Transportation issues – letter from Hank Boerner

The East Enders (operating through the Five Towns transportation organization) are on to the real solutions. Rail and rail-bus technologies offer real solutions for relieving traffic, lowering carbon emissions, providing economic and convenient transportation for residents and workers, addressing some parts of the affordable housing crisis (employees can be moved to now inaccessible areas where housing can be constructed or rehabbed, such as in downtown Riverhead, where the town is attempting to create semi-urban housing).

We cannot and should not rip up the existing rails beyond the key commuting points, either literally (removing the track) or, figuratively, by shriveling or totally abandoning service. (For example, the rails beyond Ronkonkoma to Greenport should be maintained, not neglected, and never allowed to be ripped up.)

Over the long-term, public transportation is an important element in achieving more energy independence and in economic development for Suffolk County (including keeping jobs and business already here). 

Think about the present and future importance of railroad and highway transportation hubs such as —

Port Jefferson

Ronkonkoma (rail, road and air)

Babylon (electric service) – then on to Patchogue – then beyond to Speonk

Riverhead (county seat, sitting at the confluence of the forks)

The pioneers of the Long Island Road – founded 1835! – understood the importance of hub and spoke transportation with rail as the main component.  There were main lines to the above hubs (from Brooklyn through Jamaica and Penn Station through Jamaica out to Riverhead, etc.) and trolley lines and short-service branch lines running all over Long Island.  Before the automobile dramatically changed things, and, in a relatively short period of time. 

Before rail, water transport and stage coach lines linked isolated settlements – Port Washington, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, Greenport, etc.  Railroad changed everything and shaped the present day face of Long Island.  

The LIRR for decades was one of the most effective, diverse, economic and customer-focused rail transport systems in the nation.  There is a Brookhaven National Lab because before that there was a Camp Upton (Yaphank) training soldiers for WW I and WW II.  There was an Upton because of LIRR service and available land in Brookhaven Township’s center.  There was a mighty agricultural region from East Meadow to East Marion because the LIRR carried produce to the city center and western markets overnight.  (In 1920, 120,000 carloads of produce was carried east to west!)
If we accept the status quo – if we don’t use what now exists in rail transport infrastructure – future generations can rightfully say:  Shame on them in the early years of the 21st Century.  LIMBA can make things happen!

Many decades ago, at the start of the 20th Century, when the LIRR became a division of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, the plans were to extend frequent electric and daily commuting service from the Jamaica, Penn Station and Brooklyn terminals all the way to Port Jeff, Ronkonkoma and Patchogue.

The Great Depression killed that off these plans (after 1930) and after WW II, the great Pennsy began to lose ground to airlines, trucks, cars and buses.  The peak year for intercity rail traffic was 1946.  There was no money for investing in Long Island infrastructure.  Even without money before state takeover, the LIRR continued to build traffic and today remains at a peak – almost a quarter-million rides a day!  (New York State has invested more than $6 billion in various ways in the LIRR.)

Having a two-car rail jitney running frequently is a great idea.  This was done by LIRR for a long time in the 1960s, with Budd cars in pairs running between Babylon and Patchogue and sometimes beyond, as an economic way to provide frequent service.  In the 1970s the federal government gave the LIRR significant funding for “hybrid” power cars that would run on either diesel or electric, so the train running past the end of electric service (such as at Babylon) could continue on using diesel.  We could use more federal monies to pioneer similar technologies and breakthrough services on the East End of LI.

We need to get automobiles off the road and more people using public rail service. All over LI there were key trolley lines running from local neighborhoods to the rail lines – tracks can be seen north-south in Patchogue and Bay Shore today.  There was a key line from Roslyn to Mineola.  And much trackage was later torn up would be great to have today –

The Mineola station linked to the Valley Stream station and south shore lines via West Hempstead.

There was a high speed bypass line that Route 111 in Brookhaven roughly follows today in Suffolk (LIE Exit 70), taking the Montauk (rail) Line up from the Hamptons to the Main Line east of Yaphank and onto the west via Ronkonkoma.  

A line ran from Port Jefferson through Sound Beach etc. to Wading River.  (Think of having that line today running from Port Jeff to Shoreham and a boat link to New England); and beyond to the Riverhead East End Transportation Hub.  Another branch line from Bridgehampton up to Sag Harbor.  There were many like this; economics forced some abandonment, and the motor car spelled doom for some lines.

Before we lose much more LIRR trackage, LIMBA could begin to put pressure on state legislators, members of congress, leaders of townships and the county, MTA etc. to (1) preserve what we have (2) use rights-of-way to build new capacity (3) explore new technologies that could make LI a leader in transport technologies (we have all the other ingredients in the base of industries here); (4) address the issues of affordable housing and job creation through transport access.

The message to public policy makers is: let’s not lose what we have; let’s build up what resources are still in place; let’s make public transportation a solution to traffic jams and a real element of economic development for Suffolk County and especially the eastern portions of the county

Good work, LIMBA.  You are on “the right track” for the future!

Hank Boerner

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