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.