LIRR’s Third Track set to make its debut, 70 years later

After four years of construction — and about 70 years of planning and debate — the Long Island Rail Road’s $2.6 billion Third Track is set to go into service. The first section of the track, stretching from Queens Village to Merillon Avenue in Garden City, will debut during the Monday morning rush hour. Crews recently removed the temporary passenger platforms that were built on top of the new rails at the New Hyde Park and Merillon Avenue stations. The second section of the track — reaching to Carle Place — will open Aug. 29, officials said. New portions of the rail, which will stretch between Floral Park and Hicksville, will continue to be added until the entire 9.8-mile track is operational. MTA officials have said the Third Track has the potential to revolutionize transportation on Long Island by boosting capacity 50% along a bottleneck in the LIRR’s system. The track will allow the LIRR to run more trains, including in the opposite direction during rush hour to serve reverse commuters working on Long Island, and also more quickly recover from unexpected service disruptions. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said the project won’t reach “substantial completion” until April, because of “punch-list items” left to be done, including landscaping work and station improvements at some locations. The MTA is the LIRR’s parent organization. “For folks who are on the Main Line, in particular, this is a transformational moment,” MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said July 27, looking ahead to Monday’s opening. “And, for the MTA, proving that we can do megaprojects on time and on budget is also a big milestone.” Lieber said the Third Track, combined with other capacity expansion projects including East Side Access, will allow the LIRR to boost service by around 40% by year’s end. The service increase comes as LIRR ridership remains at around 60% of pre-COVID-19 levels. MTA officials said the effort is worthwhile because riders eventually will come back, and because the railroad already was running over capacity. The LIRR has been operating on the same two tracks through its Main Line in Nassau County since 1844, when Long Island’s population was about 50,000. Today, it’s nearly 3 million. The project’s step forward follows decades of studies, lawsuits and political battles over the Third Track, whose roots trace back to the 1940s, when a commission formed by Nassau to study the LIRR zeroed in on the need for an “express track” to address growing ridership. The MTA finally included funding for the Third Track in its 2005-09 Capital Program, but the effort immediately encountered resistance from communities along the project’s path, as well as their elected officials, who were concerned about plans to build on private property. In 2008, the MTA dropped the project. The Third Track remained shelved until then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, on the urging of several project supporters, including the Rauch Foundation, resuscitated it in 2016. The overhauled plan, which required no residential property takings and the elimination of eight grade crossings, was more palatable to local government leaders, many of whom threw their support behind the effort. Also helping win them over was a ”community benefits fund” that set aside millions of dollars to “support local initiatives intended to ensure community safety and quality of life.” Jack Martins, a former state senator and Mineola mayor who helped lead opposition efforts against earlier iterations of the Third Track, said the concerns raised by opponents led to the railroad coming up with a better plan. “The [original proposal] really came down to the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road saying, ‘This is good for the region. This is what we’re going to do, regardless of the impact to the local communities.’ I think in this last version, the railroad said, ‘We understand this is going to be impactful to you communities. How do we work together to make it happen?’ ” Martins said. “One by one, they were able to get buy-in from those communities.” But not everyone bought in. In Garden City, village officials and residents last year mounted a legal battle against the project, largely over the placement of utility poles near homes. The LIRR ultimately won the litigation, and now village officials and residents have shifted to trying to minimize the impact from the project, including from what they say is light and noise pollution from a renovated Merillon Avenue station. “We realized that fighting the MTA, fighting the Long Island Rail Road has basically been an exercise in futility, because you’re fighting the government, really. So I figured, let’s see if we can work with them,” said Garden City homeowner Bill Lucano, who believes project officials imposed their will on the community without considering the harm they were causing. “There’s not one resident that I talk to that says, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ . . . We’re just going to have to deal with it. But we’re never going to be happy,” Lucano said. Construction on the “LIRR Main Line Expansion Project,” or the Third Track, broke ground in 2018. Since then, private contractor 3TC has installed the 9.8 miles of new track, 7.5 miles of retaining and sound-reducing walls, replaced or modified seven bridges, and renovated six stations as part of the project. When the first passenger train travels on the new track Monday morning, on board will be David Kapell, a Rauch Foundation member and former Greenport mayor who pitched Cuomo on the Third Track at a chance hallway encounter seven years ago. “I’m going to feel like a kid in a toy store on Monday. For a kid who started out with electric trains as a youngster, this is such an exciting experience,” Kapell said. “The Third Track was first proposed the year I was born — 1949. To have it come about … is really an amazing testament to public resolve over the long run.” After four years of construction — and about 70 years of planning and debate — the Long Island Rail Road’s $2.6 billion Third Track is set to go into service. The first section of the track, stretching from Queens Village to Merillon Avenue in Garden City, will debut during the Monday morning rush hour. Crews recently removed the temporary passenger platforms that were built on top of the new rails at the New Hyde Park and Merillon Avenue stations. The second section of the track — reaching to Carle Place — will open Aug. 29, officials said. New portions of the rail, which will stretch between Floral Park and Hicksville, will continue to be added until the entire 9.8-mile track is operational. MTA officials have said the Third Track has the potential to revolutionize transportation on Long Island by boosting capacity 50% along a bottleneck in the LIRR’s system. The track will allow the LIRR to run more trains, including in the opposite direction during rush hour to serve reverse commuters working on Long Island, and also more quickly recover from unexpected service disruptions.
WHAT TO KNOW
The first section of the Long Island Rail Road’s Third Track will go into service during the Monday morning rush hour, stretching from Queens Village to Merillon Avenue station in Garden City. 
The LIRR expects to continue putting segments of the new rail in service in the coming months, until all 9.8 miles of new track are operational.
The debut of the Third Track follows decades of planning, debate and legal battles. After a plan was shelved in 2008 because of local opposition, the LIRR and then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came back in 2016 with a new proposal that focused on minimizing the impact on communities.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said the project won’t reach “substantial completion” until April, because of “punch-list items” left to be done, including landscaping work and station improvements at some locations. The MTA is the LIRR’s parent organization. “For folks who are on the Main Line, in particular, this is a transformational moment,” MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said July 27, looking ahead to Monday’s opening. “And, for the MTA, proving that we can do megaprojects on time and on budget is also a big milestone.” Lieber said the Third Track, combined with other capacity expansion projects including East Side Access, will allow the LIRR to boost service by around 40% by year’s end. The service increase comes as LIRR ridership remains at around 60% of pre-COVID-19 levels. MTA officials said the effort is worthwhile because riders eventually will come back, and because the railroad already was running over capacity. The LIRR has been operating on the same two tracks through its Main Line in Nassau County since 1844, when Long Island’s population was about 50,000. Today, it’s nearly 3 million. Beginning of construction: September 2018 Budget: $2.6 billionWhat’s completed so far?8 Grade crossing eliminations
7 Bridge replacements/modifications
6 Station enhancements
7 Interlocking reconstructions
9.8 Miles of track
6 Pedestrian overpasses and 15 ADA elevators
7.5 Miles of retaining/sound walls
Surviving decades of battles The project’s step forward follows decades of studies, lawsuits and political battles over the Third Track, whose roots trace back to the 1940s, when a commission formed by Nassau to study the LIRR zeroed in on the need for an “express track” to address growing ridership. The MTA finally included funding for the Third Track in its 2005-09 Capital Program, but the effort immediately encountered resistance from communities along the project’s path, as well as their elected officials, who were concerned about plans to build on private property. In 2008, the MTA dropped the project. The Third Track remained shelved until then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, on the urging of several project supporters, including the Rauch Foundation, resuscitated it in 2016. The overhauled plan, which required no residential property takings and the elimination of eight grade crossings, was more palatable to local government leaders, many of whom threw their support behind the effort. Also helping win them over was a ”community benefits fund” that set aside millions of dollars to “support local initiatives intended to ensure community safety and quality of life.” Jack Martins, a former state senator and Mineola mayor who helped lead opposition efforts against earlier iterations of the Third Track, said the concerns raised by opponents led to the railroad coming up with a better plan. “The [original proposal] really came down to the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road saying, ‘This is good for the region. This is what we’re going to do, regardless of the impact to the local communities.’ I think in this last version, the railroad said, ‘We understand this is going to be impactful to you communities. How do we work together to make it happen?’ ” Martins said. “One by one, they were able to get buy-in from those communities.” LIRR eventually won But not everyone bought in. In Garden City, village officials and residents last year mounted a legal battle against the project, largely over the placement of utility poles near homes. The LIRR ultimately won the litigation, and now village officials and residents have shifted to trying to minimize the impact from the project, including from what they say is light and noise pollution from a renovated Merillon Avenue station. “We realized that fighting the MTA, fighting the Long Island Rail Road has basically been an exercise in futility, because you’re fighting the government, really. So I figured, let’s see if we can work with them,” said Garden City homeowner Bill Lucano, who believes project officials imposed their will on the community without considering the harm they were causing. “There’s not one resident that I talk to that says, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ . . . We’re just going to have to deal with it. But we’re never going to be happy,” Lucano said. Construction on the “LIRR Main Line Expansion Project,” or the Third Track, broke ground in 2018. Since then, private contractor 3TC has installed the 9.8 miles of new track, 7.5 miles of retaining and sound-reducing walls, replaced or modified seven bridges, and renovated six stations as part of the project. When the first passenger train travels on the new track Monday morning, on board will be David Kapell, a Rauch Foundation member and former Greenport mayor who pitched Cuomo on the Third Track at a chance hallway encounter seven years ago. “I’m going to feel like a kid in a toy store on Monday. For a kid who started out with electric trains as a youngster, this is such an exciting experience,” Kapell said. “The Third Track was first proposed the year I was born — 1949. To have it come about … is really an amazing testament to public resolve over the long run.”
Alfonso Castillo has been reporting for Newsday since 1999 and covering the transportation beat since 2008. He grew up in the Bronx and Queens and now lives in Valley Stream with his wife and two sons.

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