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LIRR third track backers, critics weigh in at public meetings

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

This article first appeared in Newsday, written by Alfonso Castillo and William Murphy

Long Island residents and commuters concerned that the LIRR’s third-track proposal could negatively impact their lives faced off for the first time with project planners, as supporters touted its ability to improve rail service and the Island’s economy.

At four public hearings in Hempstead and New Hyde Park Tuesday, supporters and opponents of the $1 billion plan weighed in. Some said the project could drastically improve commutes and boost Long Island economically.

Others criticized the proposal as rushed, vague in details, and potentially catastrophic to the communities along its 9.8-mile corridor between Floral Park and Hicksville.

At a public hearing Tuesday night at The Inn at New Hyde Park, Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss urged officials to reveal more details “so we can make the proper assessment of the impact on our community.”

About 150 people attended the hearing, which ended just after 9 p.m. Mark Lesko, an executive dean at Hofstra University, said the addition of a third track was vital for the regional economy and for the school’s efforts to recruit quality students and faculty, particularly from New York City.

Earlier, nearly 300 people had packed the New Hyde Park meeting facility for a late-morning hearing that continued into the afternoon. New Hyde Park is among the most impacted communities along the project’s path with three railroad crossings down for elimination as part of the effort.

Lifelong village resident Kimberly Huemmer Kane, 54, whose grandparents settled there as potato farmers, questioned the need for the project, which aims, in part, to help so-called “reverse commuters” traveling to and from jobs on Long Island.

“I look into those trains and they’re empty. Empty!” she said.

Marybeth Ruscica, a resident of Floral Park for 25 years, agreed officials had not shown the need for a third track and that there had not been enough concern for local residents.

“As a lifelong resident of Long Island, I don’t want to be dictated to by Albany and Washington,” she said.

At the Hofstra hearing Tuesday morning, many of the fewer than two dozen attendees were members of business, planning and transportation advocacy groups in favor of the Long Island Rail Road expansion plan.

LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski told reporters at the hearing that he understood some communities’ concerns about the project and promised “unprecedented outreach” from state and LIRR officials to address them.

He acknowledged that everyone is waiting to see the final design.

“I don’t have that yet. We will have that, but part of developing that is getting community input in this project,” Nowakowski said. “This is one step in a long process. This is not the end of the process. This is the beginning of the process.”

Ryan Stanton, political director for the 250,000-member Long Island Federation of Labor, said a third track would be a boon for the region and its workers, and he urged islandwide cooperation.

“We firmly believe that those most closely impacted need to be engaged throughout this process,” he told the Hofstra audience.

Jennifer Casey, elected chairwoman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission in February, said the benefits of the project “would far outweigh the inconveniences.”

“A third track is needed to grow the economy,” she said Tuesday morning.

The hearings, which include two more Wednesday in Westbury and Hicksville, are part of the initial “scoping” phase of the project. Officials said the input gathered at the hearings will be used to guide a forthcoming environmental study that is expected to be completed in the fall. Further public hearings will be held after the study’s release.

Some opponents of a third track said the planning efforts so far did not give them faith that their opinions are valued. They questioned the logic of holding three of the hearings on weekday mornings, when most commuters and community residents are at work, and two of them in Hempstead — not one of the communities along the project’s corridor.

“I understand that you want to expand, which is great. But you should hear from people whose backyard is the Long Island Rail Road,” said Robert Delapazz, 40, of Mineola, who took the day off work to attend the morning Hofstra hearing. “I feel like you have to hear from the little guy who actually has to live through all this.”

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said that while the impact to communities should be taken into consideration, expanding the LIRR, which set a modern ridership record of 87.6 million last year, is crucial.

“You may ask, ‘What’s so bad about the current rail service?’ Well, if you ask that, you’re clearly not a regular commuter on the Long Island Rail Road,” Epstein said. “We must take advantage of this opportunity. The commuters of Long Island, who we represent, need this project.”

Click here for the full statement from the Long Island Federation of Labor.