So today marks the last day of 2013. Looking up at my nifty wall calendar, I see sometime in the year 2013, now covered up by horizontal pencil lines, the words "East Side Access Opens." Believe it or not, at some point in time, the LIRR's East Side Access project was supposed to be completed, tested, and in revenue service by 2013. That was this year.
Nonetheless, as I write this post on December 31, 2013, East Side Access is not close to being finished. And I highly doubt they will be able to scrounge something together in the roughly 18 hours left of 2013. And, logic would dictate that if East Side Access had been completed on schedule (in some fantasy world), we would also be discussing a LIRR that had a second Ronkonkoma Branch track, an improved Jamaica, a finished Colonial Road Improvment Project, or even some M9's possibly. But they've missed the mark. Quite badly.
They say there's no use crying over spilled milk, so I won't bother. What we have now is a projected completion date of sometime in 2019. It's held at that date for some time now (after a couple year stretch of the projected completion date being shifted back almost every year...there was a long period where we were *always* seven years away). But, as of tomorrow, 2019 will be just five years off.
As we prepare to ring in the new year, many travelers will take to a railroad that is unprepared for the big changes coming. There is no capacity for new trains, there is no real will to embark on seriously needed projects to expand capacity, and the LIRR is struggling to make ends meet in terms of equipment and service on its outer diesel branches, among other things. Intra-island and intra-city markets are overlooked, CityTicket needs expanding, reverse peak service (and corresponding ridership) is abysmal, and the LIRR seems to be hooked on the idea of bringing people to Manhattan, and only Manhattan.
I sure hope the people who orchestrate the giant circus that is the Long Island Rail Road are prepared for some big changes over the next few years. NIMBYs will have to be broken, union demands will have to be cracked, mentalities will have to be changed, big time. Over the last five years the LIRR has demonstrated that it submits to NIMBYs and silly outside opposition far too easily, that they think their only goal is to bring people to Manhattan (and t'hell with everyone else), and that it is just incapable of being ready to accept monumental changes in the way the railroad works.
The LIRR seems to have a plan....I'm not saying they're going into this blind. I'm not so sure how much I agree with that plan or if that plan will actually work or if it will be a giant disaster. It's not too late to correct the course and steer in a direction that views the railroad as a key part of the transportation system on Long Island as a whole and not just a machine to ferry people to and from the big office towers in Manhattan. Things like the elimination of through service to Brooklyn and construction of big electric yards at places like Yaphank and with lots and lots of empty equipment moves scurrying up and down the line are scary sounding propositions, to me at least.
While focusing on moving large amounts of people from places on Long Island to Manhattan is still important, since they are still the LIRR's largest demographic, it is very important to not forget about the intra-island travelers, the people who don't work into Manhattan. If you drive on the highways on Long Island and notice the hundreds of thousands of cars clogging every possible highway, parkway, and side street, very few of those people are actually driving to Manhattan. Most are driving to other places on Long Island, Brooklyn, or Queens. It would be nice if they could somehow take some sort of public transportation to their destination instead, but in too many cases that market is either overlooked (by the LIRR) or poorly serviced (by NICE or Suffolk Transit). Lots of people would probably jump at the opportunity to get out of their cars and onto some sort of public transportation, but they are not going to do so as long as the transportation agencies on Long Island insist on making it difficult for them. It should not take 30-40 minutes to get between East Rockaway and Baldwin by bus or train when you could do it in 8 minutes by car. Westbound Huntington trains should not be missing eastbound Oyster Bay trains by 8-10 minutes at Mineola. I understand there are scheduling considerations that can make things unnecessarily inconvenient, but there seems to be an overall lack of effort in many places in LIRR planning while there is too much effort in other places.
As the LIRR sets its sights on East Side Access over the next five years, let's hope that it does not completely forget the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people that live on Long Island, but do not work in Manhattan. Serving your core demographic is important, but it is only in giving everybody in the areas you serve good opportunities to utilize the LIRR for their needs do you actually become an integrated part of the region's economy and transportation network. At this point, the LIRR stops short of that, and it looks like they are going to use East Side Access as an excuse to stray even further away from the intra-island and intra-city markets.
The clock is ticking, and decisions need to be made. Let's hope they don't do anything rash.