Unprecedented Coalition Backs Governor Cuomo's LIRR Expansion Project

An unprecedented coalition has formed in support of Governor Andrew Cuomo's Long Island Rail Road Expansion Project. The Right Track for Long Island Coalition brings together an extraordinary group of leaders from both Nassau and Suffolk counties: business and labor organizations; academic and research institutions; businesses, large and small; nonprofit organizations advocating for the environment, affordable housing, and social justice; foundations and other leaders.

They have come together to a degree not previously seen on Long Island, because of the importance of Governor Cuomo's LIRR Expansion Project to the economic future of the region. The Project would remove a major bottleneck on the LIRR Main Line by constructing a third track alongside the existing two tracks, originally laid in the 19th century, between Floral Park and Hicksville, where four branches of the rail road now converge.

That bottleneck leads to frequent delays and prevents adequate reverse commuting, thereby obstructing the economic growth that Long Island would otherwise be enjoying. Businesses are locating elsewhere rather than dealing with infrequent or unreliable public transportation; housing development in transit-oriented downtowns, which young Long Islanders especially favor, is undercut, and young people are leaving Long Island as a result.

According to the Long Island Index, published by the Rauch Foundation, in the last 15 years Long Island's population between the ages of 18 and 34 dropped 16 percent. A recent survey reveals further that 72 percent of young Long Islanders are likely to leave the area by 2020.

In the 21st century, Long Island's economy can no longer depend on the same two tracks of the Main Line, which were constructed to transport people and freight between New York City and Boston via steamboat connection in Greenport at the northeast tip of Long Island. At that time, the population of Long Island was less than 100,000; today, it is 3 million.

The LIRR Expansion Project will take Long Island's rail infrastructure into the 21st century. In doing so, it will enable the region to become more competitive and attractive for young people and new companies.

At the inaugural gathering of the coalition, Governor Cuomo eliminated the two major obstacles that have prevented construction of the third track in the past. He announced that LIRR officials had re-evaluated earlier plans and could now construct the entire expansion within the existing right-of-way. As a result, the expansion will not require any residential property acquisitions. Earlier plans would have impacted anywhere from 20 to hundreds of homes.

Governor Cuomo also announced that he would work with elected officials in the impacted communities along the affected corridor to remove the seven at-grade intersections that currently cause major traffic jams when trains pass through town. By either raising or lowering the train tracks to remove the intersections, car traffic will be allowed to flow freely, enhancing travel in those communities, reducing air pollution, improving public safety, and increasing access to stores downtown.

The Governor's two announcements are dramatic enhancements that build new momentum for the Expansion Project. They underscore the enormous importance of his personal involvement and leadership in advancing this Project. The Project has been around in one form or another for 30 years, but the prospect of residential acquisitions and increased train traffic on the at-grade intersections had left it dormant.

The Long Island Association and the Rauch Foundation, where I am President, started laying the groundwork several years ago for a renewed push for this LIRR expansion. Two studies by the Long Island Index underscored the regional benefits of the expansion: "The Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the Long Island Rail Road Main Line Third Track" and "How the Long Island Rail Road Could Shape the Next Economy." And a task force that Kevin Law, President of the Long Island Association, and I created foreshadowed the new coalition. The new coalition is co-chaired by Kevin Law and Dave Kapell, a former Mayor of Greenport and now a consultant to the Rauch Foundation.

The data from the Long Island Index reveals that, while a third track is being built, 2250 construction jobs will be created, $910 million in cumulative personal income will be generated, and $910 million in cumulative Gross Regional Product will be created. Ten years after the project is completed, 14,000 new jobs will have been created; 35,000 new residents (almost 40% of whom would be 25-44 years old) will have been added, along with $40 million in sales tax revenue, $103 million in property tax revenue, $3 billion in personal income, and $5.6 billion in Gross Regional Product.

Governor Cuomo has instructed the MTA and LIRR to move quickly to activate the Project, starting with expedited redesign and environmental review and close collaboration with impacted communities to minimize the impacts and maximize local benefits as much as possible. That's the greatest news for Long Island's struggling economy in a long time.

With Long Island's close proximity to New York City and all of the regional strengths and world-renowned amenities that the island offers, Long Island's economy should be thriving. Opening the bottleneck in public transportation will uncork the economic momentum on which Long Island's future depends.

That's the goal of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition. And the coalition will now work locally and regionally to build support for this extraordinary opportunity that Governor Cuomo has made real for all Long Islanders. It's an opportunity that Long Island cannot afford to miss.

Nancy Rauch Douzinas is President of the Rauch Foundation.