As the sun rises over the tree line, the bits of light able to make their way through the branches reflect off the gleaming steel of the LIRR tracks. The morning air is chilled as commuters bundle together waiting to catch their next ride west. Many drove to the station, others came from just a short walk away. This scene plays out across the Island each morning, repeated in reverse each night.
The commute to the city is a way of life for our region. A 2013 census report indicated that about 279,000 people, roughly 19 percent of all people living in Nassau and Suffolk, commute into New York City for work each day. As a result, proximity to public transit is often cited as one of the leading factors driving average home prices northward year-over-year in certain communities.
“There clearly is a premium for [short] commuting distance outside of the city,” said Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of Manhattan-based Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm that produces Douglas Elliman’s reports. “Time spent equals value. The ‘Long Island suburb price premium’ is clearly delineated by proximity to the train line versus time of commute.”
Miller should know. For the past two years his firm calculated the cost-per-minute figure along the Metro-North’s New Haven and Harlem lines for The New York Times. “The delineation of adjustments may change over time as more people telecommute and therefore require fewer trips into the city for their jobs,” Miller added.
As the LIRR struggles to take control of its destiny thanks to everything from acts of God (like successive Nor’easters stopping service), perennially late trains that run on crumbling infrastructure and continuously raising costs, the pressure is on to deliver service that isn’t only more frequent, but reliable. In January 2018 the railroad ran on schedule only about 84 percent of the time—the worst performance in 22 years and down 7 percent from January 2017. For the entirety of 2017, the LIRR ran on-time just over 91 percent. These stats might make the LIRR seem reliable, but compare these figures to 2009 when the railroad hit a modern peak of 95.9 percent. That five percent difference in reliability can be devastating to the average commuter trying to get to and from work on time.
Yet as the housing market continues to feel pressure due to dwindling supply, accessibility to Manhattan is still an asset some buyers prize—and will continue to as long as there are worthwhile jobs west of the Cross Island Parkway.
“It all depends on what town you are in and its proximity [to Manhattan],” said James Haydon, a salesperson with Signature Premier in Smithtown. He added that sometimes being too close isn’t always a good thing. “If you’re right next to the tracks then it’s not a value-added incentive because of the noise and vibration.” Haydon offered that the perfect pedigree is a location that is close enough for a quick walk, but far enough to be out of sight, out of mind. Melissa Gomez, an associate real estate broker with ERA Top Service Realty, Inc. and secretary of the Long Island Board of Realtors, said that other factors help to drive prices. “While [accessibility to transit] definitely is a consideration, buyers are also looking at quality of schools and the other amenities a community can offer.”
Still, other experts found that access to Manhattan isn’t as critical to buyers as policy wonks might think. Despite those 37 percent of LIRR commuters, the 2013 census noted that 58 percent of people opt for sitting in their cars rather than riding the rails.
Ann Conroy, president of the Long Island division of Douglas Elliman, believes access is only one piece of the puzzle needed to draw in buyers. “I do not believe you can broad stroke across the Island. The buyer of today—whether the millennial or the baby boomer—enjoys proximity to thriving downtowns and easy access to the railroad stations.”
It would seem that on Long Island, the phrase “it takes a village” takes on a whole new meaning, especially if that particular village has an easy commute to and from Manhattan and a vibrant community fabric that newcomers can join. But Conroy believes the latter has a more concrete impact on buyers. “I do not believe that easy access alone impacts pricing. Easy access to a village does.”
MTA noted in 2016 that the LIRR is seeing commuter ridership declining, but off-peak ridership has blossomed over the last 30 years—a trend that is likely to continue if service improves thanks to large capital projects on the horizon. Projects like the third track will add additional capacity between Floral Park and Hicksville, and East Side Access would bring the rail road into Grand Central Terminal. Further on, electrification in eastern Suffolk County will likely bring more commuters west.