Mayors cite unfinished business
The Long Island Rail Road Expansion Project was necessary and overdue, transit experts and elected officials asserted.
The $2.6 billion infrastructure venture laid down a 9.8-mile third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, replaced a number of bridges, erected new station houses, added parking garages and eliminated grade crossings.
Long range, according to a press release, “[it gives] the railroad more operational flexibility to minimize service disruptions and increase service by 41 percent systemwide when Grand Central Madison opens later this year, while improving safety and creating true bi-directional LIRR service to fuel the local economy.”
But its scope inevitably caused inconvenience and pain, especially to residents who lived within the railroad’s right of way. Community ambassadors were put in place to interface between contractors 3TC, the MTA and the community. They received a plethora of complaints, from noise, to lighting, to parking and congestion, to privacy concerns and even to aesthetics.
So when Governor Kathy Hochul visited Westbury early in October to celebrate what she called “the on time and under budget” completion of the project, there were some voices of dissent.
One was Mineola Mayor Paul A. Pereira, who looked askance at the governor standing behind a podium that read “LIRR Third Track Project Complete,” writing, “I and my village’s 20,000 residents can see that the project is far from complete at the Mineola train station. I understand that it is campaign season and that there is an election in four weeks, however, words and statements matter. To state that the project is completed is a slap in the face to the residents who have had to put up with the mess and inconvenience of all of the construction and to our constituents who utilize this station every day who still have to deal with closures, delays and construction obstacles.”
Anticipating objections, Pereira added, “The governor’s representatives might say that there is a distinction between the ‘Third Track Project’ and the greater ‘LIRR Main Line Expansion Project,’ but to the layman, that is semantics. The average resident and commuter cannot tell the difference between the two and it is unfair to assume that they would. I would encourage the governor to come to the Mineola train station and the surrounding area to see for herself what our residents have been through and continue to deal with on a daily basis. No community on the main line has been inconvenienced more and for longer than the Village of Mineola. The truth is, the project is far from complete.”
Floral Park Mayor Kevin Fitzgerald wrote in his report of a recent board meeting, “Please be advised that the village realizes that there are final phases that remain to be completed on the main line and a number of issues that affect the residents of Floral Park that still need to be resolved. I assure you that the village will continue to address all of the issues proactively and as they arise.”
Floral Park Administrator/Treasurer Gerard M. Bambrick told the Nassau Illustrated News, “We have a long list of items ranging from the normal punch list items to things that need to be completed throughout the village. They are 95 percent done, but not completely done. We’ve given them the list and they said they’re going to respond.”
Bambrick said the village strongly disagreed with some peripheral aspects of the project and are working with the MTA/3TC to address them.
“It’s a big project and like any construction project you’re going to butt heads,” he said. “We’ve always managed to resolve the issues and hopefully we’ll be able to resolve these issues. I’m not trying to put a negative spin on things because we work well with them, but there are issues that we think are significant and we don’t want to walk away until we resolve them.”
Bambrick said the village has a contact person with 3TC and two with the MTA and every month there’s a meeting with the project team leadership along with authorities having jurisdiction. He characterized the meeting as helpful.
He noted that at the end of the protracted environmental review process, Floral Park spent a long time coming up with a memorandum of understanding “that laid out a good plan on how they were to proceed. It was the basis for the other MOUs along the way.”
Garden City Mayor Cosmo Veneziale declined to comment when reached by the Illustrated News. The village sued the MTA two years ago because it erected 120-foot-tall utility poles at the Merillon Street Station. The village claimed the poles were not in the contract. It also sought to delay permits for the agency to replace the Denton Avenue Bridge, endangering the contractual obligation to finish the project by December 2022. A court ruled in favor of the MTA and the bridge replacement was completed this past May.
In a statement on the village website last year, the mayor said that “throughout the design and construction phases of the project, the MTA repeatedly misled local municipalities and residents affected, and ignored their obligations imposed by law.”
New Hyde Park Mayor Christopher Devane said, “There is plenty of work still left to do. 3TC has suddenly become unresponsive to our outstanding issues. There was lots of pomp and circumstance surrounding the governor’s victory lap. However, the residents have borne all the burdens and we will not allow 3TC, the MTA and the LIRR to leave without fulfilling their promises.”
Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro hosted the governor at the new parking garage fronting the village’s railroad station, and Hochul thanked Cavallaro “for really breaking down the barriers and sort of the human reaction where people are opposed change. They don’t understand it, they don’t welcome change, and you have really been a visionary to make sure that people here on Long Island benefit from projects like these. But also I commend you for being a leader in projects like transit-oriented development, building over 200 homes for people right here, so you don’t need a car, you can live here, take the trains in. And I want to thank you for doing that as well.”
At the Oct. 6 Westbury Board of Trustees meeting, Cavallaro noted that the governor was careful to distinguish between the third track, which was complete, with the project overall, adding there was still peripheral work to be done at the Westbury station. He expected the vast majority to be completed by the end of this year.
“From my perspective and from our residents’ perspective, I can’t wait till it’s completely done [to end] all the disruption that we see,” he stated.
Asked if he had any issues with the MTA/3TC, Cavallaro replied, “I’ll say something which other mayors may not like, but I’ve had very few complaints with the way the project was conducted. Generally, 3TC was very good at responding to reminder issues and our concerns. Periodically, the response would be delayed and we’d have to follow up and press for resolutions. But in the end, issues were typically resolved fairly quickly and satisfactorily.”
“We had some bumps along the way, and we’ve had some shouting matches with them when we had to,” Cavallaro admitted, but added that the benefits outweighed the negative impacts, and as a taxpayer himself appreciated that it came in under budget.
“I know there were some communities that had a worse experience than we had,” Cavallaro observed. “I know Mineola is having a tough time with the parking garage and some of the other things that are going on. Garden City said they were lied to in terms of the way [the project] unfolded. Now, I’m not one of the people who lives right on the tracks so I might not have a direct impact, and I don’t want to diminish their experience, but I think you need to be objective about it. The preponderance of the result was very beneficial to the [region].”
In addition to the new parking garage, the elimination of the grade crossing at School Street and the street plaza created next to the train station, Westbury was able to secure funding for new equipment for its DPW. Additionally, both Railroad Avenue and Scally Place would be paved at MTA expense because construction activities led to their deterioration. Cavallaro estimated that the village benefited to the tune of $200 million from the project.