Cuomo rides the rails at LIA luncheon

Crowd pleaser: Gov. Andrew Cuomo tells them what they want to hear about the Long Island Rail Road at Wednesday's LIA luncheon.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A day after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was lustily booed at Citi Field after snagging a foul ball, New York’s own Andrew Cuomo gracefully fielded a pop-up – and brought down the house – at a Long Island Association luncheon.

Playing to an extremely favorable crowd at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, Cuomo was interrupted by several ovations as he reported progress on multiple fronts in the state’s efforts to rehabilitate the Long Island Rail Road.

There was no news in this news conference – the governor merely recounted previously reported developments, including victories for the LIRR Double Track Project and the long-debated “third track” expansion – but in lumping some 100 disparate, often ambitious capital projects into a single package, Cuomo could crow over a “$5.6 billion transformation” of the LIRR.

And the lunch crowd ate it up, from Jamaica Station reconstruction to the recent opening of the West End Concourse at Farley, completing the first phase of the $1.6 billion, 225,000-square-foot Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex, which Cuomo first announced last year and is slated to be completed in 2020.

Other popular improvements with the LIA crowd: construction of a mid-Suffolk train yard that can send more trains into the city at peak times (without having to bring them out here first) and several motor vehicle-crossing upgrades along the “third track’s’ Floral Park-to-Hicksville construction zone.

“These are death traps,” Cuomo noted. “Literally, people have been killed at the grade crossings.

“They are dangerous, they should’ve been removed years ago (and) at peak times, the grade crossing can be closed 30 minutes out of an hour, backing up traffic all across the board.”

Alluding to some of New York’s great infrastructure accomplishments of the past – including the Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge and “the grand old Penn Station” – the governor suggested that complacency and stagnation had taken over Albany. But the rebirth of the LIRR, Cuomo said, would “reclaim the ambition that made New York great.”

In stark contrast to the “summer of hell” currently roasting LIRR commuters – as Amtrak closes busy Penn Station tracks, including several leased by the MTA, to catch up on decades of overdue trackwork – Cuomo painted a rosier picture of the LIRR of “the next century.”

“Our position in New York is we’re not going to wait any longer,” the governor said. “We’re not going to wait for the federal government to say, ‘We’re starting an infrastructure program’ We’re going to do it ourselves and we’re going to reimagine our transportation infrastructure and we’re going to take this opportunity to transform New York.”

Cuomo also doubled down on his support for the Gateway Program, Amtrak’s comprehensive program of strategic rail infrastructure improvements designed to double the current number of passenger trains running under the Hudson River.

The governor called the proposed New York-New Jersey tunnel reconstruction “the most important infrastructure project in the United States of America right now.”

“It is the main rail corridor for the entire Northeast, and the tunnel is in very, very bad shape,” Cuomo told Wenesday’s audience. “After Hurricane Sandy (in 2012), it got even worse.”

The two states have already agreed to cover half the project cost, he added, noting the federal government under President Obama pledged to fund the rest.

“We actually have to get it done,” Cuomo said. “That tunnel has to be replaced.

“If we lose the Gateway tunnel, it will have dramatic effects for this state and … the entire Northeast.”

All told, the multifaceted $5.6 billion package – which is forecast to result in an 81 percent increase in NYC-to-Long Island ridership capacity during the evening rush hour and a 67 percent increase during the Island-to-NYC morning commute – is a “great undertaking” for Albany, according to Cuomo, and a humongous step toward regional transit-oriented development, critical because “that’s where the millennials go.”

“The lesson of the Long Island Rail Road transformation is, ‘We can do this,’” the governor said. “You imagine what we want to do, and we can do it.”