Long Islanders rally to demand a sane commute


They had all had bad commutes.

Doug Goodstein, of Rockville Centre, said he had witnessed what appeared to be wastewater cascading from the ceiling of Pennsylvania Station on May 3, and recorded video of the incident on his cell phone. “I stepped out on Track 20 to the stench of sewage,” he said. “It was disgusting.”

Meredith Jacobs, of Wantagh, collects the email blasts of cancellations that she receives from the Long Island Rail Road. “Every night at 4:30 p.m. they come in,” she said. On May 11, her 6:36 p.m. eastbound train sat in a tunnel for an hour before returning to Penn due to mechanical issues. She didn’t get home until after 9.

Eric Cohen, of Kew Gardens, who commutes east, was delayed for two and a half hours on May 10 when Amtrak-related signal trouble resulted in the cancellation of nearly 80 trains and snarled the commutes of thousands, leaving them stranded in dangerously overcrowded corridors of the nation’s busiest transit hub.

And on Saturday they all gathered in Rockville Centre and stood underneath its train platform for a rally, organized by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), to protest the poor service and to demand the ouster of Amtrak as the steward of Penn Station.

Roughly two dozen commuters stood behind Kaminsky and a group of local elected officials from both parties.

Responding to the April 28 announcement by Amtrak that it planned to close several tracks throughout the summer for repairs, while declining to specify the number of tracks or how long the repairs would take, Kaminsky presented his argument.

“Amtrak is trying to cram 20 years of infrastructure repairs into two months,” he said. “We know their plan of ‘get ready for a terrible summer’ stinks. We know that they have not been creative or consulted with anyone down here on how that’s going to go.”

“For the long term,” he continued, “we know that Amtrak needs to leave Penn Station.” Kaminsky said that a private operator or new state-run entity, jointly involving agencies from New York and New Jersey, could take over.

“Long Island commuters pay exorbitant amounts to travel, beyond the taxes they already exorbitantly pay to live here, and are being treated like complete garbage,” he added. “Today we say no more!”

Reached days after the protest, State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) said he too was upset by Amtrak’s predictions, but he wondered what replacing them would cost. “There’s no doubt that Amtrak has been doing a lousy job,” he said. “The question, then, is in order to pick up what they do, what does that mean to the state of New York, and to our budget, and to taxpayers?”

County Legislator Delia DeRiggi Whitton (D-Glen Cove) also wasn’t certain that replacing Amtrak was the answer. “I would think Amtrak would bring in more money to make the repairs, but someone should come in as an oversight board,” she said.

State Assemblyman Chuck Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said he wasn’t sold on the idea that Amtrak’s departure is what is needed. “While we can debate the merits of Amtrak as the steward of the LIRR, I do not believe there is a clear answer to this question,” he said. “According to The Economist, Amtrak has a repairs backlog totaling $28 billion.  Simply ousting Amtrak, when the reach of its responsibility is so great, seems to be premature.”

Government entities are issued fines by the Department of Transportation if bridges, for example, are not repaired. DeRiggi Whitton said she believed Amtrak should face fines, too. “Repairs to the LIRR should be taken just as seriously,” she said.

Lavine said that any decision needs to be “a collaborative one between federal, state and local authorities as well as renowned experts in railroad infrastructure.”

But finding a replacement for Amtrak, qualified to handle the challenges of the repairs the railroad needs, will take time, “which will leave the LIRR ridership with no choice but to continue facing service disruptions,” Lavine said. 

A Long Island delegation of bipartisan senators, which included Marcellino, sent a letter to the MTA and DOT. “We asked, why couldn’t the track repairs have been done all along — what’s the delay all about?” Marcellino said, adding that the group was supposed to meet with the MTA on Monday, but the meeting was canceled. “We’re trying to once again speak to them [on Wednesday] before we leave for Albany. We have a whole series of questions and gave them the questions in advance. Maybe that scared them.”

Marcellino said that the group intends to include a delegation from the Assembly.

But Lavine has already sent his own letter. “I have requested in a letter to LIRR Acting Chairman Fernando Ferrer that the majority of the work be done on weeknights and weekdays,” he said, “and that shuttle buses be available to transport riders from their stations to Jamaica.”

For their part, Amtrak officials have said that despite booming ridership, ongoing financial problems have forced the long-distance rail service to defer repairs until they become absolutely necessary. They have blamed the issues on a shortfall in federal funding, which has remained flat in recent years at around $1.3 billion, according to Amtrak’s financial reports. Additionally, the Trump administration has proposed slashing federal funding to the agency, which could endanger service to up to 220 cities nationwide.

“I don’t think cutting federal funding will make America better,” DeRiggi Whitton said. “America was built with federal funding. It’s up to the federal government to maintain transportation.”

And, Lavine added, Trump promised he would increase spending for infrastructure.  “Slashing Amtrak and transportation funding will obviously damage our nation’s ability to preserve and maintain our railroads,” he said. “Trump’s spending cuts will severely damage the safety of our neighbors, friends and our family that commute and will severely damage our local, regional and national economy.”

Amtrak was granted ownership of Penn Station in 1976.

These issues remain a distant concern to LIRR riders, however. Meredith Jacobs brandished a “Long Island Failroad” sign at the rally, and said that in her nearly 24 years of commuting, the delays have never been as bad as they are now. “At $300 a month, we deserve better, but it’s the only game in town,” she said of the lack of transportation alternatives.

And for the coming weeks and months, riders will be faced with the reality of frequent delays becoming the norm. Not looking forward to the repair-related disruptions, Cohen remarked, “This summer is going to be hell.”