When it comes to taking credit for completion of the ongoing Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) double tracking electrification project between Farmingdale and Ronkokoma one year ahead of schedule, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ghost speech writer clearly did not do his or her homework. They missed the fact that electrification for the Ronkonkoma branch dates back to the 1980s.
Completion of the Ronkokoma branch of LIRR double tracking will cost $387 million. Double tracking from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma was part of the original scope of work for electrification of the Ronkonkoma branch, which was completed in December 1987. To save the project due to insufficient funding, double tracking was dropped in favor of single track electrification and passing sidings. The project will not be completed one year early as Cuomo boasted, but rather 31 years late. As part of the project, there is also no reopened Republic Airport LIRR station. This has also been promised for decades.
Completion of double tracking on the Ronkonkoma line with introduction of 30-minute off-peak service by December 2018 will add two dozen or more trains each day operating on the main line. There will be no increase in rush hour service on the Ronkonkoma branch with the exception of some limited reverse peak trains. Without finishing the main line third track by December 2022, along with East Side Access by December 2023, there is no room at Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal for additional Ronkonkoma rush hour trains until 2024. There is no capacity on the existing main line between Floral Park and Hicksville to accommodate any additional rush hour trains on the Ronkonkoma branch.
Rush hour capacity can only be increased by construction of the $2.6 billion ongoing project. Penn Station has been operating at 100 percent capacity for decades. Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Metro North also have competing long term plans to increase Penn Station service. The LIRR has to find space for new rush hour service to the Islanders arena at Belmont Park, connecting LaGuardia Air Train at Mets Willets Point and reverse peak services just to name a few.
There is a direct relationship between completion of the $2.6 billion main line third track and $11.8 billion LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal. According to the MTA-Federal Transit Administration Amended Full Funding Grant Agreement, this could end up closer to $12 billion. Without a third track, the LIRR will not be able to achieve 100 percent utilization of Grand Central Terminal East Side Access. The original East Side Access environmental document promised 24 trains per hour during peak service periods.
This would supplement 42 trains per hour during peak service periods to Penn Station. There is insufficient capacity for feeding westbound morning rush hour and eastbound evening rush hour trains from both Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal with only two main line tracks. The third track is also needed for reverse commuter service, trains returning east in the morning and west in the evening to make additional rush hour trips and non-revenue train movements.
When it comes to paying for all his promises, Cuomo reminds me of Wimpy who famously said, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Long Island taxpayers and LIRR riders should be prepared to stand by for higher fares, taxes, more debt and borrowing in coming years to cover the costs for all of Cuomo’s $100 billion worth of transportation promises.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.