Archive for LIRR
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.
Once upon a time, New York City didn’t know what to do with its transit infrastructure. Investment was nil, and stations that were commuter rail in name were shut down throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Now, nearly 30 years later, with the city’s population booming thanks, in part, to an increased investment in transit, these shuttered stations are under the microscope. Can we reopen them? Should we?
Lately, attention has focused around Elmhurst. For a few years now, local politicians have been angling to reopen an LIRR station lost to declining ridership in what was a declining neighborhood in 1985. Last year, we learned that the MTA isn’t opposed to the idea if the money can materialize. Recently, a similar group of politicians announced the next step in the process: a ridership survey.
A few weeks ago, shortly before I went on vacation, Reps. Joe Crowley, Grace Meng and NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm along with LIRR President Helena Williams announced a survey aimed at collecting data from Elmhurst residents about their travel patterns. It’s another step toward reactivating the station. “As we continue to work with the LIRR to explore the possibility of restoring service to Elmhurst, I want to encourage as many members of our community to participate in the study and make sure their voices are heard,” Crowley said in a statement. “Reopening the Elmhurst Station will increase residents’ access to Midtown Manhattan and help the area reach its economic potential. It will also open the door for all New Yorkers to experience the rich diversity and culture Elmhurst has to offer.”
Meng echoed Crowley. “Reopening this LIRR station would be a huge boon for Elmhurst,” she said. “It would greatly benefit local residents with increased access to public transportation and service to Manhattan, and it would provide a major economic boost for local businesses.”
The survey itself begin at the end of June with two parts. The first involves a written component mailed to households within a half-mile radius of the station site at Broadway and Whitney Ave. An in-person survey will be conducted at nearby subway stations and near the Elmhurst Hospital Center. According to Crowley’s office, reactivating the station could help Elmhurst see improved transit connections. Right now, it hosts local stops along the Queens Boulevard line and a few 7 stations near the neighborhood’s northern border. The politicians don’t consider these stations to be part of an “efficient” network providing direct access to Manhattan’s job centers.
According to a few unpublished studies I’ve seen, the Elmhurst reactivation could be a rather reasonable project at a time when spending on transit improvements and expansions has reached absurd levels. Some estimates peg restoring service at as little as $30-$35 million, and Crowley noted that East Side Access could ease congestion concerns that could occur were service to resume at Elmhurst. If the ridership survey bears out the proponents’ hopes, it seems like a no-brainer.
Even as this effort moves forward, I’m still left with the same thoughts I had last year: Until the fare to go from Elmhurst to Manhattan is more in line with the cost of a Metrocard swipe, very few people will use the service. Elmhurst is a solidly middle class neighborhood in mid-Queens with relatively good subway service, and individual peak rides within the city can cost upwards of $7 on LIRR. Harmonize fares; bring the price. Then, if you build it, they will come.
When the MTA wraps up the East Side Access project sometime ever, the Long Island Rail Road will be able to offer more train service into Manhattan, and more train service into Manhattan via the tracks that have fueled decades of growth on Long Island is never a bad thin — unless, of course, you are afraid. “Afraid of what?” you may ask. Afraid, the answer is, of unsightly train cars displacing scenic and landscape-enhancing parking spaces.
The story goes like this: When ESA is finished, the MTA will expand service offerings along the LIRR’s Port Washington branch. More service, however, means more train cars, and more train cars requires more storage space. The current plan is to extend the tracks at Port Washington to allow for storage for 18 additional train cars, but some folks in North Hempstead don’t like this plan, Newsday’s Jennifer Barrios reports today.
The LIRR is considering two options for extending two tracks at the station, [LIRR chief planning officer Elisa] Picca said. Its preferred option requires it to purchase an 18-by-439-foot parcel in a parking lot owned by North Hempstead off South Bayles Avenue. That plan would remove 40 parking spaces from the lot, she said, adding that re-striping the existing lot could replace the 40 spaces. The alternate plan involves putting the track extensions in part of a parking lot the LIRR already owns along Haven Avenue. That would result in the loss of 140 parking spaces, but could be completed without the cooperation of the town…
Last month, LIRR officials met with town officials, including Supervisor Jon Kaiman and Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio. De Giorgio, a Republican who announced her bid for supervisor last month, said the proposals amount to creating an unsightly storage yard in Port Washington. “The idea of storing these massive trains, adding two storage tracks to Port Washington, will completely ruin the character of the town,” she said. “This is creating a train depot in Port Washington.”
…Mitch Schwartz, co-president of the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce, said his primary concern is parking in an area where parking is already notoriously tight. “If we’re going to give up even 40, there’s got to be a compelling reason, something on the other side that is going to get us better service,” Schwartz said. “I’m not convinced at this point.”
So the head of the Chamber of Commerce can’t see the obvious benefit of added train service, and a candidate for town supervisor thinks that storing two trains will ruin the character more than storing a bunch of inert cars already does. These are NIMBY arguments community leaders and elected representatives make to the media with a straight face. Aren’t you tempted to say, “If North Hempstead doesn’t want train service, let’s not give it to them”? Because I am.
A 94-minute, non-stop ride to the East End is in the offering for the looming summer beach season as the LIRR has announced plans to run its Cannonball train non-stop from Penn Station every Friday from May 24 through Labor Day. The one-seat ride will skip Jamaica and head straight to Westhampton with subsequent stops at Southampton East Hampton, Bridgehampton and Montauk. The Friday train will depart Penn Station at 4:07 p.m. with westbound service — including a stop at Jamaica — departing Montauk at 6:37 p.m. on Sunday nights.
“There’s no better way to get from Manhattan to the Hamptons,” LIRR President Helena E. Williams said in a statement. “Our customers have long asked for a one-seat ride from Penn Station to the Hamptons and we are listening to them. This move eliminates the need to change trains with baggage at Jamaica.”
With a 34 percent increase in summer ridership last year, the LIRR is hoping to boost service along the Montauk Branch. The speedy ride east will cost passengers $27, and passengers have the option to reserve a seat for an additional fee. Previously, such Cannonball service had originated at the Hunterspoint Avenue Terminal in Long Island City with many riders picking up the train at Jamaica, and the new service does away with the transfer. For Hamptons-bound travelers, the Cannonball train has been a mainstay since the 1890s, and it remains both the longest route and the only one with a name operated by the MTA.
A non-passenger LIRR train derailed on Monday night near Rego Park, Queens, and although crews worked through the snow and sleet two nights ago to rerail the train, the incident is still impacting commutes. According to the LIRR, their crews have been working non-stop to repair nearly three quarters of a mile of track damaged when the train jumped the rail, and cancellations during peak hours are expected through Friday.
One of Second Ave. Sagas’ Twitter followers who was a few blocks away from the derailment described it as an earthquake, and the impact has aftershocks, so to speak. The LIRR had to cancel 11 peak hour trains in the morning and seven in the evening. A few have been diverted from Penn Station to Atlantic Ave. while others run only to Jamaica. The full list of changes is available here.
According to the MTA, the derailment knocked one of the four tracks between Jamaica and Penn Station out of commission. Crews have to replace concrete ties, the running rail and the electrified third rail as well. As yet, there has been no determination of the cause of the derailment, but an investigation is ongoing.
After the jump, scenes from the derailment courtesy of Patrick Cashin and the MTA.
The MTA’s various elevators do not have the most sterling of reputations. The ones necessary to leave deep stations in Upper Manhattan and Clark St. are dismal and foreboding. Many of the newer ones smell bad, and they’re breaking down constantly. Sometimes, those two problems are related.
Enter the LIRR’s Woodside elevator. Earlier this week, LIRR President Helena Williams shared some gruesome details about this lift. Calling it a “vertical urinal,” Williams explained how this elevator is going to need to be replaced because too many people have peed in it. According to LIRR figures, the elevator was functional only 58 percent of the time last month, lowest in the system, and no one is too pleased to have to ride it.
Strangely enough, as DNA Info notes, the station complex has five other elevators that aren’t nearly as contaminated and public restrooms as well. Though, whether or not you’d actually want to use those restrooms is a very personal decision. But no matter the answer, please just stop peeing on the transit system’s escalators.
My unintentional week of coverage concerning the new Barclays Center wraps up today with a look at an announcement from the LIRR. The MTA, as we know, will run extra service along the 2, 4 and Q lines after events at the Barclays Center in order to clear out the crowds, and this week, the agency announced plans to increase LIRR service out of the Atlantic Avenue Terminal as well. With extra train service and a dearth of easy parking in the area, everyone from the MTA to Brooklyn residents are hoping that relatively few people will drive to the Barclays Center.
“If you are planning on attending a Nets game or going to see JAY-Z, Barbra Streisand, Justin Bieber, The Who or any of the other top acts at Brooklyn’s hottest new venue, we will have plenty of trains to get you there and get you home at the end of your evening,” LIRR President Helena Williams said in a rather canned statement. “The LIRR’s new Atlantic Terminal is just across the street from the Barclays Center, so using the LIRR is definitely the most convenient way to go.”
The MTA has released a brocher detailing post-event service [pdf], and here’s a detailed breakdown of the plan:
The LIRR’s enhanced late-night service from Atlantic Terminal will feature eastbound trains departing approximately every 15-25 minutes after an event. Following Nets games, the last train from Atlantic Terminal will depart at 11:55 PM on both weeknights and weekends. Following evening concerts and other special events, the last train from Atlantic Terminal will depart at 12:41 AM weeknights and weekends. NYPD and MTA Police will be on hand to assist customers arriving at the Center.
There is, of course, a catch: These extra trains will essentially operate as shuttles, ferrying riders from Atlantic Avenue to Jamaica, where Long Island-bound travelers will have to catch the next scheduled train to their ultimate destinations. Still, as the MTA’s brochure illustrates, the increased service is designed to ensure that riders make it to their connecting trains in time. The shortest layovers in Jamaica will last all of two minutes, leaving very little margin for error. Island-bound riders who can’t get to Jamaica will have to resort to 2 or 3 train service back to Penn Station.
I was curious about the extra service. Who pays for it all, I wondered. The issue isn’t without controversy as the WMATA and Nationals have run into a dispute this season over service for games that run late. Metro has asked the Nats to pony up nearly $30,000 per hour when the team wants the D.C. subway to run later than normal. In New York, the system’s closing too early isn’t the issue but frequency is.
In New York, the MTA picks up the bill for extra service. The only exception concerns special service to Belmont for which the New York Racing Association pays. Officially, the MTA says it’s just part of the agency’s overall job. “Our subway, bus and commuter rail services remove cars from road, help improve the environment and support the economy. If thousands of people want to travel to a sporting event, a concert, a parade or just a nice day in the park, we are there to make their trips as safe and efficient as possible,” the MTA said to me in a statement. “Of course, the main reason we add extra trains and buses following sporting and other special events is to increase capacity in order to accommodate everyone, including regular customers who are not traveling to or from an event.”
I’ll leave you then with a question: Should the MTA pay for this service? It comes, after all, out of taxpayer and fare-payer pockets, but at the same time, the extra service goes a long way toward keeping cars off the road. One of the reasons why the Yankee Stadium parking lots, for instance, have been so empty is due to the increased Metro-North and subway service. It seems then that the few extra trains are beneficial to everyone. It’s a win-win a relatively marginal cost.
When the MTA raised last year, one of the more outrageous money-grabs involved the validity period for Metro-North and LIRR tickets. The MTA shortened the time period for pre-purchased ticket use down to two weeks, instituted a $10-refund fee and generally angered everyone. As part of the service investments set to roll out over the next year, the authority has rolled back some of these more stringent measures, but a key barrier to any refund remains in place.
Beginning September 4, one-way and round-trip tickets will be valid for a period of two months, and the refund period will last the same amount of time. A ten-trip ticket will remain valid for six month, and its refund will be lengthened to six months as well. The $10 prcoessing fee for all refunds, however, will remain in place to help, as the MTA said, “recoup some of the administrative expenses of issuing and mailing checks.”
MTA Chairman Joe Lhota made this out to be a win for customer relations, and it certainly is. “We’re pleased that the cost containment efforts of our commuter railroads, combined with increased ridership, make it possible to broaden our ticket validity and refund policies to further benefit Long Island Rail Road and Metro North customers,” he said in a statement. “This benefit will cost the railroads $6 million, but combined with the expanded service investments announced last week, shows the MTA’s commitment to customer service.”
The truth remains, however, that many railroad tickets cost less than the $10 processing fee. Thus, customer still will not enjoy the benefits of a longer refund period if the economics don’t make sense. It’s an effort to avoid allowing riders whose tickets aren’t punched from cashing it, but $10 seems like a steep price to pay for processing.
For many New York politicians and transit executives, Penn Station is a problem. The city has spent decades living down the decision to raze the 1910 Beaux Arts beauty, and everyone is trying to fix the current iteration. It is, after all, a station that needs something. It’s a basement of a sports venue that’s cramped, ugly and crowded. But just what money should we spend on Penn Station anyway?
Word of the latest attempt to remake Penn Station hit the news a few days ago. Ostensibly led by the LIRR but done in conjunction with New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, Penn Station Vision will be the name of a report soon to be released by Aecom. The $1.1 million study — half of which was funded by the MTA — will present a blueprint for restoring some respectability to Penn Station. No one can turn the West Side’s transit gateway into Grand Central, but it could be a far more pleasant station than it is today.
Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo had a report on the contours of the plan. With a focus on better lighting, cosmetic improvements to the dingy and cramped passageways and an effort to relocate some Amtrak back offices, it’s a start but not too much more than that. Castillo offered up an overview:
[LIRR President Helena] Williams said those changes will be phased in over several years, and even decades. She expects to include some improvements in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s next five-year capital plan, which begins in 2015.
The changes could include luring more upscale commercial tenants, improving lighting (including by letting in natural light if possible), adding new signage and getting rid of the main train departure board in the LIRR concourse to lessen crowding there.
Grander changes — including opening up space by relocating administrative offices, knocking down walls, and finding a new use for Amtrak’s waiting area when it moves to the adjacent Moynihan Station — could take much longer to complete. But LIRR officials and their partners in the project said they are committed to seeing it through. “We know the commuter experience can be and should be improved. The idea is to create a new, modern experience for Penn Station,” Williams said.
These are incremental improvements to a utilitarian station, and it’s tough to get too excited about such expenditures. The MTA’s next capital program will be tight on dough, and there are far more worthwhile projects to fund than some efforts to better light Penn Station. Transit experts and advocates expressed similar sentiments to Crain’s New York earlier this week. “How many more people are going to move to Long Island because Penn Station was redeveloped?” Columbia Professor David King said.
Meanwhile, one key element of the plan — better unifying operations and the overall feel of Penn Station — seems to have the support of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit as well. Currently, with three separate fiefdoms operating out of Penn Station, navigating Penn Station can be a challenge. Signs aren’t standardized, and moving from one departure area to the next involves twists and turns through strangely isolated passageways.
“Everybody has had a hand in stirring that pot a little bit, and part of the result, I think, is this almost haphazard look of development that doesn’t create the volume or the architecture of scale that you’d like to see in a grand terminal,” Drew Galloway, an infrastructure V.P. at Amtrak, said to Newsday. “It doesn’t work well today. Anybody who takes a walk down there today at 5 in the evening will agree.”
Still, MTA Board Members are skeptical that Amtrak is willing to cooperate. “To us, Penn Station is the one place where almost everybody who rides the Long Island Rail Road ends up. To Amtrak, Penn Station is one of many stations,” Mitchell Pally said. “It’s never going to be their No. 1 priority.”
Ultimately, I wonder if it even should be the MTA’s. It’s a better use of money to get better train service into Penn Station than it is to spend resources on improvements that do little to nothing to boost transit capacity. Penn Station is what is is, and putting lipstick on that pig won’t change anything.
“The basement atmosphere,” Bruce Becker, head of the Empire State Passengers Association, said, “I don’t think there is much that can be done with that, other than perhaps sprucing it up.” How much money from a limited pot of funds do we want to spend on sprucing something up anyway?
A few months ago, Queens representatives gathered with MTA officials to discuss the old Elmhurst LIRR station. Shuttered in 1985 due to declining ridership, politicians want to reopen the station with the neighborhood booming, and the MTA isn’t opposed to the project. With a population increase of 45 percent between 1980 and 2010, the neighborhood, currently served only by the M and R trains, is at least a 30-minute train ride away from Midtown and could use speedier transit.
Recently, a Wall Street Journal article offered up a summary of things:
The R and M subway lines that currently stop in Elmhurst take between 30 and 40 minutes to reach Manhattan during peak hours—on crowded trains. The LIRR train from Elmhurst would arrive at Manhattan’s Penn Station in roughly 15 minutes. “If people are given the opportunity to shave off about half an hour from their commute, that’s an enormously valuable product,” said Mr. Crowley, adding that the move would also open up Elmhurst as a neighborhood for additional people to explore.
LIRR officials say they are giving the issue “serious consideration.” Improvements being made on the Port Washington line will add capacity, according to Helena Williams, president of the LIRR. The project would cost between $20 million and $30 million, she said The next step, Ms. Williams added, will be a ridership study to be conducted in the next year or so, that will analyze the potential market for the LIRR in Elmhurst.
Robert Valdes-Clausell, an Elmhurst resident since 1966 and treasurer of the Newtown Civic Association, said residents are “already being exposed to the rumbling of the [LIRR] train and there is a tremendous increase in population density.” With the number of residents “expected to grow even further, this is a great opportunity to accommodate and serve the people,” he said.
The costs depend upon accessibility. With an elevator, the project would likely reach its $30 million estimate; without, it could afoul of ADA regulations and cost $20 million. That’s not the real issue though.
The biggest problem, as reports from earlier this year noted, is the cost of a ride. A subway swipe from Elmhurst Ave. costs, at most, $2.25 — and no one really pays that much on a daily basis. An LIRR monthly pass starts at $163, and individual peak rides run upwards of $7. The $3.75 City Ticket is good only on Saturdays and Sundays. Why?
The MTA has long treated its sub-agencies as separate fiefdoms that don’t play well with others. While back-office functions have been combined in recent years in an effort to eliminate redundancies, fare policies have remained stubbornly separate, much to the detriment of transit usage. It shouldn’t cost that much more to take the LIRR from Forest Hills than it does to take the E or F trains, and if the MTA is seriously about adding another LIRR stop in Queens or Metro-North access in the Bronx, the fare policies should be better unified. Otherwise, missed opportunities will abound.