By Larry Penner
If the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, on behalf of the Long Island Rail Road, will not progress a planning study to look into the feasibility of extending electrification from Huntington to Port Jefferson, this project may never be completed in our lifetime.
There is $4 million in real funding from the MTA $32 billion 2015 -2019 Five Year Capital Plan to pay for this study. The MTA previously promised that a contract would be awarded in the summer of 2019. They are now 15 months late in awarding a contract. There is no new recovery schedule for the contract award. If the MTA is unable to initiate a planning study, it may be an indication that this project will never go forward.
Estimated costs for electrification are $18 million per mile. The $260 million funding provided for electrification of the 7-mile Central Branch, running east of Hicksville on the Ronkonkoma line to Babylon is also on hold. This is due to the ongoing MTA financial crisis. This capital improvement would provide additional options for thousands of Babylon riders. They could travel from the Central Branch to Jamaica via the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track and on to either Penn Station or future Grand Central Terminal by December 2022. Electrification of the Central Branch could also afford creation of a new north/south scoot service, running from Huntington via Hicksville and to Babylon. If results from any planning studies are positive, the next step would be the environmental review process, which would cost millions more. Funding would have to be included under the next MTA 2025 to 2029 Five Year Capital Plan.
The MTA 2020 – 2040 Twenty Year Long Range Capital Needs Plan documents how much money, years or decades will be required before each MTA operating agency, including New York City Transit subway and bus, Staten Island Railway, Manhattan Bronx Surface Operating bus, MTA bus, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads have reached a state of good repair. Categories for each agency include such assets as existing bus, subway and commuter rail fleet, stations and elevators to meet Americans with Disabilities Act and escalators, track including switches, signals and interlockings, communications, line structures, and painting, protective netting on elevated structures and bridges, line equipment including tunnel lighting and pump rooms, traction power, power substations, yards and shops and supervisory vehicles. It would be revealing if the MTA and LIRR is serious about extending electrification to Port Jefferson over this time period, it would be included within this report. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the MTA promised that this document would be made public by December 2019. It is now eleven months late.
Extending electrification of the Port Jefferson branch east of Huntington has been talked about for decades. In the 1980’s, discussions took place between the MTA, LIRR, Suffolk County and various elected officials over which branch should be electrified first. The Ronkonkoma branch was selected over the Port Jefferson branch.
Without electrification east of Huntington, Port Jefferson branch riders may not have a one seat ride to the future LIRR Grand Central Terminal. Service is promised to begin by the end of December 2022. Thousands of daily LIRR riders from diesel territory branches, including those commuting from stations east of Huntington to Port Jefferson, east of East Williston to Oyster Bay, east of Babylon to Speonk and east of Ronkonkoma, will still have to change at Jamaica for travel to the future Grand Central Terminal or Atlantic Avenue to Brooklyn.
Future opportunities for funding to progress this project beyond a planning study will be under upcoming MTA 2025 – 2029, 2030 – 2034 and 2035 -2039 Five Year Capital Plans. The estimated cost will grow over time to $1 billion or more. This is necessary to pay for planning, design and engineering, environmental review, land acquisition for construction of power substations, expansion of commuter parking, potential relocation and/or consolidation of existing stations, new stations and platforms, new electric Multiple Unit car storage yard, new track, third rail and signals. From start to finish, the project could require 15 to 20 years. Based upon my past experiences on other FTA, MTA and LIRR projects, I would not be surprised if electrification of the Port Jefferson branch is not completed until 2040.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus, Suffolk County Transit, Town of Huntington HART Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.