In an effort to stand in strong opposition to the Long Island Rail Road's controversial third track project, Garden City officials entered into a "third track inter-municipal agreement" earlier this month, enabling them to work more closely with other affected communities along the railroad's Main Line corridor.
Last summer LIRR officials realized they didn't have the funds to support the controversial project and shelved it to focus more closely on the $3.1 million East Side Access project, which would send LIRR trains into Grand Central Station for the first time. Local mayors called the announcement a victory although remain cautious about whether the plan will be reintroduced.
LIRR President Helena Williams said the LIRR had to be realistic about setting priorities for the near term. "We must make sure the LIRR is ready for 2015 when train service is scheduled to begin to a new LIRR stop at Grand Central Terminal ... We also need funding for our state of good repair program and, most importantly, track reconfiguration and signal improvements in Jamaica, so that we can meet service demands for East Side Access. We have to be practical and put our resources where our priorities are and East Side Access is the No. 1 priority for the LIRR," Williams said back in 2008.
"This project is somewhat at rest right now," Village Counsel Gary Fishberg said. But even though it's been halted, it's not off the table. Williams said the railroad is "committed" to the project and will likely resurrect it again once funding for the East Side Access project is secured.
In light of this, mayors remain vigilant in keeping a close eye on the project. In fact, the villages of Westbury, Mineola, New Hyde Park, Floral Park and Bellerose also entered into the intermunicipal agreement, hiring environmental law firm Beveridge & Diamond, P.C. to investigate any environmental issues a third track could create.
The firm charged the group of villages anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 for its services. Garden City's share of the bill is $2,574.78, which represents approximately 25 percent. Fishberg explained that the villages have agreed to make payments that are proportionate to each municipality's population. Mineola's bill represents approximately 23.5 percent of the total bill, while New Hyde Park's, Floral Park's and Bellerose's portions represent anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the total bill, Fishberg noted.
On certain votes, 75 percent majority is required to pay any bill over $10,000. "Garden City effectively has a veto on any charges or any obligations over $10,000 because Garden City has a little more than 25 percent," Fishberg said.
Garden City could opt out of this agreement at any time, according to Trustee Nick Episcopia. "We could get out of it any time we want just by simply notifying the other participants," he said. "At any time you want, you could get out of it."
If this project comes to fruition, several pieces of Garden City-owned property would be affected. Similarly, when the project was first announced, Bellerose Village's village hall, firehouse and police booth, which all back onto the tracks, were in jeopardy. To avoid the taking of these properties, Bellerose officials placed the three buildings - a 1935 police booth, a 1930 firehouse and a 1925 village hall - on national and state historic registries.
"So, placed on a registry, the railroad's going to have a heck of a time trying to get it off, I'd think. It sort of puts the little fly in their ointment," resident Bob Orosz told trustees after reading about Bellerose in a NY Times article.
Poplar Street resident Bill Bellmer questioned Bellerose Village's involvement. "They're not affected because the project starts east of the Floral Park station," he said.
Deputy Mayor John Mauk said even though a village's properties may no longer be affected, that village's quality of life could be compromised. "You say they're not affected, maybe properties aren't affected, but I think that part of it is the concern about what sort of increase in rail traffic you're going to have if that third rail is constructed and how that is going to affect the communities where the trains pass through, regardless of whether or not properties would be affected."
Mayor Bee added, "When we say that there won't be village property affected in certain villages, we're saying that there will not be a need for the railroad to condemn and acquire land adjacent to where they are placing the track. But that doesn't mean that the communities aren't affected in the sense of potentially increased rail traffic, whatever noise or other issues arise in relations to rail use."
Floral Park officials have been at the forefront of the fight to stop the LIRR from constructing another track, actually a fifth in their village. Floral Park Mayor Phil Guarnieri has publicly blasted the MTA/LIRR on numerous occasions, most recently criticizing its latest proposal to increase fares and cut vital services to close a hefty budget gap.
Floral Parkers established a not-for-profit corporation dubbed "Citizens Against Rail Expansion, Inc." or C.A.R.E., which has successfully recruited numerous sister villages, including Garden City. The organization's primary purpose, according to Mayor Guarnieri, is to evaluate the various potential impacts of the third track expansion project, including such issues as vibrations, noise, air pollution and traffic etc. to ensure that aspects of the project comply with environmental regulations, and to keep residents informed about the process.
"While there had been a loose alliance among our sister villages the gossamer web entangling us, delicate and tenuous, had to find an instrument to forge itself into steel cables," Mayor Guarnieri said back in 2007.
The mayor continued, adding, "I firmly believe this not-for-profit corporation will be an excellent vehicle through which the various municipalities will cooperate effectively in evaluating and eliminating all potentially negative impacts arising from the MTA/LIRR third track expansion project. This official act of solidarity is an important achievement but we are determined it will not lead to overconfidence or self-satisfaction, which can draw a veil over one's eyes. We've had successes for sure, but not yet victory - or at least the victory we are aspiring for. Let us keep step and march onward."