In 2011, the LIRR told North Shore residents that the East Side Access Project could cut commute times by up to 40 minutes for passengers headed to the East Side who had to take lengthy subway trips to work after arriving at the lone New York City stop at Penn Station on the West Side.
At the time, the LIRR was trying to persuade the Village of Thomaston to replace the Colonial Road Bridge and build a pocket track extension as part of its plans to create an LIRR stop at Grand Central Station on the East Side by 2019.
The LIRR, which is part of the MTA, got the village’s approval backed by virtually every public official in office at the time and the bridge and the pocket track extension needed for trains to turn around.
But the village and the rest of the communities on the Port Washington branch of the LIRR have yet to get access to Grand Central Station, while the project’s estimated cost has risen from $8.24 billion to $11.2 billion.
That’s almost five times the project’s original estimated cost of $2.6 billion announced in 2006 when the undertaking was supposed to be completed by 2009.
And last week – surprise, surprise – we learned of LIRR schedule changes that would reduce express service into Grand Central Madison Terminal when the project is completed in December, adding 20% more stops during morning peak hours.
Which would add up to eight minutes per ride.
North Shore officials and residents were justifiably outraged.
“It’s vital that our communities make their voices heard about our displeasure with the loss of peak express service,” Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena said during a press conference. “As a Manhasset resident for 22 years whose family has relied on the Port Washington branch daily, I believe that these recently announced proposed changes are totally unacceptable.”
Port Washington resident Ian Rasmussen correctly said that adding three additional stations to the line is “adding insult to injury.”
“Considering how many more people commute to the easterly stations and that before now express and local trains were roughly full to the same extent, it’s obvious that Port Washington trains will be terribly overcrowded if express service is eliminated,” Rasmussen said in a letter to state Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti (D-Port Washington).
Thomaston Mayor Steven Weinberg and Kensington Mayor Susan Lopatkin said express service into New York City has been a longstanding part of LIRR service that Great Neck should not have to be deprived of.
“Currently there are six trains to New York between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. Under the proposed schedule there would be only two,” Lopatkin said. “This is totally unacceptable. Likewise, reducing the off-peak service to Penn station to hourly only is equally problematic to our residents.”
Lopatkin is right on both counts.
Residents and officials also pointed out that the extra commute time would impact property values boosted by short commute time for the many residents who travel into New York City.
The reduction in express trains and reduction in off-peak service would also encourage some commuters to forego the LIRR for their automobiles at the worst possible time. Train ridership is already 60% of what it was pre-COVID.
But let’s not put this past the MTA – especially when it comes to the East Side Access Project, which has widely come to be viewed as a boondoggle and a symbol of the authority’s ineptitude.
“Costs have also ballooned on other MTA projects, especially compared to international standards — the recently completed Second Avenue subway on Manhattan’s Upper East Side cost $2.5 billion per mile and the 2015 extension of the No. 7 line to Hudson Yards cost $1.5 billion per mile,” The New York Times reported in 2018. “Elsewhere in the world, a mile of subway track typically costs $500 million or less.”
The cost of large projects in New York is a problem that, as the East Side Access project demonstrates, has existed for decades and is a stain on the state’s political leadership.
And with the MTA’s decline in ridership the authority has less money for the LIRR. This likely means higher prices, less service or both.
While we are sympathetic to the MTA’s plight, commuters on the North Shore should not have to bear the burden of the MTA’s decades of ineptitude and cost overruns.
For its part, the MTA has said it would reconsider the schedule changes but at a price.
MTA spokeswoman Joanna Flores said in a statement the agency is “prepared to work with the town” to “provide even more service” on the Port Washington branch if the town supported efforts to expand train storage along the line.
In 2011, the LIRR said it was seeking to build a track expansion at its Port Washington station, which it said would provide more express service to Citi Field as well as Grand Central Terminal once the East Side Access project is completed.
The LIRR said the expansion would also improve train service in Manhasset and Port Washington. But at the cost of lost parking spaces around the Port Washington train station.
The MTA has scheduled meetings to discuss the draft schedule and hear residents’ concerns.
But the authority is not exactly built to respond to local concerns with a service area comprised of 12 counties in Downstate New York, along with two counties in southwestern Connecticut under contract to the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
Four members as well as the chairman and the CEO are directly nominated by the governor of New York, while four are recommended by New York City’s mayor. The county executives of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties nominate one member each.
Each of these members has one vote. The county executives of Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties also nominate one member each, but these members cast one collective vote.
Local residents and their residents should not let the size of the bureaucracy deter them from doing all they can to get the MTA to reverse its misguided schedule changes.
But even if authority officials say they will respond to North Shore residents’ concerns, just exactly why should we believe them?