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LIRRCC Op-Ed calls for investment in transportation infrastructure

Newsday, May 4, 2012

Time to give LI commuters their due
Bolstering Island’s transit infrastructure is essential to economic development

By Mark Epstein

Next week could be a pivotal one for Long Island Rail Road commuters and our future economy. That’s when the new chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority visits the Island and the next round of the state Regional Economic Development Council’s competition begins.

As MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota speaks with Long Island’s business community on Tuesday, we call upon the agency to reach out to our business, civic, academic, commuter advocate and elected leaders to ensure that Long Island has the transportation infrastructure needed to compete in our modern economy. These leaders must respond with creative means to accomplish this goal.

No one entity can do it alone. Funding through the Regional Economic Development Council process has been and must continue to be a catalyst for improvements. Private station-area development and public-private partnerships can build the community structure necessary for success. Commuters play a crucial but often overlooked role in the local economy, as more than 100,000 daily LIRR riders (with household incomes averaging $118,000) support businesses and pay taxes to fund services and amenities for Long Island.

Our future is increasingly dependent on attracting high value, technologically advanced, sustainable economic activity. We lack the efficient mass transit system we’ll need for this activity to thrive and attract the people who will power it.

Commuting eastward on the LIRR is inconvenient at best. Systemwide, station facilities have failed to keep pace with needs, and links between stations and Long Island employment centers are minimal or nonexistent. Insufficient parking and fragmented control of parking facilities demand Island-wide approaches.

We must also fully appreciate the economic importance of visitors. Convenient rail transportation for tourists to places like the East End, Garden City Museum Row, Vanderbilt Museum, Nassau Coliseum, and other sports and cultural venues would be a boon for the Long Island economy, but is not available.

Our transportation infrastructure will lay the groundwork for an economically vibrant Long Island and make it more attractive to younger workers. According to Census data, between 1990 and 2010 Long Island lost more than 120,000 residents between 25 and 34 years of age, the backbone of our future economy. We need to make it easier for these young workers to build their lives here, and a vibrant public transportation system is a crucial part of that.

Working together, we can build a modern, reliable, and flexible transportation network – just as communities across the United States are doing – and reverse these trends. The key is leveraging existing assets to build our network through partnerships between various levels of government, academic institutions, business and nonprofit organizations, and using public-private ventures to craft innovative solutions to problems such as insufficient parking and underutilized facilities to generate new revenues to support operating needs.

Our economy has grown beyond just carrying workers to and from New York City. We travel to work each day to the east, north, and south as well as the west. We need upgraded signals and sufficient Main Line capacity to move riders in two directions at the same time, facilitating reverse and intra-Island commuting. Stations must be both origins and destinations for commuters, nodes for north-south connections, links to employment centers and integral parts of their communities.

We can’t miss this opportunity. There are positive signs in Ronkonkoma and Wyandanch, as well as plans for LIRR trains to access Grand Central Station. Construction of the Ronkonkoma to Farmingdale second track should reopen the door for the Republic train station and a Route 110 transit hub. But it’s not enough. Let’s come together, recognizing the commuters’ role, to implement a shared comprehensive transportation vision for our future.

Mark J. Epstein is chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council, a legislatively mandated watchdog group
made up of riders