By James Beale
On Nov. 16 last year, the first new Long Island Rail Road Station in 50 years opened in Elmont, in large part to provide service for the recently opened, $1.1 billion UBS Arena at Belmont, now home to the New York Islanders.
Sparky, the Islanders’ blue-and-orange dragon mascot, awaited the eastbound train arriving from Jamaica as the inaugural ride to this new stop came to a halt. While the eastbound side was operational, the westbound side was not, and it remains unfinished today, with its completion not expected until later this year, perhaps in the fall.
When LIRR riders attempt to check the westbound schedule on the MTA website, they currently receive this message: “Error. The station combination you have chosen is invalid. Please call the LIRR Travel Information Center at (718) 217-5477 and ask for a representative for more information.”
When the eastbound track first opened, then State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, said the newest LIRR station “represents a huge win for both local residents and fans, who will have new, green mass transit alternatives that Elmont badly needed. Indeed, building the arena without it would not have made sense.”
When called for comment on progress of the westside track and the Elmont station as a whole, Kaminsky did not respond for this article earlier this year. He recently resigned from the Senate.
“Currently, only the eastbound platform is open for service, and service at the station will increase later this year when the westbound platform opens. At that time, the station will begin full-time, year-round service to the local community,” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said in a March news release.
Originally, the expected completion date for the westbound platform was this summer.
Without westbound service, the Islanders’ solution this past season was to provide a free shuttle from local LIRR stations around UBS Arena to and from games. Fans were encouraged to use the Belmont Park, Queens Village or Elmont stations when arriving at games. Shuttles were then available for fans to drop them off at the arena. When leaving, fans could not use the Elmont station and had to take shuttles or walk to Queens Village or Belmont Park. While the plan was outlined on the Islanders website, the fan experience was far from ideal, many said.
“It was incredibly confusing,” Islanders fan Max Milstein said. “At the end of the game, they [didn’t] tell you which bus to use. They just [shuffled] you onto the buses… It [was] all just very confusing and disorganized.”
The shuttles at times left fans at the wrong train stations, forcing them to return to UBS Arena until they found the right shuttles. “It didn’t seem like UBS Arena was prepared to open,” said an Islanders intern, who requested to remain anonymous. “I remember walking to my car after games and seeing the mad dash of fans trying to get to the LIRR. It was organized chaos seeing fans scramble around.”
This past season, 37,000 fans used the LIRR, taking close to 15,000 cars off the road, according to UBS Sustainability. The Islanders’ Instagram page recently highlighted plaques outside the arena showing its carbon footprint and noting the facility is expected to be carbon-neutral by 2024 or sooner.
Though there has been little discussion about development of the westbound track, there has been continued progress throughout the year. This past spring, the MTA announced the installation of a pedestrian overpass across the eastbound and westbound tracks.
Mike Cortez, a MTA media liaison, was unable to provide further information when asked about a definite date when the westbound platform will open.
In a news release about installation of the pedestrian overpass, State Sen. Anna Kaplan, a Democrat from Great Neck, said, “I’m thrilled to celebrate this latest milestone as the station’s pedestrian bridge is completed, and I can’t wait to take the train to the game when the station opens for full service later this year.”
Many Islanders fans said they hope they will have a more reliable mass transit option to get to and from games when the 2022-23 NHL season opens in October. “I have faith that the station will be ready by next season,” Milstein said. “If it’s not, I may need to find a different way to get to the games… I just don’t know if I can deal with the shuttles again.”