3rd track gets OK from state Senate GOP leader

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A Long Island Rail Road train pulls into the East Williston station on the Oyster Bay branch. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

The Republican state Senate leader agreed to fund the Long Island Rail Road’s third track project on Tuesday, removing a major political roadblock for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said he is satisfied with the MTA’s plans to assuage any potential harm to communities along the project’s 9.8-mile corridor and to upgrade existing railroad infrastructure, including aging signals at Penn Station.

Flanagan previously threatened to block $1.95 billion in funding for the project, forcing the MTA to withdraw and resubmit on June 30 an amendment to its 2015-2019 Capital Program that contained the money.

I’m pleased that communities impacted by the proposed ‘third track’ will receive the safety and quality-of-life upgrades they have said were critical,” Flanagan said in a statement on Tuesday. “… There is more work to be done to ensure Long Island Rail Road commuters have the short-and-long-term transit fixes they need and deserve, and it is my hope that Senate Republicans can be part of the solution.”

Flanagan’s approval means Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) will not use his vote on the four-member Capital Program Review Board to veto the funding. The state Assembly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also have representatives on the board.

Flanagan threatened to order a veto on the same day that the mayors of New Hyde Park and Floral Park, two of the projects most outspoken critics, said they reached agreements with the MTA that would protect their communities during construction.

The mayors, Lawrence Montreuil of New Hyde Park and Dominick Longobardi of Floral Park, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on Wednesday.

In addition to building a third track on the LIRR’s Main Line from Floral Park to Hicksville, the project will add commuter parking garages, eliminate seven street-level railroad crossings and build noise-reduction walls.

The plans also include upgrades to the LIRR’s signal system and other infrastructure improvements.

Flanagan’s announcement followed criticism last week from Nassau County Democrats, who panned Flanagan for holding up a project they called crucial to the LIRR’s future. In doing so they sided with Cuomo, who unveiled the project in January 2016.

It also comes as Amtrak begins repairs this week on its tracks at Penn Station, causing major LIRR schedule changes and disruptions for commuters.

Veronique Hakim, the MTA’s new executive director, called Flanagan’s approval a “positive outcome” in the midst of those repairs.

“[T]he lesson is an important one: we must modernize the Long Island Rail Road now before service deteriorates,” Hakim said in a statement.

State Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill), who had praised the moves to delay a decision on the third track’s funding, said she still has “serious concerns” about the project’s impact on local residents. The MTA should instead prioritize fixes that return the railroad system to a “state of good repair,” she said.

“I strongly believe the MTA must strike an appropriate balance between fixing the problems responsible for the derailments, disruptions and delays that LIRR commuters have experienced and making the strategic investments necessary to facilitate the region’s continued growth,” Phillips said in a statement.

Many residents of Floral Park and New Hyde Park remain critical of the project. Some have criticized the MTA’s agreements with the mayors as attempts to buy them off to earn their support.

Nadia Holubnyczyj-Ortiz, a Floral Park civic activist, said her village officials should have more aggressively threatened a lawsuit to halt the project and negotiated with the MTA as a backup plan.

“They didn’t even fight,” Holubnyczyj-Ortiz said.

Flanagan’s approval drew praise, though, from the Right Track for Long Island Coalition, a collection of labor unions, business groups, nonprofits and other institutions and people that have pushed for the third track, often alongside Cuomo.

Kevin Law, the coalition’s co-chairman and the president of the Long Island Association business group, said the project “will help catalyze a new level of prosperity for Long Islanders.”

“Today’s victory was a long time coming, but we are grateful to every local leader and elected official that came to the table and ultimately did the right thing for their constituents, our neighbors and the entire region,” Law said in a statement Tuesday.

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