During the late morning hours of June 7, people gathered at the Stony Brook train station but not to board a train. They were there to call out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Long Island Rail Road for not getting on board with modernizing the Port Jefferson Branch line.
Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) asked state and local officials to join him at a press conference at the station to urge the MTA and the LIRR to extend electrification on the Port Jefferson Branch. In addition to the elected officials in attendance, civic, chamber, business and environmental leaders were also on hand to show their support.
Many in attendance have vocalized the need for years, including during a December 2019 press conference at the train station. However, plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
East of Huntington the 24 miles or so of railroad tracks are not electrified, and the LIRR uses dual-mode trains that can switch from electric to diesel.
Those in attendance addressed concerns such as air pollution from the diesel trains and traffic congestion from residents driving south to take trains on the Ronkonkoma Branch. They also said electrification would benefit the area, including efficient experiences for passengers, more business drawn to the area, increased enrollment at Stony Brook University and real estate values increasing.
Romaine said the Port Jeff Branch was the busiest line of the LIRR. He called diesel fuel “some of the most polluting fuel that we have.” He added that Suffolk County and Brookhaven “have been shortchanged by the MTA.”
He said that with the passage of President Joe Biden’s (D) $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill and more than $10 billion estimated to go to the MTA, it was time for Suffolk County residents to see improvements on the railroad
“That is supposed to help rebuild our infrastructure,” the supervisor said. “We’re asking for a 20th-century technology — electrification. Diesel is a 19th-century technology. We haven’t even asked for 21st-century technology.”
State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) also called for infrastructure money to be spent in the area. Regarding North Shore residents traveling to stations along the Ronkonkoma Branch, he said everyone needed to come together to ensure that those in the area could drive to a nearby station without changing trains to get to New York City. He added with a feasibility study that was started in the 1980s, the time had come for change.
“We need to make sure that we’re here for the commuters,” Mattera said. “Mass transit is so important for our future, and MTA shortchanges us all the time.”
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said when the Climate Leadership and Community Protection legislation was passed on the state level in 2019, it included the call for electrification across all sectors — transportation, residential, commercial and more. He said the same year the legislation passed, the MTA purchased 55 diesel engines.
“Maybe they haven’t figured it out yet but diesels are, as the supervisor indicated, antique technology, and we need to move toward technology that doesn’t pollute the air,” Englebright said.
Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) said that the diesel engines not only are harmful to air quality, but also when they arrive at a station the vibration can be felt in nearby neighborhoods. Kornreich said there are people in Port Jefferson Station who “have to listen to the sound of diesel throbbing all night.”
Mitch Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute and a former MTA board member, called on the state Climate Action Council to mandate the MTA to have responsibility in electrifying train lines across Long Island.
“Only in that way will the mass transit system that we have not only transport our people, but do it in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Pally said.
Anthony Figliola, who is running in the Republican primary for Congressional District 1, said after the press conference he was encouraged by the bipartisan support. He added that Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) is also supportive of electrification.
Figliola and Charlie Lefkowitz, president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce, were part of the North Shore Business Alliance formed in 2017 that worked on a feasibility study for electrification of the branch. The MTA included $4 million in their five-year 2015-19 capital plan to pay for a feasibility study on electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch
Figliola said if elected to Congress he will be committed “to helping fund this critical economic development and environmental project.”
“The next step is for the MTA to complete the study,” he said. “My hope is the MTA will think twice before spending any additional dollars on more diesel trains.”