Home LIRR From Long Island, a glimpse of a car-centric problem

From Long Island, a glimpse of a car-centric problem

by Benjamin Kabak

As part of a plan to improve reliability and frequency along the Long Island Rail Road’s single-tracked Ronkonkoma Branch, the MTA is going to spend a few hundred million dollars to double track the segment. It’s a long overdue project as ridership along the line has doubled in the 25 years since the line was electrified, and it still won’t be finished until around 2018. The project includes a better connection to MacArthur Airport, transit-oriented development along the 18-mile segment of track, and NIMBYs concerned about their cars.

The double-track project enjoys nearly unanimous support from New York’s politicians. Sen. Chuck Schumer has been instrumental in lining up federal funding; Gov. Cuomo has thrown his voice behind it; and even State Senator Lee Zeldin, the man with a crusade against the MTA payroll tax, has expressed desire to see it through. “The announcement of $138 million in accelerated funding to build the second track project is a huge win for Long Islanders,” Zeldin said in a statement recently. “The impact of this important return on our investment will boost our region’s strength, and specifically our economy. This will create jobs, improve our tax base, and make Long Island a better place to work and raise a family.”

So what’s the problem? For an area that exists and prospers because of its railroad connection to New York City, Long Island has a thriving car culture as well. Some of that is out of necessity; some of that is out of choice. And when drivers hear about increased at-grade railroad service, they think about how it will impact traffic. That was the gist of a recent Newsday article out of Suffolk County as drivers are worried that 20 crossings may see more frequent train service.

Alfonso Castillo had the story:

Some residents and elected officials fear that those extra trains mean more waiting time for motorists. But, the LIRR concluded in its recently published environmental assessment that vehicle backups at affected crossings won’t worsen. The overall impact will be minimal after adjustments to traffic lights and increased waits at three crossings would not be excessive, the study concluded.

“Their assertion that there’s not going to be an impact is totally ludicrous,” said Suffolk Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who has pushed for further study of the Double Track project’s impact on traffic. “No one in the community is saying, ‘Stop this project.’ But we’re all saying, ‘Tread cautiously here and let’s work together to address the concerns that exist.'”

..LIRR officials said adjusting the timing of some traffic lights to move more cars through intersections should eliminate any major delays from crossing gates being down more often. The railroad also wants to add a turning lane at one crossing in Deer Park to help move cars along. “We have acknowledged that there will be some impact,” LIRR Customer Service vice president Joseph Calderone said. “But we’re not walking away. We’re saying that we’re more than willing, and intend to work with local and state governments, to do what we can to try to mitigate any traffic issues.”

To combat the LIRR, some Long Island civic associations are asserting that crossings could see delays of 10-15 minutes and others have proposed spending at least $100 million of state money to construct above-grade crossings for cars. I give them points for creativity at least.

Now, I’m not saying we should ignore the needs of these drivers of the concerns they raise. Some are indeed valid, but it’s an overblown problem with a proportionality issue. The trains will be carrying far more people than the cars on the roads, and if that means some drivers may have to wait for a train to pass, so be it. Long Island works because of its railroad (even though the railroad works in spite of the agency running it), and the double track will be a significant improvement for the Ronkonkoma branch.

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Alex C August 21, 2013 - 11:44 pm

For once, I’m agreeing with *one* point of the NIMBYs: the grade crossings. There is no reason to have them anymore, especially on busy LIRR and Metro-North lines. This is an issue that should’ve been fixed decades ago. Yes, it costs money, but so does hosing off body parts and scraping cars off the rails. Grade crossings are a needless nuisance to all, especially thanks to batshit FRA “BLOW YOUR HORN SUPER LOUD 300 TIMES” regulations.

Berk32 August 21, 2013 - 11:48 pm

i’m just going to assume this is a trolling attempt.

alen August 22, 2013 - 9:16 am

they should just build one or two of these over the track no wait crossings on one or two major roads to take up the majority of traffic. most of the roads that cross the tracks aren’t that busy

solgolberg August 22, 2013 - 12:26 pm

I live in the Ronkonkoma zip code and I’ve read part of the traffic study. I’ve also a few cars AND commuted across these tracks for at least a couple of jobs in scenic Bohemia.

I assume that most of the crossings will not be a major problem as is and that most of the complaints are NIMBYism/general resistance to change.

However, the exit 58 LIE/Ocean Ave crossing could be a problem for emergency vehicle response times. This Ocean Ave is a five lane, heavily traveled roadway.

Alex C August 22, 2013 - 9:17 pm

Not trolling. And I’ll say it again: they should’ve eliminated grade crossings on all electrified portions of the LIRR (where they generally have the most service) years ago.

Henry August 22, 2013 - 12:17 am

Does LIRR actually blow horns at all of its intersections out in Nassau and Suffolk? I know the horns aren’t blown at the Little Neck grade crossing.

Berk32 August 22, 2013 - 8:39 am

Little Neck is the only “quiet zone” on LIRR

Bill August 22, 2013 - 9:25 am

Grew up between the Islip and Great River stations near the Montauk line. They blow the horns before the grade crossings, but they only BLAST them if idiot kids are running around near the tracks (there’s some dirtbike ramps in the woods near the line). At night, the horns are audible, but not to the point that you wake up. Had a much harder time sleeping living underneath the Astoria El than the Montauk Line.

Jason August 21, 2013 - 11:51 pm

You know what we citizens along the Far Rockaway branch do? Deal with it. Yes the crossings are annoying, but if it gives us great train service, fine!

Alon Levy August 22, 2013 - 2:17 am

This LIRR project is itself car-centric. It’s serving suburbs with 100% car ownership, centered on a station that’s a giant parking lot and is too far away from New York to be more than that. Meanwhile, there are no expansions farther west on the Main Line in ways that could serve riders who have car ownership rates lower than 100% or could if commuter rail service were better. The LIRR isn’t adding tracks to the Main Line west of Hicksville, or grade-separating the junction to the Hempstead Branch (and, FFS, running more frequent off-peak service along it), or electrifying the Port Jefferson Branch.

g August 22, 2013 - 9:16 am

It wasn’t for lack of interest that the LIRR shelved the third main track. Funding and a pack of NIMBYs with the disposition of rabid mongooses killed that for the immediate future. I suspect it will resurface around the time of the ESA opening.

This project also is a component of the long term desire of the LIRR to build a new yard at Yaphank.

Karm August 22, 2013 - 4:32 pm

this is “low hanging fruit” and it’s better than nothing.

lawhawk August 22, 2013 - 9:09 am

And as long as there are more trains and NIMBY, there will be complaints about additional noise to go along with them. We’d just have to ignore all the additional vehicle traffic taken off the roads because of the rail service, or that an area becomes more affluent because home prices rise due to proximity to rail service to Manhattan.

I’d be all for eliminating grade crossings, but the costs would be exceptionally high due to density along the rights of way. It would serve to reduce the potential for vehicle collisions at intersections and improve reliability along the system. It’s perhaps something that should be considered at particularly dangerous crossings. But it costs a lot of money to alter the right of way like that, and there are other projects that would do more to enhance ridership. As a priority, it’s down on the list.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 9:17 am

This ought to tell you how fucked up transit funding priorities are. 18 miles of track at ~$7.7M/mile will ultimately support a few trains per hour (though capacity for much more).

This kind of money could be spent on the Rockaway Line to move a lot more people.

Larry Littlefield August 22, 2013 - 9:23 am

We’ll, those paying MTA taxes in Nassau and Suffolk deserve something too. Except when they give into the NIMBYs.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 10:08 am

As I understand it, the service they’ll actually be getting can be accommodated by sidings or timed platform meetings. Maybe that would take some capital funding (though the stations should all be di-directional already), but do they really need to be double-tracked right now?

I’m not opposed to the service expansion per se, just saying our priorities are screwy.

alen August 22, 2013 - 10:10 am

the more trains they can run, the cheaper the system is to operate, the more people will ride it and less cars in manhattan

at this point there is very little reason to spend more money on new tunneling in manhattan. there is lots of other parts to the system to improve

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 10:46 am

WTF are you talking about? They aren’t running significantly more trains than can be handled on a carefully planned single track. If they were, perhaps the double tracking would be justified.

This has nothing to do with tunneling to Manhattan.

alen August 22, 2013 - 11:19 am

the last decade there has been almost $10 billion spent to dig a few miles of subway tunnel in manhattan.

there are lots of other places outside of manhattan where money needs to be spent on new MTA infrastructure or to upgrade existing infrastructure

running more trains means people can use the local airport and they plan to have commercial buildings close to stations for reverse commuting to take advantage of more frequent service

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 11:34 am

Did you spend all night huffing paint or something? Where did I say something about Manhattan? Where did I say object to running more trains?

Again: they are spending more money than they need to spend to get the service levels they are planning. They could have spent less to get those service levels, and spent on more worthy projects that might move more people – I suggested Rockaway, which is well outside of Manhattan, but it could have been any number of shovel-ready projects.

Mike K August 22, 2013 - 12:06 pm

Try the Pascack Valley Line in NJ. One delayed train screws up service in BOTH directions.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 12:10 pm

Did I just miss a memo that it’s non-sequitur day or something?

Eric Brasure August 22, 2013 - 1:16 pm

The memo was written on a bagel!

lawhawk August 22, 2013 - 2:52 pm

NJ Transit has spent a bunch of money to build passing sidings on the PVL, and the reason that additional service and double tracking is not available that the local communities object to the additional traffic/noise.

It was a huge fight just to get the additional passing sidings done, even though the PVL services an area with a growing population that commutes to NYC and would benefit from the PVL service additions.

solgolberg August 22, 2013 - 12:40 pm

Yes, keep in mind that “rightnow” is completion by 2018.

As stated previously I live in the Ronkonkoma zip code. The double track will get them fault tolerance and the potential for many more trains.

TheRonk station area is at the beginnings of a TOD (sewage plant, oh my!) and WILL get more riders & trains due to many other factors. These factors include the eventual opening of ESA & the fact that theRonk has been the easternmost electrified station for the last quarter century. It probably will remain the easternmost electrified station for the next decade, at least.

PS: the Port Jefferson LIRR branch can be reached by driving straight north from theRonk station. The ANCIENT infrastructure of that branch makes for an interesting comparison and explains why people along that branch drive down to theRonk to catch the train.

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 12:59 pm

None of that makes it a higher priority than things like Triborough RX or Rockaway reactivation, but I can buy that otherwise.

Here’s the thing: as I understand this project, they are not to start running double-track levels of service in 2018. Even bi-directional half-hourly service can probably be easily handled with some sidings. Do they really need to spend enough to double-track a ROW by 2018 when they aren’t even planning such service levels until, from the sounds of it, sometime in the 2020s (if ever)?

There is a case to be made that this is a problem with financing regulations and that it’s better to just take federal money when it’s made available, of course, but it still says a lot about planning priorities both locally and nationally.

Henry August 22, 2013 - 12:58 pm

The problem is that LIRR’s diesels don’t have many spares, and are generally the least reliable in the fleet, so if they break down in single track territory (which has happened a few times this year) all hell breaks loose, because LIRR world has never thought of contingency planing or anything of the sort.

It’s sort of like how LIRR has never rerouted trains into Atlantic or Hunterspoint and Long Island City in the event of a meltdown at Penn or in the East River tunnels

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 1:00 pm

That’s just silly. They are spending enough money on this project to buy several new completely trainsets, much less locomotives.

alen August 22, 2013 - 1:46 pm

and they spent enough money on the 7 train extension that it should go down to 26 street or further south to where they actually dug the tunnel. not have it end by the new buildings coming up

Bolwerk August 22, 2013 - 4:11 pm

Are you getting paid to post non-sequiturs today?

Henry August 22, 2013 - 5:29 pm

Tail tracks for train storage and more efficient relays.

BruceNY August 23, 2013 - 1:10 am

I do have to agree on this point–they might as well have created another station that starts where the tracks end at 26th, down to 24th. I’m sure considering how deep it is, the escalators would top out at 23rd Street which is the next logical street for a station stop. Eight blocks of tail tracks seems frivolous & wasteful. How did they manage all these years terminating at Times Square, with the shortest headways in the system no less? And no 10th Avenue Station? Please!

Henry August 23, 2013 - 2:00 am

How did they maanage all these years terminating at Times Square, with the shortest headways in the systems no less?”

They really didn’t. Trains are standing room only even out of Main Street during the peak hour – hence CBTC. Corona Yard is also at peak capacity – the only other place to build storage capacity is on the other end of the line.

Also, busiest headways prize goes to Queens Blvd express, running 30TPH (and standing room only out of their terminals to boot). There’s way too much unmet demand for subway service in Queens.

Bolwerk August 23, 2013 - 9:07 am

They made accommodations for a future station at 23rd. There is nothing unreasonable about the tail tracks.

The unreasonable part with the 7 extension would be the construction costs in general.

Henry August 22, 2013 - 5:28 pm

I’m going out on a limb and assuming that the MTA ordered the LIRR Bilevels thinking that transit demand wasn’t going to rise throughout the 2000s in the way it did, in the same way they sorta screwed up the R143 order on the L thinking it would be able to meet demand for several decades. The major difference here is that the L was later able to piggyback onto a much larger R160 order – it wouldn’t really make sense to order a handful of locomotives midway into the lifespan of the last ones for a purpose other than replacing them.

Plus, it sows the seeds for future growth – the MTA is bad at forecasting demand, and should it ever arise, then there’s the capacity for it.

Bolwerk August 23, 2013 - 12:25 am

Perhaps a fair enough point about the electric equipment, which might at least need to be custom-built for LIRR, but the point was about diesel. Pretty sure it’s not hard to find off-the-shelf equipment in that arena.

Henry August 23, 2013 - 2:09 am

LIRR runs both diesel and diesel-electrics for Penn service, which make things slightly trickier. Assuming that we’re just ordering back up diesel-electrics, how many FRA-compliant diesel-electric, third-rail capable trains actually exist? Off the top of my head, NJT, Metro-North, LIRR, MBTA, and GO Transit use locomotives like these. MBTA does have diesel-electrics coming online soon, but it’s far too late to piggyback off of that order.

Bolwerk August 23, 2013 - 9:09 am

Yep, that could be a problem. I forget, is this segment being electrified too?

Karm August 22, 2013 - 4:41 pm

yeah – and the reasons the politicians are supporting it is because LI’s population is stagnant and they need to draw more ppl who work in the city – so they are making TOD’s around the stations to gain more tax revenue. Without the additional trains it won’t work.

Jeff August 22, 2013 - 2:22 pm

You can’t be completely utilitarian when you build infrastructure. The fact is suburban areas will always be more expensive in a cost-to-rider basis. I mean, Long Island isn’t even that bad compared to most other parts of the US. But those outside of the city needs investments as much as people in the city do.

And what they are spending on this line would probably get you a tiny fraction of what you need to invest for Rockaway Branch or Triboro RX.

Bolwerk August 23, 2013 - 12:31 am

No. Rockaway needs a few miles of electrified track and stations. Probably pretty achievable for less than $138 million they are spending here.

And I wasn’t even talking about cost-per-rider. Forget that. I was talking about buying capacity and not using it, or at best buying it and waiting several years to use it.

Josh August 22, 2013 - 12:14 pm

To combat the LIRR, some Long Island civic associations are asserting that crossings could see delays of 10-15 minutes and others have proposed spending at least $100 million of state money to construct above-grade crossings for cars. I give them points for creativity at least.

Above-grade crossings sound like a good idea but I think they should pay for it with their local taxes since the benefit will be almost entirely local. Let’s see how important they think above-grade crossings are if they’re going to have to pay for them themselves.

solgolberg August 22, 2013 - 12:41 pm

We’ll get Chuck Schumer working on the funding 🙂

Simon August 22, 2013 - 12:49 pm

10-15 minute delays? It takes a passenger train about 30 seconds to pass, plus buffer time. These aren’t freight trains we’re talking about.

Henry August 22, 2013 - 1:00 pm

Traffic delays tend to cascade – on a highway (major roads in Nassau and Suffolk often have 55MPH speed limits even with grade crossings), even a person braking suddenly has the ability to start a ripple effect which turns into a traffic jam.

marv August 22, 2013 - 11:14 pm

What is the cost benefit analysis of:
*double tracking
*doing nothing?

How many more passenger trips will be served over the next 20-50 years? How much in fares will passengers pay toward this cost?
How much will real estate/real estate taxes, sales taxes increase due to this double tracking? Will these come at the expense of other localities? (thus not really an economic gain)
How much will costs be reduced by having operational flexibility of double tracking vs selective sidings?
Can freight use be increased (especially diverting air freight to Republic Airport as opposed to JFK)? what is that worth? How much fuel and/or pollution will be saved? What is the value of these saving any?

TriboroX,2nd Avenue build out, a long island sound tunnel, etc?

Does one project preclude to the other, or will each be or not be built on its economic merits.

All these questions must be factored and dealt with in making decisions – hopefully, the MTA has.

Obviously and unfortunately politics, nimybyism and loud voices will often drown out economically rational decision making.

M Gruza CPA
accounting/managerial accounting lecturer

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George Myers August 25, 2013 - 1:06 pm

I used to catch the 6:01 AM to NYC before the third rail. I’d get to lower Manhattan, Trinity Place, about 8:20 AM if everything went well. Return was about the same. I used the time to study BASIC and SQL on my own. At the time there was a proposal for at large bus-yard and system that never came. Maybe if it was implemented, the alternative might be for Dashin’ Dan to catch a “green” bus.

alen August 25, 2013 - 5:08 pm

SQL didn’t put you to sleep?

George Myers August 25, 2013 - 9:12 pm

It was new “flatfile” “KnowledgeManager” from MDBS first multiple software from Indiana came out of interfacing with mainframe: reports, tables, charts and spreadsheet. We were using it for archaeology, tabulation of artifacts and levels in a part of New Amsterdam remains in the winter of the thought in part “Augustine Heermann’s Warehouse” between Broad, Pearl, Bridge and Whitehall St. He was once an Ambassador from Maryland, glass dealer, and made a great map and sometimes credited with introducing tobacco to the Dutch. They called him “the Czech”.

alen August 25, 2013 - 9:31 pm

he he
i assumed you meant MS SQL


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