East Side Access, the $10.7 billion project that will provide the Long Island Rail Road with direct access to Grand Central Terminal, is scheduled for completion in 2022. That may seem a long time away, but there’s much to be done in the meantime to ensure that Long Island maximizes the economic potential of one of the nation’s largest transportation infrastructure projects.
Simultaneous with that construction is the addition of a second track on the LIRR Main Line between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale. That project is scheduled for completion in 2018.
These two major public-transit projects are crucial to Long Island’s economic growth. East Side Access will provide direct access to the East Side of Manhattan and facilitate rail connections to Westchester, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley. The Double Track project will dramatically enhance LIRR service, ending reliance on a single track in that stretch.
But these projects won’t enhance the Long Island economy on their own.
Key to maximizing the projects’ economic potential are two fundamental priorities – enhancing the vitality of downtown areas along the LIRR and facilitating transportation from those downtowns elsewhere throughout Long Island.
The downtown areas are key because Long Island now offers one primary form of housing: the freestanding single-family home. That’s no longer enough, since the population of Long Island has changed.
As the Long Island Index reports, “In 1970, couples with children made up over half of all households on Long Island. In 2012, they constituted only 27 percent of households. Over the same time period, single households grew from 9 percent to 20 percent and single-parent families grew from 4 percent to 9 percent. Other types of households, mostly couples without children and unrelated adults, increased from 35 percent to 43 percent.”
Today, young people want to live in thriving downtowns with rental apartments, a mix of housing and entertainment, and easy access to New York City. Older people want the option of downscaling to smaller units in their own neighborhoods. And people of all ages want the flexibility to adapt to new stages of life.
Transit-oriented downtowns offer enormous potential. They typically have vast open spaces for parking on which development could take place – more than 4,000 acres of surface parking lots in and around Long Island’s downtowns, according to the Long Island Index.
That development could be concentrated around train stations, adding to regional vitality while reducing congestion and preserving single-family neighborhoods. Those downtown concentrations could also provide additional office space easily accessible by public transit from other parts of Long Island and beyond, boosting job-growth potential that too often goes to the transit-oriented downtowns of our suburban competitors.
Facilitating transportation from those downtowns elsewhere throughout Long Island is also key. We must ensure that those downtowns also have convenient and rapid north-south bus service, connecting them and nearby communities to regional centers like MacArthur Airport, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and major institutions of higher education.
We’re already seeing some exciting activity along those lines. A $93 million complex is underway near the Mineola LIRR station and bus terminal that will provide much-needed housing for working young professionals and affordable housing for seniors. In Westbury, the village has facilitated development of several hundred new apartments around its rail station and is planning for more. Brookhaven and Islip are collaborating to create a new transit hub at Ronkonkoma, including improved connections to MacArthur Airport. Wyandanch Rising, an initiative of the Town of Babylon, would generate much-needed housing, employment and economic opportunities, and a transit-oriented mixed-use hub is envisioned around a new LIRR station at Republic Airport.
There’s no reason for Long Island to lag behind our suburban competitors in job growth or retention. Combining new rail infrastructure with the development of transit-oriented downtowns and improved north-south bus service will facilitate economic growth throughout the region.
The combination of improved east-west rail service, enhanced north-south bus service and development of transit-oriented downtowns should be Long Island’s job-growth blueprint. We must focus on the appropriate zoning changes and other infrastructure needs, including sewer and water systems, to facilitate that economic growth.
With proper planning and execution, Long Island can be ideally situated for the job growth that Islanders want and deserve.