Long Island is in an extraordinary position to be in the global economic leadership of the 21st century, providing the jobs and career opportunities that Long Island residents want for themselves and their children. We have world-class centers of scientific research and innovation, close proximity to New York City and its capital and high-tech markets, and our own renowned lifestyle stretching across the region from communities bordering the City to the Hamptons and Montauk. To achieve its potential, however, Long Island must increase its mobility -- its capacity to conveniently move people from one place to another and provide the public transit-oriented options, for living and working, which a pace-setting 21st-century economy demands. That requires building a region-wide consensus that public transit is a top priority, and now is the perfect time for that consensus to emerge.
One of Long Island's greatest and most under-appreciated assets is the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), but that asset must be put to more effective use if Long Island is to be in the economic forefront of our times. Unlike the railroads in Westchester and New Jersey, which have gained significant ridership over the last decade, the reach and capacity of the LIRR has remained unchanged since it first connected to Manhattan's Penn Station in 1910.
For the first time in more than a century, however, the Long Island Rail Road is poised to provide new capacity on its network. By 2019, the East Side Access project will give LIRR riders direct access to Grand Central Terminal and east Midtown Manhattan, the densest concentration of jobs in the country. A Second Track from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma could be completed by 2018 and expand service options and reliability on one of the fastest-growing yet most overcrowded lines in the system. Beyond these two projects, a deferred and long-debated project -- a Third Track or "Fast Track" on the LIRR Main Line -- has the potential to greatly improve service and support job growth within Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
These three initiatives have the potential to transform the regional economy: greatly increasing access to jobs as well as employees both on Long Island and in New York City; tying Long Island's centers of research and innovation more closely together, and connecting Long Island more easily to New York City and the tri-state area.
Long Island's own world-class centers of research and innovation, some of which have banded together to form Accelerate Long Island, include, among others, Brookhaven National Laboratory, CA Technologies, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Hofstra University, North Shore-LIJ Health System, and Stony Brook University. Other assets to which Long Island's centers should be easily accessible include: Wall Street and New York City's growing high-tech "Silicon Alley" with such prominent presences as Google, Facebook, and the Cornell University graduate school for technology on RooseveltIsland; the pharmaceutical corridor in New Jersey; the nanotechnology corridor stretching from New York City to Albany and beyond, and the financial centers of Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut. It's an extraordinary set of resources, overall, and Long Island can be in the thick of it with improved public transit.
The recently released Long Island Index, funded by the Rauch Foundation and prepared by Regional Plan Association, highlights the potential. Among the findings in the Index's latest report, "How the Long Island Rail Road Could Shape The Next Economy", are the following:
- With East Side Access, nearly 400,000 homeowners in Nassau and Suffolk Counties will see the value of their homes rise by an average of7,300.
- With expansion of the Ronkonkoma line to two tracks and the main line to three tracks, employers will have access to many more potential workers - at least 350,000 in Mineola and 226,000 in Hicksville, for example - increasing the attractiveness of Long Island to prospective employers. In addition, major economic development initiatives, such as Wyandanch Rising, the Ronkonkoma transit village project, and the Republic Airport hub would have a much greater chance of success.
- With expansion of the Main line to three tracks, service reliability, efficiency and flexibility would be greatly improved, with 50% more capacity on the Main Line to reroute trains, move trains more easily between yards and stations, and add service as needed.
- With all three projects, Long Island's economy would be in a much stronger position for future growth with faster access to jobs in New York City and greater ease of bringing New York City employees to new jobs on Long Island.
In the past, the Long Island Index has highlighted such important trends on Long Island as the "brain drain" or loss of young Long Islanders (18-35 years old) at three times the national average and the decline of average annual wages for the region to almost the same as the national average. But the Long Island Index has also revealed much about Long Island's regional assets: an educated, diversifying, striving and talented workforce; 8,300 acres surrounding key LIRR stations that are open or used for parking, which have the potential for creating 90,000 new living spaces; and, the very high number of outstanding and world-class research institutions and universities the region possesses that are now producing more patents and receiving more research grants than ever.
The key to connecting those assets -- as well as reversing the "brain drain" and declining wages -- is to maximize the Long Island Rail Road's potential. Now is the time for an open, fact-based, public discussion of the pivotal role that public transit can play in generating the economic prosperity, jobs, and career opportunities that Long Islanders want and deserve.