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MTA tries to calm nerves as ‘Summer of Hell’ commute is set to begin Monday

NEW YORK — Monday begins the Summer of Hell.

At least that's the nickname for the situation that will emerge when a complex of railroad tracks will shut down for high priority repairs from Monday, July 10 to Friday, September 1.

On Thursday, the top two leaders of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tried to prepare commuters for the many changes ahead by encouraging them to explore the variety of transportation options available.

At the same time, the MTA's top brass admitted that there will be a learning curve for them to deal with the changes to its customers' commutes.

Riders also pointed out that handling the altered trips will not be easy.

"It's busy now," said Goddess Earl, on her way to a Bronx-bound train here.  "Add even more people," she said, and "it's not going to be cool."

But cooling concerns of public transportation riders like her was what MTA chairman Joe Lhota and MTA interim executive director Ronnie Hakim tried to do in a teleconference with reporters on Thursday morning.  At the same time, they tried to also be candid about how challenging the course ahead is.

"We prepare and prepare and prepare," Hakim said, "but then we have our control rooms ready to address any issues that arise."

It was an admission that the transition to fix and repair mode will not necessarily be seamless, and will take effort on the part of the have MTA.

"Monday will be a test," said Lhota.  "Tuesday will be a test, Wednesday will" as well, he said.  It will be a test throughout the week, the chairman said.

He emphasized that the MTA is encouraging commuters to ride the LIRR in to the Atlantic Avenue terminal in Brooklyn or to other destinations than Penn Station, and to take commuter buses or ferries, which are provided by the MTA.

To make those alternatives possible for as many commuters as it can, the MTA still has heavy lifting to do.

For example, at the Glen Cove ferry terminal on Thursday, construction crews were seen working to more than double the size of the parking lot there, in hope of having it ready in time for next week's expected higher demand.

While Lhota and and Hakim were trying to calm nerves, a coalition of transportation advocates, led by the Riders' Alliance organization, unveiled an agenda for public transportation improvements that they want local elected officials to follow.

Regarding the so-called Summer of Hell, some of the coalition leaders expressed a very guarded and cautious optimism that the alternative transportation choices could work.

"Joe Lhota knows how to run a system in crisis," said Gene Russianoff, executive director of the Straphangers' Campaign. Russianoff said that he was impressed with how Lhota, after Superstorm Sandy, got the subway system, which was heavily damaged in multiple locations at the time, back up and running well.

Nonetheless, Russianoff said, Lhota has "got a really tough job ahead of him. I'm worried.  And I think people have the right to be worried."

For now, though, the key message Chairman Lhota and the MTA are trying to send is to  stay off the roads this summer.  "I would encourage as many people as possible," Lhota said during the teleconference, "if you took the train now, you'll take the train next week as well."

Some commuters agreed.  "I'm going to tell you," said LIRR passenger Mike Hilsdorf, as he waited for his outbound train, "people will still take the train, because it's the most convenient way to get to the city."

The MTA is advising commuters to sign up for text alerts and get the most up-to-date information about the summer's transit changes at http://lirrsummerschedule.com.

The chairman said that there was one other thing about the commuter changes that was of the utmost importance:  Amtrak's promise to complete the track repair and replacement work on schedule.

"We want to hold them to the September 1st deadline," said Lhota.