LIRR says record ridership shows need for reverse commute, 3rd track

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A Long Island Rail Road train pulls into the Great Neck station. (Photo by Adam Lidgett)

Most of the record number of Long Island Rail Road trips commuters took last year were headed west into New York City, but more and more commuters want take the train east to the Island, according to numbers the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released Monday.

The LIRR maintained its status as the nation’s busiest commuter railroad in 2016, increasing its ridership 1.9 percent to 89.3 million customers, the most since 1949, the MTA said.

Some 79 percent of weekday rush-hour trips were bound for workplaces in Manhattan or other destinations west of the Nassau County line, according to MTA data, and 11 percent were headed east for work or other reasons.

Combined with changes in how young workers get to work, that bolsters the need for major upgrades to the LIRR’s infrastructure, transit officials say, including a controversial third track along a key stretch of its Main Line.

“There is an intrinsic demand for reverse-peak travel to the Island that today is very difficult for the LIRR to accommodate as a two-track railroad,” LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said in a statement. “This data shows that if and when the Main Line is expanded to a third track, our reverse-commute service would fill an immediate unmet need.”

The LIRR has seen ridership grow an average of 1.9 percent annually in the past five years, from a total of 81 million customers in 2011, the MTA said.

That trend will likely continue, as fewer millennial commuters born between 1981 and 1997 have cars than their older counterparts, making them more likely to “opt for the railroad as a matter of choice,” William Wheeler, the MTA’s director of planning, said in a statement.

“We know that habits that are developed early in one’s adult life tend to stick with them through their entire working lives,” Wheeler said. “So the trend bodes well as a long-term positive for LIRR ridership.”

The number of commuters traveling to Long Island from New York City increased 43 percent between 1980 and 1990, but fell 8.3 percent to 79,981 between 1990 and 2013, according to a 2015 analysis of U.S. Census data by the Long Island Association, the region’s largest business group.

The association’s analysis argues that a lack of trains going the opposite direction of most commuters — east in the morning and west in the evening — contributed to that decrease.

The LIRR wants to build a third track along 9.8 miles of its Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville, which would create more reverse-commute capacity by opening a lane for off-peak trains.

This is appealing to business leaders and public officials aiming to build commerce on Long Island, who say a third track is necessary to draw young, highly skilled workers.

The LIRR projects reverse-peak ridership between Floral Park and Hicksville would increase 60 percent by 2040 if the third track is built, according to the draft environmental impact statement for the project. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council projects Long Island will add 135,500 jobs in the same time period.

But opponents of the third track in Floral Park, New Hyde Park and Mineola have remained highly skeptical of the reverse commute as a justification for a project that they say would irreparably damage their quality of life.

Opponents worry about traffic and noise problems caused by construction in the short term and changes to railroad service and traffic patterns in the long term.

Many have cited anecdotes of seeing mostly empty eastbound trains during the day. Others have pointed to the relative lack of industrial centers on Long Island that would draw workers from New York City.

The third track would do nothing to resolve the lack of transportation for commuters between the LIRR and their Long Island jobs, New Hyde Park Mayor Robert Lofaro said.

Long Island “will continue to be a personal vehicle island because once a train delivers a passenger to a station, there are no other reliable and affordable means of transportation to get them to a place of business,” Lofaro said in a text message.

Brigid McGlynn, a millennial who lives near the railroad in Floral Park, said she drives to her job in Brooklyn because she would rather not deal with the railroad’s bad service.

“Due to the delays, due to the nonsense that happens, I drive to work every day, and I do not want to really see this expansion project happening if it’s going to be affecting the safety” near her home, McGlynn said at a Jan. 19 public hearing on the project.

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