To Get a Railroad Project Moving Long Islanders Had to Pull Together

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

To Get a Railroad Project Moving Long Islanders Had to Pull Together
By: Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President, Rauch Foundation.

How a research project transformed a region - and the foundation that sponsored it. The Rauch Foundation presents Part 3 of their 3-part Insights series.

Read Part 1: Could the Rauch Foundation Change Long Island? Only by Changing Itself. 

Read Part 2: Research Studies: A Convener's Best Friend

In 2016 the Rauch Foundation, a regional foundation on Long Island, NY, led a campaign to build an additional rail track on a critical segment of the Long Island Rail Road. The addition had long been sought as a means of reducing commuter delays, enabling reverse commuting to help staff Long Island businesses, and moving freight by rail to ease highway congestion, but all previous efforts had been stymied by vocal, organized opposition in communities near the tracks.

It's a familiar phenomenon: how a small group with a vested interest—or backyard interest—in an issue can so often block a project that is supported by a wide majority. Those who seek change try to tilt the balance of power by forming coalitions, but even these commonly fall short, especially when they are drawn from only one or two sectors. 

The odds against change are steeper still when projects require legislative action and can be bottled up by a few powerful officials. This was the case in New York, where a major regional project could be spiked—as it had been—by a tiny clutch of state senators. To win in cases like these requires proponents to build a tsunami of support—and that requires a very different kind of collaboration.

The Foundation had been growing such a collaboration for over a decade—the broadest partnership we could imagine, with leaders from non-profits, business, labor, educational and research institutions, and more. It was broad in its goals, too. We built it around an indicators project, the Long Island Index, which published data showing the region’s strengths and challenges. Our goals were ones that everyone could support: good schools, good jobs, revitalized communities. 

The Index collaboration cut against the hyperpartisanship that paralyzes the political process. Our members, with strongly divergent political views, had no difficulty coming together on regional issues of common concern. In fact, as individuals from “opposite” fields discovered how readily they could work together, surprising personal friendships bloomed.

In 2013 we took as a goal the idea of building on an underutilized asset: the Long Island Rail Road. The Index published an analysis of how several improvements, including a new terminal on New York’s east side and a third track on a section of the railroad’s Main Line, could improve transit, revivify downtowns, and spur the economy. Response to the report was strongly positive, and we followed up the next year with an economic impact analysis of the third track alone. It revealed that the project would bring 14,000 permanent jobs, raise the gross regional product by $5.6 billion, and boost tax revenues $143 million a year. 

A task force began reaching out to stakeholders across the region—business groups, major employers, unions, commuter groups, environmentalists, civic associations, and municipal governments—to line up their support. Many of these stakeholders had sat out previous battles for the rail expansion: they had recognized the benefits, but felt that the dispute was not particularly their issue. Now they felt differently, partly because the Index study had made the benefits so compelling, and partly because of the wave of possibility that was building. 

Only with broad support in hand did we approach New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In December 2015 he was to host a reception at the state capitol. To this event went Dave Kapell, a charismatic former mayor now a consultant to the Foundation; Kevin Law, the well-connected leader of the Island’s premier business group, the Long Island Association; and Stuart Rabinowitz, the president of Hofstra University. Getting the governor’s ear, they presented the economic-impact data, and—politically even more important—described the broad, organized alliance that would stand in support of the project. 

The Governor mobilized his staff to confer with our group and weigh the political prospects for the plan, and soon after agreed to back it. His participation was critical, of course, for a well-managed state government commands political savvy and unique capacities for accommodating, enticing, or pressuring opponents, such as no private sector can match. Yet his participation depended on the assurance of strong support, which in turned depended on the broad collaboration that had been so many years in the making.

And the work was far from done. The Foundation and the Long Island Association formed a coalition to campaign for the project. It was immediately joined by the New York State Laborers Union, in the kind of handshake deal that makes things happen which a formalized approach often hinders. The coalition used social and traditional media to build public support, and recruited supporters to turn out at public hearings. A grassroots organization leafletted and led petition drives. In all, the coalition garnered the support of two million of Long Island’s 2.8 million residents. Meanwhile the Laborers Union, organized as a political action committee, launched a direct mail campaign against the obstructionist state senators and picketed their offices. Together with the adroit outreach of the governor’s team toward residents and officials of communities near the track, our efforts prevailed. The key senators withdrew their opposition, and the $2.6 billion project was approved.

Construction is currently underway, on schedule and under budget, while at the Foundation, among our many partners, and across Long Island, people are asking a question rarely heard before: What shall we tackle next? 

Read “Breaking Through”—the inside story of how Long Island overcame NIMBYism and moved an infrastructure project long given up for dead. 

Also hear the Nonprofit Leadership Podcast, “How a family foundation is helping to transform transportation in New York City.” 

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