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Helena Williams, Pres. LIRR
May 8, 2009 @ 12:00 am EDT
Reflecting its concern with island-wide issues, Chairman Ernie Fazio today announced that LIMBA is updating the words behind the acronym. LIMBA, henceforth will be known as Long Island Metro Business Action. Having grown beyond its initial mandate, it is time for the organization to adopt a more suitable moniker for its mission. In keeping with this theme, our speaker this morning was the formidable, yet personable Helena Williams, President of the Long Island Rail Road, since 2007. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, the LIRR has been bringing passengers to and fro on Long Island, and connecting it to the rest of these United States, for a hundred and seventy-five years. Helena came to give us an update on the LIRR and MTA’s situation and vision for the future. Happily this was her second consecutive! visit to LIMBA in her current position.
Whenever an LIRR president comes to speak at LIMBA, something always happens, either within the Rail Road, or its parent agency. Today was no exception, Helena speaking before us on the morning after MTA Executive Director Lee Sandler’s resignation. Usually, it’s a change in management at the LIRR, fortunately for us and wisely for the Rail Road, Helena is still batting cleanup there. Her update began with a review of the LIRR’s operating metrics, proudly pointing out the all-time record performance of 96.65% of trains arriving on time for April of 2009. The LIRR also carried a record amount of passengers in 2008, 87.4 million riders. The economic downturn has reduced those numbers recently, weekend and off-peak ridership declining by 7% from the same period last year. Customer satisfaction continues to be important with an emphasis on staff responding to customers with a courteous and efficient demeanor.
The big news was a snapshot of recent events at the MTA, with the agency’s largest source of revenue, the Mortgage Recording Tax, tanking to the tune of $230MM. Helena described the work of the Ravitch commission, and its recommendations, defending the choice of the most palatable of bad medicines, the payroll tax. Illustrating the choices between East River tolls and the payroll tax, the tolls were a non-starter. As painful as the payroll tax is, it is a necessary evil to get the MTA back on a sound financial footing.
In this environment, the LIRR faces enormous challenges to keep up it’s record setting performance, neatly segueing into a description of the next 5 year capital plan, which right now is only funded for two years. It is extremely important to keep the capital program going to upgrade the railroad so it can meet the vision of the future by replacing components like the 1910 vintage switch control system at Jamaica. This vision revolves around East Side Access, the ambitious plan to bring the LIRR into Commodore Vanderbilt’s magnificent Grand Central Terminal. Several capital projects support that vision:
Main Line Corridor third track
- Double tracking between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma
- Jamaica Throughput improvements and platform extensions
- New Yards/ Electrification
- Fleet Expansion with M9 cars
Given the state of the capital plan, the best projects to move that vision along are the Jamaica improvements and double tracking the stretch between Route 110 and Ronkonkoma’s Long Island MacArthur Airport. Double track will improve the situation at both ends of the corridor and in between. Besides removing the obvious bottleneck that a single track brings, doubling the rails enables reverse commuting, and perhaps reopening the Republic station at Rt.110, creating the Wyandanch intermodal project and supporting Central Islip’s Heartland development. The initial electrification between Hicksville and Ronkonkoma, completed in 1986, was planned with double track in mind, so the track just needs to be built, the rights of way are already in possession, and the electrical system was built to handle the second track. This project provides the most bang for the buck, able to be implemented re! latively quickly, and with little controversy. Still expensive at $450 MM, this represents an expense of $36 million/mile with 12.6 miles remaining to be double tracked.
Helena and her staff have been working with local, state, and the federal government to develop these plans and obtain funding for them in these challenging times. Closing her remarks with an exhortation for us to share the vision of the LIRR as an engine of growth and vitality for the region, she provides a welcome optimistic viewpoint tempered with the pragmatism necessary for these times.
The Q and A was once again insightful, and valuable. LIMBA provides the opportunity to interact with the movers and shakers of the region on an intimate basis, no better way to spend a Friday morning, we always learn something.
A question was asked about whether the 3rd track on the main line would help move freight on the island, and her response was that the best way to increase freight on Long Island was to remove the bottleneck of crossing the Hudson River somehow. There are several plans afoot to improve this, from the long awaited cross harbor tunnel, to improvements on the cross harbor carfloat operation.
Competition in car building came up, and Helena reported that Korean firms were beginning to enter the market to compete with Kawasaki and Bombardier, the two existing suppliers.
The stimulus program came up, and Helena was somewhat dismayed that High Speed Rail, instead of Commuter Rail was getting the focus, but still happy about Rail travel getting attention.
The Q and A ended with more of a statement than a question. We have to keep the focus on mass transit so that we keep the region competitive. There are two important supports for economic development among many. Telecommunications and Transportation to move people easily and efficiently. Both these supports need to be accessible and affordable to the general population. San Francisco’s BART and Dallas’ DART are good examples of putting federal funds to work in supporting that vision.
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