Local politicians and LIRR representatives came out for the grand opening of an information center about the Colonial Road Improvement Projection at Great Neck Station on Monday, March 28, along with a handful of protesters questioning the $36 million project.
Decked out with a flat-screen TV, maps and renderings, and comment cards, the information center will be staffed by LIRR personnel who can discuss the proposed project that would extend an existing pocket track in the Village of Thomaston, replace the century old Colonial Road Bridge, and address track drainage problems to bring LIRR service to Grand Central Terminal.
"This is the most important project that we are launching as part of the East Side Access Project," said LIRR President Helena Williams.
The project has drawn vocal opposition from Village of Thomaston residents who have complained about noise that would accompany project-track extension. Village of Thomaston Mayor Robert Stern has also repeatedly complained that LIRR officials had been unresponsive to his requests to talk after he announced his opposition to the project.
But Stern had a different message after discussing the project with Williams immediately before the grand opening.
"We have a good working relationship," Stern said. "I think we're lucky to have this president."
U.S. Rep Gary Ackerman (D-Great Neck) said LIRR officials are willing to consider any suggestion that reduces the projects's impact, both on the environment and residents who live near the pocket-track extension.
"There is no solution that will satisfy everyone, but we have to try," he said. "It would not be realistic or practical to abandon the whole process. There are a lot of people who use the rail to get to the East Side. Certainly more than the 75 families who live around the tracks. But it certainly should not be done totally at their expense."
Thomas said potential sound mitigation measures include a sound wall and sound-absorbing landscaping.
LIRR officials have said the Colonial Road Improvement Project will improve rush-hour service and seat availability from Great Neck, provide better service for special events at Mets-Willets Point, provide construction jobs, and replace the Colonial Road Bridge. They have also said the project will give the LIRR the ability to add up to 10 trains to the East Side of Manhattan during the morning when the $7.3 billion East Side Access Project brings the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal for the first time in 2016, cutting as much as 40 minutes off commuting time for tens of thousands of customers along the entire branch.
Calling the LIRR a "cooperative partner," Village of Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender said, "We want to have rail road service enhanced, but not at the expense of the community."
Still unanswered is how the Village of Great Neck Plaza will accommodate a projected 20 percent increase in rail road traffic.
"How are these people going to get here and where are they going to park?" Ackerman asked.
Among the comments Williams received in Great Neck were a couple that stressed the importance of bus-rail coordination.
Approximately eight protesters stood outside the info center holding signs that said "No money for service...$36 million to build!" and flyers with a list of questions for the MTA, including question No. 1, "How can we justify this work when the MTA is willing to cut transportation for those who desperately need it?"
The project will be paid for using capital funds that can only be used for construction, Williams said.
Among the protesters was Great Neck resident Steven Hirsch, who lives along the pocket-track extension.
Pointing to a rendering of the extension, he said, "I live at a property here where there are no trees. It doesn't appear that there is room for them."
When the LIRR cut down the trees that line his property a few years ago, he said it had a big impact on noise.
The information center will be open in Friday, April 1 from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 am and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 2 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, April 3 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.