Gridlock Sam on What’s in Store for the LIRR and Beyond

July 16, 2014 at 5:00 pm

The Long Island Railroad carries 300,000 passengers every day. Strike or no strike, it is a vital link for New York. Traffic engineer and former city transportation official Sam Schwartz, better known to many as “Gridlock Sam,” joined MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman to discuss the metropolitan region’s transit system.


JULY 14, 2014

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: So Sam, what happens when the Long Island Railroad isn’t running? Are there lessons in history that will tell us what to expect?

SAM SCHWARTZ: Yeah, there are lessons. This isn’t the first time that the Long Island Railroad has planned a strike or, in fact, has struck. They struck back in the ‘80s when I was traffic commissioner. They struck during the transit strike for a couple of days also, which was much worse. And they struck last in 1994. And what we find is, is the impact is localized. It really does obviously affect the people of Long Island tremendously, it affects certain roads tremendously. But it has little bearing on what happens from the New Jersey side and a lot of what happens in Manhattan, you just don’t see the differences very much. So the Long Island Expressway, that gets hit hard, as does the Belt Parkway, as does Northern Boulevard – any of the east-west routes. If you’re heading to the airport, that also gets affected, especially if you’re going to Kennedy Airport. If you’re going to Newark Airport, no impact whatsoever. If you’re going to LaGuardia, you’ll sit in a little extra traffic on the GCP, which gets affected as well. But if you’re going to Kennedy Airport allow yourself at least an extra 45 minutes. And we’re coming upon the big travel season. Kennedy’s biggest month is August, so we’re approaching it. So we really have to deal with the airport travel is what I worry about. And I worry about the people in Long Island who won’t be able to get to work, and all those businesses that thrive around all the stations.

PI ROMAN: So most of us remember the strike of 2005, the subway strike in the cold, near Christmas. And, of course, many of us remember the 1980 strike with the iconic scenes of New Yorkers walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when Koch was mayor. You’re saying that the Long Island Railroad strike won’t be like those events?

SCHWARTZ: No, no. The Long Island Railroad strike is not going to be anywhere near the New York City transit strike or what we experienced post-Sandy when we had the trains out for a number of days. It’s not going to be that traumatic to the 20 million people that are in the metropolitan region. However, if you’re a Long Islander, this is going to be traumatic, this will be significant. So the 300,000 riders a day – that’s 150,000 each way – those people will be affected significantly.

PI ROMAN: Let’s look at a broader picture. How is the region’s transit system doing? I mean, you hear commuters anecdotally complaining about delays, breakdowns, congested cars. Is that really happening more and more?

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I mean, some of it is happening more and more. But it’s also a sign of the economic vibrancy, the health. When you take a look at where people are moving to, they’re not moving away from New York City, they’re moving toward New York City. Our population is growing. If you look at the areas that are along the waterfronts in New York City, along the East River and Queens – from Long Island City, Astoria, all the way to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Red Hook – they are thriving. So New York’s transportation system is being strained. The L train, which was a sleepy train, is now so packed and the MTA’s about to do what’s called Communications Based Transit Control, CBTC, which will allow for even more trains to come through. So we’re really very tight. We have almost four million people coming into a tiny area called Manhattan’s central business district – Manhattan south of 60th Street – but we need our transit system. We need our Long Island Railroad, we need our Metro-North, we need our subway system. And we need bikes and walkers and others. And, yeah, we do survive with people in cars. I’m not anti-car.

PI ROMAN: So how are we going to deal with our transportation demands as we move forward into the future?

SCHWARTZ: Well, one of the things that I proposed is that we use what a lot of other cities, world cities, are beginning to look at and actually try what London does. London does congestion pricing. Stockholm does that. Singapore does it. A half dozen other major cities around the world do it. We need to have mobility, and we can’t have paralysis. If you look at our traffic system, our traffic system is somewhat paralyzed in lots of areas of Manhattan, and that’s our vibrant area. It’s not that people shouldn’t be in cars, but they should be paying for traveling in cars because they have a much bigger impact than that commuter on the Long Island Railroad that just comes out of a hole in the ground in Penn Station just comes right out. So we need to start charging those people. I have a plan, which is gaining strength as you well know, we talked about it previously – lowering all of the tolls in the outer areas where people don’t have good transit and applying the tolls in the areas where you have good transit. And I’m hoping the mayor and governor are listening.

PI ROMAN: Well, we’ll see if that happens. Sam, thank you so much.

SCHWARTZ: You’re quite welcome.