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Who’ll Pay for LIRR Service to the New Islanders Arena?

The NHL team says it’s leaving Brooklyn for a new home by Belmont Park, but getting fans there could cost taxpayers big bucks

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Good news for Islanders fans — a sentiment not often expressed this past decade or three — as the Great Barclays Center Hockey Experiment is over. On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and lots of people wearing Islanders hats with the tags still on announced that the team, in partnership with Sterling Equities (run by Mets executives), Madison Square Garden, and the Oak View Group, won the rights to redevelop Belmont Park with an 18,000-capacity arena, retail space, a hotel, “innovation/incubator space,” and every other buzzword a 21st-century development entails.

It would be almost impossible for the Belmont arena to be a worse hockey experience than Barclays, which was not designed for hockey in the first place so that builder Bruce Ratner could save money during a financing crunch. It probably isn’t a coincidence that two of the Belmont arena’s features touted in Cuomo’s press release are “ice management” and “quality spectator sight lines,” as Barclays has been plagued with seriously low-quality ice and has some of the most disorienting sight lines for any arena, hockey or otherwise.

The Islanders owners are promising that the $1 billion project just outside of Queens will be privately financed, though questions remain about how much the developers will pay in rent on the state land and whether any tax breaks will be involved. The biggest question facing the project, though, is how people will actually get there.

Currently, the LIRR is Belmont’s only rail connection. A one-stop spur off the Hempstead branch, the service only operates during Belmont meet dates and can only be reached via connection from points west: Jamaica, Atlantic Terminal, and Penn Station. So anyone coming to Belmont via Long Island — as one would expect most Islander fans would — has to go to Jamaica and switch to another train that will run express to Belmont. Not the least convenient experience in the world, but just enough to entice one to drive instead.

So what — everyone on Long Island has cars, right? After all, Nassau Coliseum was only connected to the LIRR via bus; almost everyone drove to Islanders games before the franchise moved to downtown Brooklyn two years ago.

But it’s not clear where those thousands of cars are going to park, since the arena and “retail village” are to be built on an existing parking lot just behind the racetrack grandstand. It’s possible everyone will be able to cram into the large remaining lot across Hempstead Turnpike — with around 4,000 to 6,000 parking spots, based on a very rough estimate using Google satellite images — but there is only one pedestrian tunnel connecting that main lot with the arena site. Even still, for sold-out events, it’s not at all clear that one lot is big enough (nor would I want to be one of several thousand cars trying to leave after the final horn).

Cuomo’s press release does mention that “additional parking will be developed to accommodate the increased traffic volume, including dedicated retail, hotel, and arena parking located below the concourse level,” but the official rendering doesn’t show any such external lots. And as anyone who has ever attended an event at an arena knows, parking under the concourse is reserved for VIPs and is rarely, if ever, available to the general public.

As a result, there will have to be LIRR service of some kind for every event. But what that service will look like — and how much it will cost taxpayers — remains an open question. Despite the LIRR committing to “developing a plan to expand LIRR service to Belmont Park Station for events year-round,” according to the press release, a spokesperson for the MTA, which runs the LIRR, said the agency doesn’t have any accompanying cost estimates. Which is to say, the MTA has promised to provide a service for which it doesn’t know the actual cost.

Since the LIRR will still only run to Belmont on event days, the ongoing tab will be directly related to how many events there are. This, of course, is the billion-dollar question for whether the arena project itself can be a profitable venture.

The arena’s investors plan on holding 150 events a year at Belmont, at least 41 of which will be Islanders home games, which drew between 11,000 and 13,000 fans per game in the team’s final years at Nassau. The other 100 or so events, though, will be filled by concerts and other standard arena fare.

Sports economist Victor Matheson of College of the Holy Cross says 100 non-hockey events a year is not an outlandish figure for an arena in a large metropolitan area without much competition. But the Belmont building will have to compete with the likes of Barclays, Madison Square Garden (whose owner is a co-investor in the Belmont project), and even Nassau Coliseum and the Prudential Center in Newark, as few concert acts are likely to perform at three or four different venues in the same metro area. For example, Matheson wonders, is Beyoncé really going to want to play at Barclays, Madison Square Garden, and Belmont?

Whatever it ends up costing to run LIRR trains, the public is likely to pick up the tab. There are almost no examples of private arena or stadium owners paying for public transportation and infrastructure improvements or services — most infamously, the Washington Nationals owner has repeatedly refused to pay for extended Metro service to get fans home after playoff games — even if it only serves their building. Matheson notes that though the state of Massachusetts refused to subsidize construction of the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, it agreed to fund about $70 million in infrastructure improvements to help fans get to and from the stadium on game day — even though the new stadium was next door to the old one.

That being said, Matheson adds, even the most stalwart opponents to publicly funded sports stadiums — a group of which he considers himself a part — would concede that infrastructure is a core government function. Getting people where they need to go is what the government is supposed to do. But when “people” means “customers,” and “where they need to go” is “a wealthy conglomerate’s real estate development project,” it’s less clear the government is providing a needed civil service rather than subsidizing a private enterprise. After all, I don’t think my block association would get very far demanding more 5 train service.

In better times, this would be an academic argument that could be cheerfully waved off as a rounding error. But when the transit authority is turning to its budget reserves to fund subway crisis repairs and spends 17 percent of its budget to pay down debt, it’s worrisome to be handing three local sports ownership groups a blank check for full-time rail service to their door.

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