassau and Suffolk counties with $103 million in new property tax revenue and $40 million in sales taxes by 2035.

This 2016 presentation at Hofstra University was among the community meetings the Long Island Rail Road held to discuss the addition of a third set of tracks on one of the commuter carrier's main lines.
This 2016 presentation at Hofstra University was among the community meetings the Long Island Rail Road held to discuss the addition of a third set of tracks on one of the commuter carrier's main lines. Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

Long Island Association president Kevin Law said enhanced transit from the project would result in increased multifamily housing located near train stations – known in public finance as value capture – as well as more New York City residents who reverse commute and spend money at local businesses.

Law noted that the two tracks on the LIRR’s main line are not conducive to today’s population on Long Island that numbers close to 3 million people. The island’s population was roughly 37,000 when LIRR opened in 1834, when the same basic infrastructure was in place.

“The railroad’s infrastructure has not kept pace with the population growth,” said Law, who was chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority from 2007 to 2010.

“Just like New York City, our existing infrastructure needs to be enhanced if we want to continue to grow,” Law said.

“The benefits of the project include additional service opportunities, a full-time reverse commute, more reliable service and increased safety for pedestrians, automobile drivers and customers aboard trains,” LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said in late April, when MTA board members accepted a year-long final environmental study.

LIRR officials over the past year held 12 public hearings and opened a walk-in informational office at Mineola station.

Railroad grade crossing safety has become a source of frequent discussion at MTA board meetings and among commuters and motorists. A Metro-North crash at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y., in Westchester County, killed six people in February 2015.

For Long Islanders, tragic memories go back further.

Eliminating grade crossings has been “long, long, long in coming, ever since Herrick’s Road,” said Mitchell Pally, chairman of the MTA board’s LIRR committee and chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute.

In March 1982, an LIRR train struck and killed nine teenagers when their van attempted to drive around a flashing railroad crossing gate at the Herrick’s Road crossing in Mineola.

“That’s how long this project has been talked about,” said Pally. “Every day [third-track] doesn’t happen makes LIRR less efficient than it could be and makes the community less safe than it could be.”

The MTA has other major capital projects in the works, including planning the next phase of the new Second Avenue subway line along Manhattan’s East Side, and the ongoing construction of East Side access to Grand Central Terminal for LIRR trains, which now only use Penn Station. That's why not everyone is on board with the priority given to an additional pair of tracks on Long Island.

“Accelerating this project’s timetable is arguably not the MTA’s best use of limited resources,” wrote Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies for the watchdog Citizens Budget Commission. “It will ease congestion on a busy rail corridor and allow for more reverse commutation during peak periods; however, benefits from increased capacity to Manhattan is constrained and contingent on the completion of East Side access—now delayed until the end of 2023.”

Third track is admirable but modernizing the subway signal system is a more pressing immediate need, said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “[It’s] a fine idea, but one that should wait until New York has made more progress on its aged signal system,” she said.

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Paul Burton

Paul Burton

Paul Burton is the Northeast Regional Editor for The Bond Buyer and the author of the book "Tales from the Newsrooms." He is a sought-after public speaker and has appeared on radio and TV shows, including former CBS News White House correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s public-affairs program, “Full Measure.”