Something was missing from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Janno Lieber and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) President Cathy Renaldi concerning the initiation of new LIRR services with the opening of the $12.6 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Madison on Feb. 27. All talked about the benefits of more trains stopping in Queens and a 40-percent increase in reverse and off peak services to Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. The reverse commute service increase for outbound trains in the morning peak rush and inbound trains to Manhattan in the afternoon rush are suppose to grow from the previous 81 to 134 weekday daily trips.
These benefits left out thousands of potential new LIRR customers who will continue to be left stranded in Hunters Point, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Elmhurst, Woodhaven and the Rockaway Queens communities unable to access these new services.
Why wasn't the promised Sunnyside Yards Queens station completed in time to support the opening of new $12.6 billion LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Madison service? Hochul, Lieber and Renaldi all forgot that in 1998, as part of the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access project, there was to be construction of a passenger station at Sunnyside Yard. It would have provided access to the growing neighborhood business and residential communities.
Fast forward 25 years, and the MTA never advertised and awarded a contract for the new Sunnyside Yard LIRR Station (that was to be built at Queens Boulevard and Skillman Avenue). No funding was included for this project within the $51 billion MTA 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. The next opportunity for funding would be under the upcoming MTA 2025 - 2029 Five Year Capital Plan. Just to start and complete construction could easily take five years.
A year ago, the previous estimated project was $400 million. The engineers estimated cost in coming years will only increase. Upon completion, the final project could grow even more based upon responses to bids, along with change orders during construction due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions. We now have to wait and see if this project will be considered as part of the MTA's 2024 - 2044 20 Year Capital Needs Plan. This document was promised to be released by October 2023.
Both Hunters Point and Long Island City continue to grow with thousands of new residents, businesses and office workers. The LIRR currently runs a handful of trains during morning rush hour in one direction westbound from Jamaica to Hunters Point and LIC and east bound in the afternoon rush hour. Why wasn't service added in both directions rush hour along with hourly off peak? The Hunters Point #7 subway station is just down the block from the LIRR Hunters Point Station. Two stops on the #7 in less than five minutes places you at Grand Central Terminal.
There are easy connections to both street level and the 42nd St. Lexington Avenue station #4,5 and 6 subway lines. Contrast that attempting to reach street level from LIRR Grand Central Madison Terminal - 15 stories below ground. It requires eight or more minutes upon arrival at GCM before you can access the 42nd Str Lexington Avenue Subway Station. The LIRR Long Island City station is within walking distance to both the #7 Flushing Vernon Boulevard. Jackson Avenue Station (one stop less than three minutes from Grand Central Terminal) and the LIC NYC Economic Development Corporation private ferry landing with connections to 34th St. and Pier 11 adjacent to Wall Street and the Financial District.
The Port Washington branch Elmhurst LIRR station in Queens closed in 1985. Reopening the old station involves first spending $4 million in 2016 for planning, environmental review, preliminary and final design activities. This would have been followed by initiation of construction in 2018 for $36 million. The new station was anticipated to be opened by the end of 2019. In 2017, the MTA added $3 billion ($1.95 billion for LIRR Main Line Third Track and $700 million for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2) to the $29 billion 2015 - 2019 Five Year Capital Program Plan bringing it up to $32 billion. Buried in this plan amendment was reprogramming $37 million originally allocated to support construction of the new Elmhurst LIRR Station to pay for other projects.
Only $3 million remained for preliminary design and environmental review. Restoration of $37 million to support final design and engineering along with construction to be completed by 2024 were promised to have been included within the $51 billion MTA 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. This never occurred.
Why not restore the $37 million necessary to rebuild this station? A LIRR station at this location would provide a new alternative for Elmhurst and other nearby residents. Should disruptions in service occur at either Woodside, Penn Station or Grand Central Madison, Port Washington branch LIRR customers would have the option to exit the Elmhurst Station and transfer to either the M or R subway lines at the adjacent NYC Transit subway station. Tickets are always cross honored in dealing with service disruptions between LIRR and New York City Transit (NYC Transit). There would be a second transfer opportunity to either the E, F or #7 subway lines one stop away at the 74th St. Jackson Heights - Roosevelt Avenue station.
There continues to remain a major service gap on the north shore Port Washington branch between Great Neck and Port Washington due to the single track operation during portions of rush hour service. There is no morning peak reverse service from Great Neck to Port Washington between 6:27 a.m. to 7:31 a.m. and 7:31 a.m. to 8:57 a.m. There is a similar evening reverse service gap from Port Washington to Great Neck between 5:27 p.m. to 6:10 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. to 7:11 p.m. in the evening reverse peak. Construction of a second Manhasset Viaduct, passing sidings or double tracking could have supported significant increases in reverse peak service opportunities east of Great Neck.
The Atlantic branch Woodhaven LIRR Station in Queens was closed in 1976. Why wasn't this still intact underground station reopened? It would require a minimum amount of work, including installation of elevators for compliance with Americans with Disability Act (ADA), new stairs, lighting and signal modifications to resume service. Restoration of this station versus Elmhurst would cost less since it doesn't need to be built from scratch. Limited stop bus service from the Rockaways could connect with the station providing new transportation options. Residents could take advantage of the new shuttle service between Jamaica and Flatbush Avenue Stations with stops in East N.Y. and Nostrand Avenue. There would be transfer opportunities to numerous NYC Transit subway at Jamaica, East N.Y. or Flatbush Avenue LIRR stations. Don't forget transfer opportunities to all other LIRR branches at Jamaica with the exception of the Port Washington branch.
Rockaway residents continue to be left out. Promised MTA discounted 24/7, $5.00 city tickets will not be available for those boarding at the Far Rockaway LIRR Station. It is not included in this program. For years, if not decades, the MTA and LIRR have failed to work with the State Legislature in resolving legal obstacles (the Far Rockaway branch runs through Nassau County before returning to NYC), which prevent Rockaway residents joining their neighbors from Woodside, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village, St. Albans, Locust Manor, Laurelton, Rosedale, Flushing, Murray Hill, Broadway, Auberndate, Bayside, Douglaston and Little Neck in obtaining this reduced fare.
There are thousands of potential new LIRR customers who would take advantage of increased frequent bidirectional services to both Hunters Point and LIC peak and off peak. Reopening the old Elmhurst Station, which closed in 1985, and Woodhaven Station, which closed in 1976, construction of a new Sunnyside station and offering Rockaway residents access to the Far Rockaway branch at the discounted City Zone tickets could do the same.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former Director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for NJ Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry and 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.