Guest Column: LIRR has to adjust to a new reality on L.I.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Less than 12 percent of Long Islanders travel to the city for employment.

Jim Elwood and Vince Taldone co-authored this article along with Ed Romaine

The Long Island Rail Road is no longer the nation’s largest commuter railway. That title now belongs to its upstate sister, Metro-North. This comes as no surprise to us, as the LIRR does not reflect the reality of today’s economy. Every year, fewer and fewer Long Islanders — now less than 12 percent —  travel to the city for employment. Long Island is simply no longer the bedroom community of the 20th century. Factor in a depressed economy and skyrocketing fares and we can expect this trend to continue.

The core mission of the LIRR remains one of moving people from the suburbs to the city in the morning and returning them each evening. In its earliest days, the railroad served to create a rail/ferry/rail connective from New York to Boston via Greenport and Stonington, Conn. It has never served the purpose of moving Long Islanders around Long Island.

This needs to change.

The LIRR has barely scratched the surface in addressing the needs of intra-island commuting, nor has it adequately boosted its leisure travel programs. The railroad has only recently adjusted its Deer Park to Riverhead train schedule to serve Suffolk County’s court-goers, employees and jurors. However, this was only done at our behest and the behest of Commissioner of Jurors Michael O’Donohoe. Yet, it has done little to promote its service for leisure travel — and when it does, it is more likely to utilize private bus companies than its own trains.

For the past five years, the Long Island Wine Council has hosted “Long Island Winterfest,” a six-weekend program that brings jazz and other entertainment opportunities to the East End’s many winery tasting rooms. The program has been a boon for the region’s economy, boosting tourism dollars in an otherwise quiet time of the year. With this year’s warm winter, many wineries saw record-setting attendance. Sadly, just two trains a day run east of Ronkonkoma on the main line and just three on the Montauk line. Moreover, there is absolutely no service on the main line on winter weekends. Visitors interested in participating in Winterfest must utilize either their own automobiles or a private bus or limousine company — an often costly endeavor.

There are more than 12 million residents less than a two-hour train ride away from Long Island’s vast leisure opportunities. How many couples residing in Manhattan, who may not own automobiles, would be likely to explore the East End’s wineries if train service were effective? How many young families would travel to the Long Island Aquarium if it meant not sitting in traffic? The LIRR has squandered this revenue-boosting opportunity.

This May, the Village of Greenport will host the 2012 Tall Ships Challenge. This annual event, organized by the American Sail Training Association, will visit Savannah, Newport, Greenport and Nova Scotia. The village estimates over 50,000 visitors during this already busy time of year. The village does not have nearly enough parking to host this many people. The LIRR is an attractive and logical alternative. Visitors could “Take the Train to the Ships” — if only the LIRR provided adequate service. The county and the village are currently working with the LIRR to provide additional trains, as is done when Long Island hosts the U.S. Open.

The Long Island Rail Road must embrace change in order to be financially effective and adequately serve the region. Without improving service, we will likely see even less service, which should not be an option. We implore the LIRR to reconsider its model and start modernizing its mission.

Ed Romaine is a Suffolk County legislator. Jim Elwood and Vince Taldone are members of Five Towns Rural Transit, a not-for-profit advocacy group.