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Local and state officials have long talked about electrification of the Port Jefferson rail line, but missed deadlines and other issues may push any real project back decades. File photo

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.  

Larry Penner

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.

Brookhaven Town officials, with Supervisor Ed Romaine at the microphone, join local representatives from the state and nearby townships to protest the LIRR’s planned fare hike. Photo from TOB

Local and state officials, along with citizen advocates voiced a collective message to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York City during a press conference at Ronkonkoma train station on March 2: “Stop shortchanging Long Island.” 

The group called on the MTA to abandon its plan for a systemwide 4 percent fare increase in 2021 for Long Island Rail Road customers, including those in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The decision was a part of the NYC Outer Borough Rail Discount plan which offers an up to 20 percent discount for city riders. 

“Everything is being pushed out to Long Island in terms of expenses and it won’t be long until you’re expected to buy them a coffee and a bagel as well.”

— Ed Smyth

“Long Island is not the cash cow for New York City,” said Ed Romaine (R), Brookhaven Town supervisor. “This is unconscionable, this is a handout to the city at the expense of Long Island.”

Romaine said a typical Ronkonkoma LIRR commuter who purchases a monthly parking pass, monthly train ticket and unlimited ride Metrocard would have to pay $7,224 annually. 

“The MTA has not made the capital investments it should on Long island — what about our riders?” Romaine said. 

The supervisor added that Long Island has already been shortchanged regarding electrification, as there is no electrification east of Huntington and none past the Ronkonkoma station.

The discounts were mandated by the state Legislature as a condition of its approval of congestion pricing legislation, which would create new tolls for drivers in Manhattan to help fund the authority’s $51.5 billion capital program. The plan will go into effect in May of this year. 

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) also took issue with the MTA’s decision. 

“We had the congestion pricing vote, which I voted against it,” he said. “This is completely counterintuitive to the folks using the trains. Congestion pricing was meant to get individuals to start using public transportation and not use their vehicles.”

He added that the MTA has billions of dollars of subsidies from the state and federal government. 

“This is a New York City problem — we should not bear the brunt of it,” he said. “Mayor [Bill] de Blasio [D] should pay for this — they are overwhelmingly serviced [by the MTA].”

The MTA board is made up of 21 stakeholders appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), including people recommended by unions and municipalities such as the city and surrounding counties. Kevin Law represents Suffolk County, and was nominated by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The other Long Island representative, David Mack, represents Nassau.

Despite their differences, officials continued to agree with the planned change at a Feb. 26 board meeting, saying they expect the up to 20 percent discount to entice Queens and Brooklyn commuters to use the LIRR if they live far from a subway line.

MTA officials say this is a pilot program up to one year’s duration. 

However, on Long Island, other local officials voiced their displeasures. 

“This is unconscionable, this is a handout to the city at the expense of Long Island.”

— Ed Romaine

Ed Smyth (R), Huntington Town councilman, said commuters will essentially be paying for their ticket and for somebody in NYC. 

“Everything is being pushed out to Long Island in terms of expenses and it won’t be long until you’re expected to buy them a coffee and a bagel as well,” he said. 

Kevin LaValle (R-Selden), Brookhaven Town councilman, said the MTA plan would negatively affect the progress they’ve made to bring transit-oriented development to the area. 

“On a town level, this is something we’ve been working on for years,” he said. “The Tritec [Ronkonkoma Hub] development is an example of that. It will make it easier for Long islanders to get into the city. With these fee increases it will make it harder for them to afford to live here and ride here.”

Palumbo added he will be writing a letter to Cuomo in the coming days and will ask Long Island representatives from both political parties to sign it. The assemblyman is hopeful the plan can be changed before the NYS budget deadline next month. 

“Hopefully he can see it, and this can be fixed on April 1 — I’m just hoping that it doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said. 

Huntington commuters board train. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Donna Deedy

The New York State Senate passed April 1 legislation that will overhaul the Metropolitan Transit Authority and transform its operations. The legislation, included in the 2019-20 New York State budget, authorizes into law key changes to increase MTA transparency and reform its operations. This includes a comprehensive, independent forensic audit of MTA, improvements to long-term capital planning, and requires public reporting on MTA performance metrics.

New York State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said that he aggressively lobbied for passage of these reforms and committed himself to their inclusion in the final state budget.  

“I am thrilled that this year’s budget will include a core component of the MTA Rail Act: a comprehensive, independent forensic audit of the MTA,” he said. “This, coupled with a $1 billion investment into the LIRR, are critical first steps toward making Long Island’s mass transit finally work for riders.”

The reforms were also supported by railroad watchdogs and public transit commuters, fed up by years of late trains, poor communication by the MTA and rising train fares.

“The biggest complaint I hear is overcrowding as a result of cars taken out of service,” said Larry Silverman, former chair of the LIRR Commuter Council. “Monies have already been allocated for the expansion projects such as East Side Access and Third Track Main Line, so I would expect that the railroad would use the funds to keep the system in a state of good repair.”

Larry Penner, former Federal Transit Administration director in the New York region, is familiar with MTA operations, capital projects and programs. The devil, he said, is in the missing details yet to be worked out concerning passage of congestion pricing and the MTA Rail Act. The promised MTA “forensic audit” in his view is a waste of time and money. 

“Another audit will not result in significant change,” Penner said. “How many internal MTA, MTA Office of the Inspector General, state comptroller, city controller, NYC Office of Management and Budget, Federal Transit Administration OIG and other audits have come and gone.”

The best bang for the buck, he said, is for the Long Island Rail Road to further electrify rail service for five branches: Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay, Montauk, Ronkonkoma and the central branch which runs between Hicksville, Bethpage and Babylon. Investing in a one-seat-ride service to Penn Station, and eventually Grand Central, would benefit the most people. 

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Most passengers on the Long Island Rail Road probably have one wish — to get to their destination quicker. This desire has been uttered for decades on the Port Jefferson line where commuters headed to the Big Apple or Nassau County need to change trains since tracks are only electrified west of Huntington, with diesel fuel powering all trains east.

While we’re more optimistic than ever that the wish may be granted, we must admit we’re only cautiously optimistic.

While the Long Island trains may never reach speeds of those in Japan, China and France, which travel at more than 200 mph, officials and community members are working harder than ever toward the goal of electrification. Both the Metropolitan Transit Authority and state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have appropriated funds to support a study of the feasibility of electrifying the line, and a group of community members, informally called the North Shore Business Alliance, is advocating for the study by not only lobbying elected officials, but also presenting the benefits to civic associations and chambers of commerce along Suffolk County’s North Shore. There are a lot of people on board to move things forward.

Electrifying the rails means more than getting in and out of the city quicker, it also means living on Long Island and community would be more appealing. Hopefully, it would keep people here and draw more to the area. It would make commuting to work in the city easier, where salaries tend to be higher and opportunities more abundant. For those traveling east, it would decrease the time for traveling to Stony Brook University.

However, as we have said before, we are cautiously optimistic. While the study will look at how much faster trains can go, it will also look to see if electrification makes sense financially, something we Long Islanders need to understand. The winding nature of the Port Jeff line presents a set of logistical troubles as well. There is still a possibility electrification may not make economic sense, which stands to reason as it has been discussed for generations. In 2000, one study estimated it would cost $500 million to electrify the Port Jefferson line from Huntington to the end.

There’s also a change some communities may not welcome as they may foresee problems that might arise from faster trains, one being that many towns may not want more people living in their areas, citing traffic problems and perhaps more multihouse units being constructed or development.

But back to the positive side of the coin, faster trains may actually mean less cars on the road especially on the Long Island Expressway and Northern State Parkway as more may find taking the train easier. There will also be those who now live on the North Shore who opt to take trains out of Ronkonkoma but now can head to the station closer to their home.

We may not know what the feasibility study will turn up but moving it forward will increase the odds of one day either riding a faster train or finally putting the dream to rest.

Local and state officials have long talked about electrification of the Port Jefferson rail line, but missed deadlines and other issues may push any real project back decades. File photo

A Smithtown resident will take the lead in determining the future of the Long Island Rail Road.
Phillip Eng was appointed the next president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR April 12 by MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota and MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim.

“Phil has shown exceptional leadership and dedication during his time at the MTA, and I know he will bring his enthusiasm for developing a world-class transportation system to the LIRR,” Lhota said.

“As a Smithtown resident and Suffolk County native, Phil Eng understands the importance of transportation on Long Island.”

— Steve Bellone

Eng will take over for Patrick Nowakowski, who served as LIRR president for nearly four years. He submitted his resignation less than a month after the LIRR had its worst on-time performance in the last 18 years, according to a March 15 report released by the Office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in March. The report had found that nearly 21,400 trains were delayed, cancelled or terminated in 2017; a 20 percent increase from 2016.

“As millions of commuters can attest, the performance of the Long Island Rail Road has become unacceptable,” DiNapoli said in a March statement. “On-time performance has fallen to the lowest level in nearly two decades, hurting riders. While Amtrak was a big factor behind the deterioration in service last year, the LIRR was responsible for more than twice as many delays.”

Eng first joined the MTA in March 2017 when he was appointed its chief operating officer. His role as chief operating officer was leading major initiatives across all of the MTA’s agencies, particularly with a focus on using innovation and technology to modernize the transportation systems and improve customer reliability, according to the MTA. From October 2017 to January 2018, he held the position of acting president at New York City Transit.

“The LIRR couldn’t have a found a more qualified person for this role,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “As a Smithtown resident and Suffolk County native, Phil Eng understands the importance of transportation on Long Island.”

“My life’s work has centered on conceptualizing the best possible options to make transportation options more reliable.”

— Phil Eng

He is now expected to use his 35 years of experience in the New York State’s transportation sector to get the LIRR’s performance back on track. Prior to joining the MTA, Eng started his career with New York State Department of Transportation in 1983 as a junior engineer. He worked his way up, rising through the ranks to become the state DOT’s executive deputy commissioner. While there, Eng was responsible for delivering on the $2.5 billion annual capital construction program and was involved in the environmental impact study on the LIRR Mainline Expansion Project.

“My life’s work has centered on conceptualizing the best possible options to make transportation options more reliable, allowing commuters to get where they need to go safely and quickly,” Eng said in a statement. “I am honored to be chosen to lead the LIRR and its team of talented women and men as we work together to make the daily experience on the trains a better one.”

In his new position, Eng will be expected to manage several major infrastructural changes underway on the LIRR including the Double Track Project, which adds a second track to the Ronkonkoma branch between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma stations and is scheduled for completion later this year. He will also be expected to implement the Performance Improvement Plan, unveiled March 19, which aims to improve the LIRR’s service reliability, seasonal preparedness and communications with its customers. Public calls from elected officials to expand electrification on the Port Jefferson line east of the Huntington station, a long sought technological improvement, are also intensifying.

The now cleared areas surrounding the train tracks for the Port Jefferson LIRR station will be fitted with new trees soon. Photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Cleaning up is hard to do.

Port Jefferson Village is entrenched in a beautification project that spans large sections of the area, including several efforts in the vicinity of the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station located in between Main Street and Highlands Boulevard. Two years ago, according to village resident Kathleen Riley and Village Mayor Margot Garant, the village requested that LIRR property be cleared of dead trees along the train tracks on the south side of Highlands Boulevard in the hopes of improving aesthetics in the area.

The now cleared areas surrounding the train tracks for the Port Jefferson LIRR station will be fitted with new trees soon. Photos by Alex Petroski

“When this beautification effort started there were a number of dead trees along the said property, and when the LIRR was requested to remove the dead trees, workmen cut down all the trees, dead and alive for a considerably large portion of the property,” Riley said in an email. “When investigated with survey records, it happens that the LIRR cut down trees on Port Jefferson Village property, truly a violation that calls for compensation. Mayor Garant has yet to receive any compensation from the LIRR for the past two years. To her credit she continues to pursue beautification.”

Riley shared a letter she received in early April from Susan McGowan, the MTA’s general manager of public affairs for the LIRR as a response to several letters she sent to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and to Ed Dumas, the vice president of market development and public affairs for the LIRR, since the trees were first removed. McGowan addressed the findings of the survey that the trees were on village property.

“In light of these findings, we will work with the village to address the concerns you raised, and the LIRR will continue to coordinate with the village as our station enhancement project for Port Jefferson Station moves forward,” McGowan said.

Aaron Donovan, MTA deputy director for external communications for the LIRR responded to requests for comment from Dumas on the matter in an emailed statement.

“I’m just going to get the job done; then I’m going to the railroad and ask for restitution — I can’t wait any longer.”

— Margot Garant

“We have received and reviewed all of the correspondence, and we are evaluating what we can do to improve the Highlands Boulevard area,” he said. The village and LIRR officials have met several times in recent months to discuss beautification of the station and the areas near the train tracks.

Since the removal of the trees, the village has obtained grant money to improve parking for the train station in lots on both sides of Main Street, in addition to funds garnered for business improvement projects just steps away from the train station.

“We’re seeking some sort of cooperation from the railroad,” Garant said in a phone interview. “We’ve been dealing with this and other issues for well over two years.”

Garant said the village now plans to plant six-foot tall Leyland cypress trees along the fence line on Highlands Boulevard overlooking the train tracks using unencumbered monies and will then ask the LIRR for restitution.

“I’m just going to get the job done; then I’m going to the railroad and ask for restitution — I can’t wait any longer,” she said.

Riley said she met with Caran Markson, village gardener, Garant and some other community members recently to secure plans for the project, which they hope will begin during April. Some of the other issues raised by the village regarding the look of the areas surrounding the tracks include crumbling walls bordering the tracks, rusted railings and insufficient fencing.