Sometimes, buried amidst the billions of dollars of expenditures in the MTA’s capital plan, a surprise or two will leap out of the page. Signals and station improvements are run-of-the-mill state-of-good-repair work while the MTA’s planned expenditures for their next-generation fare payment system, at a few hundred million dollars, is underwhelming. But buried in Long Island Rail Road’s planned project is a $40 million spend for a new LIRR station in Elmhurst.
Technically, an Elmhurst LIRR station isn’t new. For decades, trains stopped right here in Elmhurst, but the LIRR closed the station in 1985 due to general decline. The neighborhood was in decline, and, more importantly, ridership had bottomed out at the station. While proposing closing a subway stop causes riotous uproars, commuter rail stations in the boroughs are passing concerns, done in by incongruent fare policies.
Over the past few years, though, Queens politicians have latched onto the idea of reopening the Elmhurst station. We first heard about it in mid-2012 when The Journal reported on some LIRR officials who were considering an in-fill station. In 2013, Queens politicians all expressed support for the station as a way to improve access to Midtown, and now the MTA has set aside $40 million for just that purpose.
The new Elmhurst station will be a part of the LIRR’s Port Washington Branch. It will be two blocks away from the Elmhurst Ave. Queens Boulevard local subway stop and will cut travel times to Penn Station by around 12-15 minutes. The politicians are thrilled; I’m still a bit skeptical, but for the dollars and per-rider benefits in unpublished studies I’ve seen, the project seems fine.
The MTA’s capital plan lumps the Elmhurst station in with design work for a Republic station on the Main Line in Suffolk County. Actual construction for Republic won’t be funded until the 2020-2024 capital plan while Elmhurst will see environmental review, design and construction over the next few years. The Elmhurst work includes new 12-car platforms, staircases, railings, shelters, vending machines, lighting, communication and security system, general site improvements, and elevators.
The areas representatives, as I mentioned, are happy. They blame changing train schedules in the 1980s on the station’s closure and see it as part of Elmhurst’s potential. “Restoring LIRR service to Elmhurst will help a burgeoning neighborhood reach its full economic potential and become a destination for all New Yorkers,” Joe Crowley, Grace Meng and Daniel Dromm said. “We are thrilled to learn the MTA agrees that investing in this community is a win-win and that they have included critical funding to rebuild the station in their recently proposed capital budget. For years, Elmhurst residents have called for greater transportation options and we are now one step closer to turning this idea into a reality. We will continue to work with MTA officials to ensure this project remains a top priority and look forward to the day when Elmhurst will be the next stop for millions of New Yorkers.”
I think Crowley, Meng and Dromm are overstating their case. After all, LIRR stations near subway stops don’t see frequent service or heavy crowds. Still, I’m stuck where I’ve been over the past few years: The City Ticket price makes LIRR service from Elmhurst to Penn Station very expensive. Few people in a middle class area will spring for the added cost to save 10 minutes of travel time, and I can’t foresee particularly high ridership. Still, for $40 million — a rounding error for the MTA — why not?