Archive for LIRR

New York City has a bit of a tortured history with its commuter rail lines. Although some LIRR stops in Queens are among the system’s busiest, unlike in many other cities (I’m looking at you, Paris), the commuter rail lines do not act as a rail option for a significant portion of New York City commuters. This is largely a function of two factors — cost and frequency — but more on that shortly.

Now, in an attempt to take pressure off the subway, NYC is studying ways to get more New York City commuters on these commuter rail services, according to a report in Crains New York. Joe Anuta writes:

The department has tapped engineering firm AECOM to look at potential changes that would boost ridership on Long Island Rail Road and Metro North lines running within the five boroughs. Reducing fares within city limits, for example, would entice more residents to use commuter rails like the subway system and connect more neighborhoods to transit hubs like Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station in Manhattan, Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica and Woodside stations in Queens.

“AECOM is under contract to … investigate service and policy strategies for the city zone of the commuter rail network to connect residents to more frequent and affordable regional rail service, and potentially reduce crowding on nearby subway lines,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.

In particular, the de Blasio administration has floated the idea of running trains more frequently between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica Station so Queens commuters could then transfer to a number of subway lines at the Brooklyn hub.

The study will cost DOT $787,000, but I’ll do it for half that. Any changes, of course, would have to be implemented by the state-run MTA.

Now, it’s all well and good to explore ways to get more New Yorkers to use rail lines that stop in the city and serve Midtown, but the equation is a simple one. Run trains more frequently; rationalize the fares; stop treating commuter rail lines like some plush luxury service for suburban commuters; and for the love of all that’s holy, figure out how to connect Grand Central and Penn Station and develop a plan for through-running.

In essence, use pre-existing infrastructure and some new build to create an RER-style network. Sure, suburban riders more throw a fit over Those City People riding their trains for less, but a rational distance-based fare would encourage city riders. Plus, Penn Station Access is designed to do just that anyway when and if it sees the light of day. In fact, this very plan was recently suggested by Alon Levy as an April Fools joke which tells you everything you need to know about transit planning in NYC.

And yet, as noted in Anuta’s piece, the scope of the city’s imagination seems to be limited to a frequent Jamaica-Atlantic Terminal shuttle that simply moves commuters from one subway station to another. A rationalized fare with frequent service could help move Queens residents to Lower Manhattan and open up Downtown Brooklyn, but that seems far too limited in scope and potential. Think big; think network. Someone around this city should.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s own internal effort at building NYC-based commuter rail ridership is running into political problems as city pols think the MTA’s Freedom Ticket pilot is going to fail by design. The pilot may permit city riders to access only Atlantic Terminal and not Penn Station, and thus, riders would not save time or money. Who needs best practices and an integrated rail network when you have…New York City practices?

Categories : LIRR, Metro-North
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In what has seemingly become a regular rite of passage for the region’s commuter rail lines, the MTA yesterday announced record ridership on both Metro-North and the LIRR for 2015. Metro-North saw 86.1 million customers last year, and the LIRR carried 87.6 million customers, the highest total since 1949. Metro-North’s ridership has doubled since the agency came into being in 1983.

The MTA believes that a mix of a younger ridership base that doesn’t want to drive (coupled with how miserable it is to drive into New York City) along with a strong regional economy has led to this higher ridership levels. “When ridership set records back in 2008, many said it was because of high gasoline prices, and that certainly is one factor,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “But gas prices have sunk to low levels and the trend is continuing. We are seeing the confluence a strengthening regional economy, healthier downtowns around the region, a new generation of millennials who values public transportation, and greater productivity on board our trains through the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Customers are also responding to improvements we have made, including more frequent trains, improving on-time performance, a fleet of modern new electric cars, expanding availability of real-time information, and more channels for customer communication.”

Interestingly, the MTA notes that Metro-North’s gains in non-commuter trips is increasing faster than its regular commuter base, and the railroad reports that its stations west of the Hudson are seeing higher spikes in ridership than those to the east. The Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line saw gains of nearly 5 percent. Meanwhile, the MTA notes that ridership should continue to increase over the next six years when the East Side Access project comes online, and Metro-North begins service into Penn Station shortly thereafter. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s main line expansion project as well as local pols’ push to introduce a Freedom Ticket could lead to higher ridership numbers as well. It’s all part of an improved mobility picture for the New York region. Now how about that capital funding?

Categories : Asides, LIRR, Metro-North
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The MTA has asked for ideas for an adaptive reuse of Long Island City's Montauk Cutoff.

The MTA has asked for ideas for an adaptive reuse of Long Island City’s Montauk Cutoff.

It’s been a while, at least on the site, since I’ve delved into the ongoing fight over the LIRR’s unused Rockaway Beach Branch right of way. I’ve kept abreast of goings-on via Twitter, and it has devolved into a bitter fight between and amongst groups that would otherwise be allies. The debate has spilled over into the discussion over nearby Woodhaven Boulevard, and it implicates not only the immediate area and its residents but also disparate neighborhoods and parts of the city that do not have a seat at the immediate table. It threatens to be Queens’ own response to the debacle that was the 34th St. Transitway, and that’s a future and history we shouldn’t want to repeat.

We could get into the nitty gritty later, but in broad strokes, this story pits a few interests against one another. One group — consisting largely of DOT, the MTA and a loose coalition of transit advocates — wants to turn Woodhaven Boulevard into an approximation of NYC’s first bus rapid transit line with dedicated lanes and fewer conveniences for drivers. It’s not a perfect plan as it lacks physical separation, and we could debate center-running lanes over side-running lanes for days. But it’s out there, and it’s a creative and proper allocation of street space on an important north-south corridor that isn’t served by transit.

Opposing the Woodhaven BRT plan are your usual array of Queens residents with assists from some Brooklynites who believe in the primacy of the automobile and cannot suffer the elimination of lanes for cars, left turns or prioritizing transit riders. Some of these opponents are knee-jerk NIMBYs, but others have decided that the better solution is to turn the Rockaway Beach Branch line into an elevated and dedicated busway. Despite the fact that the right of way is in shambles and work to shore up the structure would be both costly and timely, these proponents — who have found voices in local community papers — argue that the right of way is perfect for a bus. Never mind the fact that it’ll take years, if not decades, for that plan to become a reality, and DOT and the MTA want an immediate solution.

Then, in yet another corner are the QueensWay proponents. These folks, led by the Trust for Public Land, have pushed hard to get funding and community support before too many politicians wake up to the reality that turning the ROW into a park without a proper assessment of reactivation would be a future folly. They had some momentum from some loud voices in neighborhoods along the park, but pushback by Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder has slowed this effort and given a neighborhood that stands to benefit a voice in the wilderness. Some of the park advocates have lined up behind the Woodhaven SBS plan, in part, because they recognize that QueensWay won’t actually solve Queens’ mobility issues. SBS then is also a pro-park, quasi-NIMBY solution for a group that has dismissed rail seemingly out of hand.

So it’s NIMBYs vs. transit advocates vs. park advocates vs. bus advocates vs. NYC DOT. All I’ve asked for is a truly independent engineering and cost assessment of the various proposals, but it’s hard to escape the bitter name-calling of the disputes. And that’s the mess we’re in. (For a flavor of it on the local level, check out this recent piece and this other recent piece from the Queens Chronicle.)

So now, 500 words later, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Montauk Cutoff. Or you might be wondering just what the *%^$ the Montauk Cutoff is. I’m so glad you asked. The Montauk Cutoff is a 1/3 of a mile LIRR right of way that runs through Long Island City, connecting the Lower Montauk Branch to the Sunnyside Yards, and the MTA has decommissioned it. The agency anticipates no near-term use for it, but they are actively preserving the right-of-way should a future use emerge. It is, writ large, the single biggest lesson to take from the Rockaway Beach Branch Line debate: Keep and preserve what can be used for rail while considering adaptive reuse with the understanding that any potential reuse may be only temporary.

So far, the MTA has issued a Request for Expressions of Interest [pdf] which could lead to a future RFP. In discussing the RFEI with Curbed a few months ago, an MTA spokesman explained the agency’s guiding philosophy: “Specifically, the MTA is seeking expressions of interest from businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and individuals with innovative adaptive reuse concepts, and detailed implementation and operating plans for those concepts. These concepts can include, but are not limited to, public open space, urban farming, or museum or sculpture garden space.”

The RFEI echoes this sentiment. “It is conceivable that the Montauk Cutoff may be required for future transportation needs,” the document notes. “A sale or permanent disposition of the Montauk Cutoff may disadvantage. MTA in the future, and leaving it vacant may invite encroachments and blight. As a result, the MTA wishes to investigate adaptive reuse concepts to preserve the right-of-way for potential future use.

Already, the usual suspects are jockeying for position. Some linear park proponents and rails-to-trails group have discussed a mini-High Line-style park through Long Island City and a variety of community groups are actively exploring ways to incorporate this right of way into the surrounding neighborhood. Community visioning groups have seemingly made this a more inconclusive project than that surrounding the Rockaway Beach Branch, but that is, in part, because the MTA is exerting its control and ownership of the ROW while clearly expressing its desire to preserve the ROW.

It’s not clear yet what happens with the Montauk Cutoff. The MTA could assess the responses to the RFEI and decide to hold back an RFP. They could just let it sit there for a while before a rail use returns. But, for now at least, it’s a project with far fewer people fighting over its future, and that alone should tell you everything about the importance of both the Rockaway Beach Branch Line and the Montauk Cutoff to efforts to improve mobility around an area in need of transit capacity.

Categories : LIRR, Queens
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We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.

At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.

One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.

Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.

As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”

Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”

This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.

I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.

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Over the next few years, the MTA will restore LIRR service to Elmhurst.

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?

Categories : LIRR
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Shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a show of riding in on a white horse to rescue the Long Island Rail Road riders when no one else would, the MTA and its Long Island unions have brokered a deal ensuring labor peace. Word of the deal first leaked late Thursday morning through a statement issued by IBEW Local 589, the LIRR’s electricians union, and Cuomo brought together MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast and United Transportation Union President Anthony Simon to announce the deal this afternoon.

During the press conference, details were sparse, and not until reporters asked did Cuomo unveil that the LIRR workers will get a deal markedly similar to that in the two Presidential Emergency Board decisions but with some key differences. “This is a compromise by both parties,” Cuomo stated. “Neither side gets everything they wanted to get.”

The degree to which Cuomo’s statement is an accurate reflection of the outcome can be debated for a while. The LIRR union workers will earn raises totaling 17 percent over 6.5 years after the MTA initially proposed no wage increases. As Cuomo and Prendergast repeatedly noted that these wage increases will have no affect on the MTA’s fare structure or capital plans, the money will come from the benefits pool (as well as from future hires who, by definition, are never represented in labor discussions). For the first time in LIRR history, employees will contribute to their health insurance costs while new employees will have, according to a subsequent release, “different wage progressions and pension plan contributions.” The unions will vote on this plan over the next month while the MTA Board members will receive a full assessment of its economic impact prior to their September meetings.

“The agreement we reached today with the assistance of Governor Cuomo is just what he advocated – a fair and reasonable contract that will enable the nation’s busiest commuter railroad to continue to serve the people of Long Island,” Prendergast said. “Both sides have compromised to reach an agreement that gives our employees the raises they deserve while also providing for the MTA’s long-term financial stability.”

Throughout the short press conference, Simon continued to note that “this was about the riders,” and he pressed that angle to a degree that seemed nearly insincere. Had this been about the riders, the MTA would have pushed for work rule reform, and the unions would have accepted it. Instead, under pressure from Cuomo, the MTA squandered again a chance to enact real labor reforms that would improve efficiency and cut down on unnecessary spending. Although 300,000 riders won’t have to experience the pain of a strike, this wasn’t really about the riders at all.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away from the press conference touting this deal, the MTA Reinvention Commission soldiered onward. It was hard not to think that the MTA had let a prime opportunity for reinvention slip through its fingers. Such are the costs of labor peace.

Categories : LIRR, Transit Labor
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The funny thing about labor discussions, disputes and negotiations is that they are nearly impossible to predict. It’s hard to separate theater and posturing from actually productive conversations and negotiations, and whatever’s happening with the LIRR unions is proving this point perfectly. A day ago, I would have said a strike was a near-certainty. Today, after some politicking from Albany and revived discussions, I’m hedging my bets. With just under three days until the MTA has to start paring back service, time is definitely of the essence.

After a few days of posturing in which the MTA went hard after the union and the union seemed to dig in for a strike, Andrew Cuomo, as expected, slowly started to step in. He issued a terse statement (and apparently had a chat with his people at the MTA as well). “The Long Island Rail Road is a critical transportation system for Long Island and New York City. We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters,” he said. “Both the MTA and the LIRR unions need to put the interests of New Yorkers first by returning to the table today and working continuously to avoid a strike.”

Later that day, the MTA and LIRR unions pledged to talk, and the LIRR labor leaders have since dialed back the rhetoric. They’re no longer vowing a strike, but significant differences remain. Matt Flegenheimer summed up Wednesday’s goings-on:

Four days before a possible strike, the Long Island Rail Road and its unions resumed talks on Wednesday and pledged to continue informal discussions throughout the night — a conspicuous shift in tone after negotiations broke down earlier in the week. The sides were expected to remain in touch by phone and video conference on Wednesday evening and return for face-to-face meetings on Thursday morning.

The gathering came hours after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on both sides to return to the negotiating table. Transportation experts have long expected Mr. Cuomo to intervene to head off a possible strike on the railroad, which handles about 300,000 rider trips on weekdays. He oversees the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the railroad. Less than an hour after Mr. Cuomo’s statement, the transportation authority said that it had asked its unions to resume negotiations.

Anthony Simon, the leader of the railroad’s largest labor group, said the unions “never wanted to leave the table.” Earlier in the week, Mr. Simon predicted that a strike was all but certain. On Wednesday, he was much more reserved. “Let’s leave the percentages off for now,” he said when asked about his past claim that the chances of a shutdown were 100 percent. “We don’t want to alarm the public anymore.”

It’s worth noting that the MTA’s offers to date have been generous, and I don’t believe the MTA should move from their position. According to materials the agency released after talks fell apart on Monday, the MTA has promised 17 percent raises in exchange for some health care contribution concessions. It’s unclear if badly needed pension and work-rule reforms are on the table, but so far, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to fight for much reform in a way that would overhaul the labor problems the agency currently faces.

I’m worried about Cuomo’s interference because the MTA almost needs the strike. In the short term, it would mean headaches for subway riders and major hassles for Long Island commutes (including reverse commuters), but in the long time, the MTA has to fix systematic problems with LIRR workrules, pensions and other benefit obligations. They won’t be able to do so if Gov. Cuomo is putting pressure on to settle before voters get upset. Such are the travails of labor relations during an election year. Can we look beyond the next three months?

Categories : LIRR, Transit Labor
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A short post with some links for your Monday morning leisure. Clearly, this is important if you work on Long Island, employ people who live on Long Island or otherwise commute in from areas of Queens and Brooklyn that are accessible to Long Islanders. Things could get messy next few week.

First up, there’s no new news to report after Friday’s announcement of contingency planning. The MTA and its Long Island unions have not reached an agreement, and the MTA continues to urge people to stay home, telecommute, take vacation or do whatever it takes to avoid traversing Long Island Rail Road routes if trains aren’t running. Obviously, that’s not practical for everyone, but absent the overnight invention of teleportation technology, it’s the best of a bad situation. It may not, however, come to this.

In The Post this weekend, Nicole Gelinas writes on how she is concerned that Andrew Cuomo will give in to the LIRR unions. Although he tried to punt the issue to Congress last week, the Congress declined to do much about it, and the ball is firmly in the MTA’s — and Gov. Cuomo’s — court. If he gives the order to give in, the MTA will oblige.

With contingency plans in place, Gelinas feels the MTA is in a position of strength. “In fact,” she writes, “the MTA should take advantage of any strike to cram down work-rule changes as the price for workers to be allowed back on the job. Cuomo will be tempted to prod the MTA into giving away the store, though — so that he can look like a fearless leader in avoiding a strike.” If he does that, taxpayers will be on the hook for over $730 million, and that is money likely to come out of any future capital plan.

The MTA meanwhile has laid its cards on the table. While attempting to reach a middle ground, the MTA has moved its offers numerous times while the unions haven’t. Now, MTA officials warn that any further concessions could impact fares or the so-called “state of good repair” programs. “When we say we can afford it within the current financial plan, we’re affording it at great sacrifice,” Newsday quoted MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast as stating. Union officials beg to differ and claim the MTA could afford these raises.

Finally, for more coverage, keep an eye on The LIRR Today. Patrick has all the news and info you need to know building up to a strike as well as plans in the event there is no Long Island Rail Road service one week from today. I’ll continue, as always, to follow this story.

Categories : LIRR
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As the dog days of summer descend upon us, the threat of an LIRR strike any time beginning in 11 days looms larger and larger. While the MTA brass and LIRR unions met on Tuesday, the sessions lasted only around four hours, and the MTA is looking not to Albany but to Washington for help.

It’s interesting to see the buck pass from Andrew Cuomo, up for reelection, to Congress, a deeply unpopular, highly partisan federal agency. As the LIRR is overseen by the feds though, Cuomo can punt. Whether voters will recognize this in November will depend upon the outcome. Earlier this week, though, while speaking with reporters, Cuomo, who was willing to take the credit for bridging Transit’s and the TWU’s labor impasse, effectively punted on the LIRR. WNYC offered up this transcript:

“It’s actually Congress that can end a strike and impose a settlement one way or the other,” Cuomo said on Monday. “So right now it seems that Congress is pivotal to what happens here, and from what I read in the newspapers it’s going to depend on what Congress intends to do and what they say they’re going to do. Congress can order them to go back, Congress can order a settlement, Congress can order mediation, Congress can order arbitration, Congress can do almost whatever they want, because they are in control of the resolution of the strike.

“The possibility of a strike causes so much anxiety I don’t even like to think about it. There is no good alternative to the LIRR on Long Island. The commute would be horrendous, however we do it. And they talk about contingency plans — we’ll have buses, we’ll have carpools — and you can do all of the above; it is still a miserable situation. So I have said to both parties: I truly hope it doesn’t get to that point. If it does get to that point, I hope Congress acts immediately to resolve it, and resolves it in a prudent way. But that they resolve it.”

Small comfort to the people of Long Island, but MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast, clearly at the behest of his boss in Albany, has asked Congress to assist. He’s traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss the situation with lawmakers and sent a letter ahead of his arrival to Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi asking Congress to do something. He wrote:

I am writing to you to seek clarification on what role Congress intends to play in the event that 5,400 employees of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) walk off the job as early as Sunday, July 20th and paralyze the nation’s largest regional economy. Tomorrow I will be traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress on the MTA’s position and request a clear answer on whether the United States Congress is prepared to take action if LIRR’s unions decide to stage a strike.

Over the past several months the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has made a number of attempts to settle a labor dispute with unions representing LIRR’s employees. As Chairman of the MTA, I strongly believe that a resolution can be reached in a fiscally responsible manner; unfortunately, the union’s leadership has taken the position that the MTA must meet its demands or it will strike, a threat they feel comfortable making because they assume Congress will stop their strike after a few days.

As you may know, the MTA’s negotiations with the LIRR’s unions are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which gives commuter railroad employees the right to strike, which is a right that no other public employee in the State of New York has. Once LIRR employees walk off the job, absent a settlement, it will require an act of Congress to bring these employees back to work. The MTA will continue to push for a resolution that does not overly burden our passengers; however, we believe that the union’s leadership has made a tactical decision that Congress will intervene on their behalf in the event of a strike. As a result, the union’s leadership has been unwilling to work constructively with the MTA to come to an agreement.

Prendergast has presented Congress with three options — prevent a strike, allow a strike and require settlement sometime later, or allow a strike and take no action — and wants to know which one will be the likely outcome. It’s a move designed to put pressure on Washington and gain clarity into a situation that will likely not be resolved without outside influence.

It’s hard to read the tea leaves right now, but Congress doesn’t do much passing of resolutions these days. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strike, and to that end, it’s not clear how the region will be affected. It won’t be pretty, and one way or another we’ll find out soon enough how this story ends.

Categories : LIRR, Transit Labor
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Remember all the way back to February when, after a rather boring Super Bowl, thousands of fans got to hang out in East Rutherford or Secaucus Junction waiting for New Jersey Transit to run enough trains to get them home? You’d think the regional rail operators around the city would have learned the lesson that, for marquee sports events at inconvenient locations, regularly scheduled commuter rail service isn’t quite good enough and even the so-called “event” service isn’t enough either.

So when Saturday’s Belmont Stakes rolled around with California Chrome drawing attention for his shot at the Triple Crown, how do you think the Long Island Rail Road handled the post-race crowds? If you said “poorly,” come on down because you’re the next contestant on “The Train Service Is Wrong.” Matt Flegenheimer reports:

For both the horse and the agency, Saturday could have gone better. After watching the colt tie for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, tens of thousands of Long Island Rail Road riders struggled to leave, standing in serpentine lines for hours, berating police officers over a lack of communication from transit and racing officials and, at one point, packing themselves so tightly atop a rickety pedestrian bridge that it had to be cleared for safety.

And so, just over four months after New Jersey Transit’s misadventures at the Super Bowl, the New York City area has been faced with the same vexing question: How has a region that prides itself on handling large crowds for major events — baseball games, political conventions, New Year’s Eve — been tripped up yet again?

The answer, officials and transportation experts said, is a combination of misguided estimates, inexperienced riders and a bit of bad luck, at least at the track. The railroad expected about 20,000 people to ride to the races and had publicized its service throughout the week. Nearly 36,000 took the train to the Belmont station, prompting the railroad to summon extra service for the post-race crush at the track’s typically little-used station.

To make matters worse, MTA officials and rider advocates noted after the fact that the people who rely more heavily on mass transit were the ones at Belmont, something that perhaps should have been a consideration before the event and not after. Still, though, one statement in The Times was worrisome. The Belmont station is season, and the station can fit only an eight-car train set. Thus, with 36,000 people waiting, the MTA can clear out only around 1200 per train. “Could we have gotten three and a half hours down to three hours if everything ran like clockwork? Maybe,” LIRR President Patrick A. Nowakowski said to Flegenheimer. “But you weren’t going to do any better than that.”

Coverage in The Journal took on a different slant still. The delays, LIRR officials told Yoni Bashan, were expected. “There wasn’t a single extra train that we could have run that we didn’t run,” an agency spokesman said.

Therein lies the problem. The MTA isn’t going to upgrade Belmont for one day a year, and, as both papers noted, these complaints never pop up for regular service after events at Yankee Stadium, Citi Field or the Barclays Center, venues located near subway lines. So this may just become the new normal at places that were built for auto traffic without reliable, regular mass transit. Belmont and the Meadowlands will still see many many drivers, but as train travel in the region becomes the norm, longer waits due to infrastructure deficiencies will continue to be a problem. Who’s looking forward for a solution?

Categories : LIRR
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