Doubling the Capacity of the LIRR

New Mezzanne at Grand Central for Long Island Railroad

I've looked at some of the big projects that are in the works on the Hudson side of Manhattan, like the new Hudson River Tunnels, the possible extension of passenger rail service back to Scranton and Binghamton, and New Jersey's innovative Transit Village town planning initiative. Another project that deserves more attention than it is getting is the $6 Billion East Side Access project that the MTA is undertaking currently and will be completed by 2013. This project will double the capacity and quality of rail transportation into New York from Long Island while reducing the overcrowding and the commute times of many people. It will also allow Long Island to redesign it's LIRR towns around increased rail service to NYC.

Map of New Tunnel Route into Grand Central

Many people think that this whole project is about adding a new stop on the way from Long Island to Penn Station. That is wrong. It provides a whole new tunnel for LIRR trains to cross the East River into Manhattan, thus doubling the number of trains (and passengers) that can enter Manhattan, which is a big deal, considering they already carry over 200,000 passengers into and out of NYC every weekday. This will also entice more customers to the LIRR that currently commute by car to East Side destinations because it will significantly lower their commuting times.

But what should be starting right now and I can't find much evidence of this yet, is for Long Island to start increasing the population density around and mass transit (bus, light rail, etc) link-ups to the existing LIRR stations such that most Long Islanders are not more than half a mile from a mass transit link to the LIRR. This should be a major priority for any truly regional transportation planning and use this added capacity as best possible.

East Side Access will certainly increase Manhattan-bound LIRR capacity, but I don't think it will do much to improve matters on Long Island itself. Both the Main Line and the Babylon Branch are pretty much at capacity during rush hour, with the Main Line having to run trains in peak direction on both tracks. The key improvement that is needed there is a third track from Queens Village to Hicksville, which would allow for more trains to run to fill that new East Side tunnel, and also for more reverse commute service and so on.
The other thing that the LIRR needs to do is expand electrification. It has done wonders for the Ronkonkoma Branch, so why not extend the benefits elsewhere? I think the top priority should probably be Port Jefferson, to be completed when the third track is, as that line has the highest level of diesel train service. Oyster Bay is another good candidate, as that branch is not doing very well, partly because diesel trains are slow and its route is not very direct.
Also, the LIRR could reclaim some of its abandoned lines, such as the West Hempstead-Country Life Press-Mineola connection for cross-island service, or use the right of way eastward from Garden City on the old main line.
But the real problem, I think, is not the LIRR service, which is pretty darn good for commuter rail. It is in getting people to the stations, which currently involves massive parking lots and lots of cars. And while there is a Long Island Bus, I think the MTA should seriously look into building streetcar lines, specifically to connect to LIRR stations, and reduce the demand for parking.
Thanks for the information crzwdjk. At the community board meeting I attended where they presented this, MTA predicted an immediate 50% capacity improvement and suggested that with some other improvements along the lines, they might be able to  increase it further to 100%.

Electrification, reviving old ROW, and trolley/streetcar services are all very good ideas. There are some very nice little towns left, but they lack the density to make public transport work in many places. They might want to massively rezone the area around the stations and try to build more dense communities around them.

Nassau County is built fairly densely, especially along the LIRR lines. And in this case, a lower density is needed because you just have to get everyone to the LIRR station, rather than getting them to various dispersed destinations. Even having smaller dispersed parking lots along the feeder trolley lines is better than the huge central parking lots at LIRR stations. And then the parking lot land could be put to good use, like the aforementioned rezoning.
gotcha - thanks for elaborating

I think the MTA should seriously look into building streetcar lines, specifically to connect to LIRR stations, and reduce the demand for parking.

The weakest link in the NYC metro area is the lack of good local transit systems in the suburbs. Light rail connections from suburban stations are the logical next step. Since light rail is not commuter rail and not subject to Federal Railroad Administration standards, it can be built more economically. Light rail also has the versatility of being able to leave a grade-separated right of way and access commercial and residential areas directly via streets and roads. The new light rail systems built elsewhere in North America function as a combination of rapid transit, commuter rail and streetcars. The best example is Portland, where light rail uses grade-separated right of way to get to the suburbs and then runs down the center of boulevards for the last few miles of suburbia. New Jersey Transit has built some light rail, but there is nothing in New York and Connecticut.

You've exposed the thread that, once pulled, reveals a whole host of complications viz. improving mass transit on LI. The third-track project is opposed by numerous local civic groups along the right of way, the members of which don't want to be displaced or inconvenienced by the project.

Electrification of the Oyster Bay line won't happen because many people on the line don't want it to happen. They are used to the commute, as long and inconvenient as it is. Electrifying the line will only make this part of the north shore more attractive, increasing the pressure to develop what's left as open space. As an aside, the local myth is that a chief muckity-muck of the LIRR lives in Mill Neck and done his best to prevent electrification, in addition to getting the Mill Neck rail station closed down (because it's near his house).

Making the OB line more attractive, or any LIRR station for that matter, is meaningless without addressing the parking situation. With few exceptions, parking is limited to the residents of the particular town where the station is located. Even then, parking lots are overcrowded. My knowledge is limited, but are there any multi-story parking garages serving LIRR stations anywhere? Such stations seem to be the norm in places like Montgomery Co., MD.

After talking with my neighbors and fellow commuters, I think the majority of people will fight tooth and nail any effort to improve mass transit if it means more development and more people. The phrase of the day is "I don't want to turn Nassau County in Queens. That's why I left the city." It's a sad situation and makes me think it's time to leave.

In addition to light rail, another potential bright spot is the use of commuter ferries, but these, too, raise the hackles of anyone who sees them as furthering the Queensification" of Nassau County.

There is a Harvard Professor whose name completely escapes me, who has revitalised urban economics.

Gleaser I think.  Edward Gleaser.

He has published pretty widely on this point.  Until 1970, US housing prices generally rose about with real incomes, housing didn't get more or less expensive over time (although mortgage financing became easier).  Taking the country as a whole.

Since then, there has been a noticeable split.  Basically on the coasts, housing prices have risen much, much faster than incomes-- especially Boston, SF-Bay Area, LA, NYC, Washington.

In the inlands, prices have continued to rise at about real incomes (the last 4-5 years have been crazy and one needs to discount those).  And so most population growth has been in Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Phoenix that have mushroomed in size.

Gleaser's analysis attributes 70-80% of that increase in real prices to NIMBY/ zoning controls.  Basically in places like Phoenix AZ, they just keep building new subdivisions.  And in the 1920s in NYC, townhouses were replaced with 12-20 story apartment buildings.

But what has happened in the 1980s and 90s in NYC is those Upper West Side apartment blocks have not been replaced by 50-60 story buildings.  Whereas in a City like Hong Kong, with the same space constraints and explosive growth, they have.

Needless to say the same pattern is reflected in Queens, and then again in Nassau County, Long Island etc.  The battle is being fought over the mayor's new development in downtown Brooklyn, and indeed they have reduced the size of the projected development (by about 8%).

I can't help but wonder, though, what would happen if they were to take that land in Brooklyn, divide it up and sell it to many different people, so you get the same amount of housing, but not built in one huge ugly city-excluding glob by the developer. I think to some extent the objections are not to the amount of housing but to the fact that it's all built as a single huge project by a single developer, as a self contained unit with no regard for the city around it.
I don't know enough about the local issues, but I agree the 'superblock' scale of the thing is part of what is so offputting (but also increases the achievable density).

If I look at other places (the Barbican complex here in London, the original WTC site) then the 'super block' has not been a successful concept.

Another thought.  With global warming, how much of LI is going to be safe from recurrent flooding/ submersion?  Global sea temperatures are certainly rising, and that means that when there are big hurricanes, the wind speed will be correspondingly greater, and the hurricanes can reach into higher latitudes.

It's certainly something to think about, long term.  Although some of the stuff coming out of Greenland about the ice cap melting, long term might be 10 years, not 30-50.

Not to take the thread too far off it's original point, but, you're right, there are other issues facing LI that are as serious as the transportation situation. Energy policy is completely screwed up, for example. The post on housing prices hits very close to home (no pun intended). There is no affordable housing. School budgets continue to climb.

Speaking as a Long Islander, I'd say we're like deer caught in the headlights. Few people seem willing or smart enough to start taking the steps to save ourselves. Instead, we fall back on survival instincts, trying to protect our own little pieces of turf.

I was specifically thinking about the desirability of moving/ not moving from LI.

I loved the movie 'Simple Men', which was set in LI.  Then I found out it was actually filmed in Dallas! ;-).

I haven't seen "Simple Men", but it's a little ironic that I'm considering a move to Texas (near Dallas). I read some reviews of "Simple Men" and I'm trying to figure out how they managed to film it in TX, unless it was all interior shots. Guess I'll have to see it.

Anyone...feel free to try and talk me out of it (moving to TX, that is). I don't really want to give up on LI.  

There are really only two cities in Texas. Dallas: and Houston:
I've done some "scouting" in the northeast Dallas area and saw the DART (althought I didn't get the chance to ride it). Considering their expansion plan, it looks very impressive, although I was told that the Trinity Express to Ft. Worth is very under-utilized (perhaps unnecessary?).

You can't beat the fares, at least compared to NYC/LI.

I wonder how "long" the DART planners' vision is. As some point, I think the needs develops to travel around the ring, rather than in and out of it.

You saw the Garland line, which opened in 2002.  It's supposed to be extended several miles to Rowlett in 2012.

The 27½-mile southeast-northeast line opens in 2010.  Another northwest line, actually west-northwest, should start running in 2011 and be completed in 2013.  

I don't know of any city that has a regional peripheral rail transit line.  Certainly not New York, Chicago or LA.  The only place I can think of where something like this is being built is the Petite Ceinture tramway around Paris.  The French are further ahead than anyone on transit development.

London has the North London Line which, while not technically rapid transit, has a level of service close to it with electric commuter trains running every 15 minutes or so. LA has a "suburb to suburb" commuter rail line, the Inland Empire-Orange County line of Metrolink, which is reasonably popular, for a commuter rail line anyway. And Washington is looking to build a suburb to suburb link between two rapid transit lines. And LA also has the Green Line, which is a fully grade separated rail line going from Norwalk to Redondo Beach, not passing through downtown, so I guess that can count as peripheral too.