By GREGORY ZELLER //
A broad-based coalition supporting the Long Island Rail Road third track proposal hit the rails Tuesday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo personally pushed the throttle on Right Track For Long Island, a coalition of over 100 businesses, environmental groups and other organizations and individuals backing the governor’s ambitious support of the long-debated third-track plan.
Plans to improve train traffic through a bottlenecked 9.8-mile stretch in Nassau County have been kicked around for decades, but to such consistent opposition from affected communities that the plan has become known as the “third rail of Long Island politics.”
However, the project – which involves construction of a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, where five major branches join the LIRR mainline and service interruptions cause massive delays – has become the crown jewel of Cuomo’s ambitious Island infrastructure plans. It’s been endorsed by construction unions and economic-watchdog groups, including the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, which is co-chaired by LIA president Kevin Law and Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz.
Law is also co-chairing the third track coalition with Dave Kapell, the former mayor of Greenport and now a consultant for the Rauch Foundation.
Among those in attendance at Tuesday’s announcement were MTA chair Tom Prendergast, Neal Lewis of the Molloy College Sustainability Institute and John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, as well as representatives of the Long Island Commuter Council, the Long Island Progressive Coalition – a circa-1979 nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development – and various local labor unions.
The third track has become the Long Island economic engine’s vital cog, according to Cuomo.
(Video of Cuomo at the news conference is here.)
“You have one of the worst commutes in the country here,” the governor said. “If you want to get people out of cars and into mass transit, you have to improve mass transit. Period.”
Commuters aren’t going to choose the railroad “unless it’s comfortable, unless it’s reliable, unless it’s safe,” Cuomo added, making the third track a major imperative. “We need it to increase volume and allow more flexibility for transportation.”
And the LIRR improvements won’t happen “in isolation,” he noted, but will instead coincide with off-Island upgrades such as an “air train” connecting the railroad to the redesigned LaGuardia Airport and new LIRR destinations in Manhattan.
Kapell called the third track “the lynchpin to unlocking the Long Island economy in the 21st century,” while Law – who said the coalition would spread the word through its website and various social media accounts – said he was emboldened to see such wide-spread support for a project that’s been treated like political kryptonite for decades.
“It’s always easier to oppose things, to fight against them,” the LIA president said. “It’s harder to bring people together and show support for something.”
Both Law and Kapell are aware of community concerns surrounding the proposed railroad expansion. Kapell told Innovate LI that a project of this scope is “bound to have negative impacts for some people,” while Law acknowledged that “some of those community concerns are legitimate.”
But Cuomo noted Tuesday that the current third track design is contained entirely within existing LIRR right-of-ways, so the project “literally does not take a single home” – a major concern with previous incarnations.
Kapell, meanwhile, lauded the governor’s approach to dealing with community concerns: minimizing the use of eminent domain, meeting with local officials “and considering expensive mitigating measures to address their concerns.”
And Law also applauded the project’s come-together mindset, noting the new coalition is “not here to fight with” the third track’s opposition.
“We’re here to work with them and to educate them on something that’s important for this region and stitches this island together,” he said.
Some of the most vocal opposition to the project has been over grade crossings: There are seven along the 9.8-mile stretch, and existing gates are already lowered for as much as 24 minutes per hour, snarling rush-hour traffic.
But Cuomo emphasized that the third track is “an opportunity to redo several grade crossings in that area,” while all new crossings would involve either bridges or underpasses.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You can go over the track or you can go under the track. We’ll work in concert with each community. Just tell us how you want to do it.”
With environmental reviews pending and engineering redesigns likely, construction of the third track is still some distance off. Kapell suggested a likely timetable of three to five years for project completion, while Cuomo envisioned a Long Island 10 years hence, when the project is long completed and its benefits are fully realized.
“In 10 years, we’ll look back on this as a no-brainer,” the governor said.