The Great Struggle Against the Third Track
Supervisor Kate Murray recently held a press conference regarding the MTA’s announcement that it would not include the Third Track in its 2010-2014 capital budgets. The Third Track had engrossed the interest and energies of our community as no other issue in the recent past. So it was fitting that the supervisor held the conference at the Floral Park Train Station.
This site was the epicenter of the great struggle against the Third Track. It was here that the first tremors of resistance were felt and radiated outward to our state capitol in Albany. It was here, in this village, where alliances were forged and commitments made that led to the greatest grassroots movement I have ever witnessed on the local level. It was here that the truth was first boldly spoken; a truth that said the demands for a reverse commute does not justify building a Third Track costing the taxpayers $1.6 billion. It was here, in these peaceful confines that a battle cry proclaiming that ‘it is not a question of not in my backyard (NIMBY) but enough in my backyard’ was born. It was here at the first Scoping Hearing, five years ago this June, that nearly 1,200 residents flooded the Floral Terrace in a mighty, irrepressible demonstration of unanimity that shook the foundations of the MTA.
We were victorious not only because of the number of people involved, not just because of our alliances with our sister communities or even the strategies that were meticulously outlined and scrupulously followed. The reason our arguments resonated so powerfully was that lying at the heart of our dissent was the truth. We knew the reverse commute argument was a canard because we rode those trains and saw they were more than half empty. Five years later, they are still less than half occupied and, we suspect, that five years hence little will change. Nor was it necessary, we pointed out, to link the Third Track with our support for the elevation of the on-grade crossings (a stated goal of the LIRR since 1910!) that would not only greatly enhance safety on our roads, but also facilitate traffic and reduce fuel consumption.
The MTA/LIRR never expected to encounter an informed constituency armed with the facts and with the spine to articulate them. They were astonished, by their own admission, about how much we knew. If the need for reverse commutes was so pressing why is it, we asked, that LIRR ridership peaked in 1949? Such questions sent the apparatchiks of this unelected and unaccountable public authority into an uncomfortable silence, a muteness that vindicated the solidity and the righteousness of our cause.
Their taciturnity was something we came to expect. After the first Scoping Hearing in June 2005, literally hundreds of residents spoke at the Floral Terrace. Hundreds of questions were asked but since this was an informational hearing, (an odd description since there was no information to be had), no answers would be forthcoming. For months afterward, we pleaded for specifics and didn’t even get generalities. So, we relied on our own resources. From Bellerose to Hicksville, we sounded the alarm by reaching out to our elected officials from the local to the federal level, mobilizing every organization extant and marshaling thousands upon thousands of signatures. We rattled, delayed and ultimately defeated the Third Track. Before we were finished, that first ripple in the pond had turned into a tsunami.
The MTA/LIRR and its media allies fought back with every weapon at their disposal. They tried, but failed, to portray us as NIMBYS, enemies of progress or provincial yahoos who had stepped out of some Jonathan Swift satire. From the outset, we acknowledged and embraced the idea that modern transportation made the modern world, although we predicted that even had this project been worthwhile, the monies were not there to fund it. The MTA, however, had simply failed to make their case. They leapt over the all-important question of whether the Third Track should be built and focused exclusively on where and when it was to be built.
It’s been said that a lie gets half way around the world before truth has a chance to put its pants on. We clothed the truth, one leg at a time, shielding it from the elements. Ultimately, the MTA/LIRR had to concede that the reverse commute did not justify the Third Track and the real reason for its construction was to serve as a passing lane to bypass broken down trains. By that time, however, the MTA’s creditability had suffered the death of a thousand self-inflicted wounds.
We all knew from the beginning, what the stakes were. Overshadowing this vast struggle was a stark and monumental question: Who owns the future? The question was formally answered at the press conference, but we all knew that it had been answered that very day, five years ago, when a community 16,000 strong proclaimed, with one voice, that the future, our future, does not belong to the MTA bureaucrats; it belongs to us — We the People.
In a Mayor’s message, I stated that in terms of public policy, nothing is truly dead. There are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats. The MTA/LIRR will be back. The good news is so will we to make sure they do the right thing on behalf of our residents and the commuters they are duty-bound to serve.