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Phillip Eng

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Oped: LIRR Coping With More Ferocious Weather

lirr
Commuters deal with delays caused by heavy rainfall and flooding in the New York City subway during the morning rush after the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida brought drenching rain and the threat of flash floods to parts of the northern mid-Atlantic, in New York City, U.S., September 2, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

It seems like the storms that come our way keep getting more ferocious – but they’re no match for the skill and dedication of our workforce.

Last week, the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped a historic amount of rain over a short period of time Wednesday into Thursday, causing flash flooding, fallen trees, power outages, and track damage across our service area.

When visibility became near zero, we knew we needed to suspend service to keep customers and our employees safe. We’ve dealt with rain-heavy storms before, and we knew the kind of devastation that Ida was causing elsewhere. So we suspended service systemwide around 12:30 a.m. Thursday – but, in less than four hours, the brave men and women of the LIRR did what they do best: they responded in harrowing conditions to get service up and running again as quickly as possible.

Working around the clock, we restored full service to nine of our 11 branches before noon on Thursday. Crews worked nonstop Thursday to bring the Port Washington Branch back online, a successful effort that allowed us to run with partial service restored on the entire branch by the PM peak.

Damage from the massive amount of rain was widespread: crews cleared debris that flooded down onto the tracks as well as in switches. At several locations, they addressed what we call “wash-outs,” where the ballast beneath the tracks has been washed away, as well as “wash-ins,” where sand and mud washed over and covered the tracks in several areas.

While we had extra crews and equipment at the ready to respond, our storm prep does not start mere hours or days before we know a storm is about to hit. As we’ve seen more and more in recent years, weather threats facing the entire MTA system aren’t just about coastal flooding.

Climate change has led to flash floods that have severely impacted the entire system, including at higher elevations. Over the past three years, our heroic workforce has been working with determination to make our system the most resilient it’s ever been, which helps us mitigate impacts from Mother Nature and prepare for the storms like Ida. This important work will continue throughout the entire system.

I’m certain that because of these efforts, we were able to avoid and limit many impacts that we would have otherwise expected from this record rainfall, enabling us to more quickly restore service for those that need it.

I’m immensely proud of the team and the work that gets done – before, during, and after major weather events. As we move on from Ida, we’ll continue to fortify our system for whatever Mother Nature throws our way. You can rest assured that the people of the Long Island Rail Road will keep you safe and get you where you need to go. It’s a way of life for us, 24/7, and we do it with great pride.

Phil Eng is president of MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: Keeping the Long Island Rail Road Working For You

rail road
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Safe, reliable, robust, and accessible to all — those are four main goals we strive for each day as we carry hundreds of thousands of people across New York City and Long Island.

Coming on the heels of the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re celebrating the third year of our successful LIRR Care customer service program, which to date has assisted more than 6,500 riders. Under this initiative, customers at three of our busiest hubs (Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, and Jamaica Station) can get assistance to board their trains in real-time from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Those in need simply head to the Customer Service Office at Penn, or the Ticket Office at Jamaica or Atlantic Terminal at least 15 minutes before a train’s departure time, and an ambassador provides individualized assistance with the journey.

Anyone needing help at other stations can give us a call anytime, 24 hours a day, at 718-574-7227 at least two hours before a train’s scheduled departure time with departure details. A dispatcher will alert the train crew, so they can place a bridge plate between the train and the platform to help with wheelchair boarding or other mobility needs.

We’re working hard to make our railroad as inclusive as possible. Three brand new elevators recently opened at Floral Park Station as part of the LIRR Expansion Project, bringing the total number of fully accessible LIRR stations to 108, or 87% of our system.

While we’re proud of this progress, we’re not stopping there. There are another 16 stations (of the LIRR’s total 124) that need to be upgraded and outfitted with accessibility components, and I’m committed to closing these gaps and fulfilling my promise to make each and every station accessible to all.

In the meantime, it’s easier than ever to find an accessible station near you. The LIRR TrainTime app has a host of accessibility features and information available to make trips as easy as possible. Customers can access elevator and escalator locations and their status in real-time throughout the entire system.

And for our visually impaired customers, we’ve enabled a screen reading feature, as well as large font support.

The LIRR welcomes all aboard our trains, and I’m grateful to each and every one of you who trusts us to get where you need to go. Long Island needs a strong railroad to carry us through recovery from the pandemic, and it’s only right that everyone should be able to take part in that revival.

Phillip Eng is president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: LIRR Revives Getaway Packages Just in Time for Summer

lirr summer
Courtesy MTA Long Island Rail Road.

Summertime on Long Island is like no other, in good weather and in bad. Last week, our incredible LIRR workforce saw the region through our worst storm yet of the season, Tropical Storm Elsa. Our crews braved the elements and stepped up once again while working tirelessly to provide safe train service despite the torrential rain and high winds. Safety is and will always be our top priority.

Preparing for storms like Elsa is a team effort that starts well before the first rain drops even fall. The day it hit, on Thursday, we pre-positioned crews and diesel locomotives across the system to help minimize service disruptions. But there’s so much more that goes into our weather planning – like the aggressive steps we’ve taken to protect infrastructure, strengthen and replace utility poles and tackle poor drainage locations. We also regularly trim trees and branches adjacent to our tracks to prevent them from falling during storms.

It’s our mission to make sure things run smoothly in every circumstance so riding the rails is an enjoyable experience. We want you to keep you coming back, especially as Long Island continues to recover from the pandemic.

That’s why we’ve revived our popular LIRR Getaways packages this summer after the program went on pause last year. Customers can revisit favorite local destinations like Long Beach, Jones Beach, and Fire Island (via Bay Shore and Patchogue), or join us for something new: a day-long guided brewery crawl across the South Shore.

On two Saturdays this summer, July 31 and August 21, you can experience beer tastings at Sand City Brewing Co. in Lindenhurst, followed by a bus trip to Bay Shore for another round at Great South Bay. Our tour ends in the Village of Patchogue, where you can patronize local restaurants and shops. Each ticket costs $63 (adults only, of course), and includes round-trip rail, private bus transportation, and both tastings. Visit new.mta.info/daytrips for full details on this and all the discount packages we offer.

What I truly love about these offers is that they highlight what Long Island is all about – getting together and enjoying all the great businesses and beauty we have in our own backyard. There are so many great spots located within walking distance of our 124 railroad stations, making each journey to a new town an adventure.

We’re prouder than ever to support the region’s economy while helping customers get to all the amazing destinations across Long Island and New York City. I’m grateful to the LIRR workforce who continue to show up day in and day out, as they have during the entire pandemic, to keep New York moving. It’s because of their hard work we’re able to provide a record level of service more safely and reliably than ever.

If you take a look out the window while you’re on one of our trains, you’ll see we’re doing this with major construction going on across our system as we build a better, more robust network that will truly give Long Island the public transportation it needs to thrive. With Mainline Expansion and East Side Access completion on the horizon, the future is bright.

Phil Eng is president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: The Latest High-tech Upgrades on the Long Island Rail Road

long island rail road
MTA Long Island Rail Road President Phil Eng was joined by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, tourism officials and lifeguards to celebrate the return of beach season and expanded LIRR summer service. Photo: MTA Long Island Rail Road / Glen Sager

Long Island Rail Road customers coming back to ride for the first time in a while will find enhancements: new digital platform screens and information across the system, a revamped app with first-in-the-world real-time train status, and improved wayfinding signage at Jamaica Station for easier navigation between the AirTrain, subway, buses, and LIRR at Jamaica Station.

What you might not notice: infrastructure accomplishments we’ve been delivering that are making our system safer and more reliable than ever. At Lynbrook and Rockville Centre stations, we’ve recently completed critical viaduct work that continues to restore long term stability to those structures carrying trains on the Babylon Branch.

Our approach to fixing and improving customer service, driven by LIRR Forward philosophy, starts with one question: how do we tackle the root cause of any particular problem? At these stations, we did just that. By installing new drainage systems, water from rain or snow will now flow properly off the track beds, further improving safety and service reliability while protecting the viaduct.

While you’ve been away, we’ve been taking advantage of new technology to improve vital aspects of our tracks and switches, and the results are reflected in on-time performance. I made a promise to our riders that we would improve their experience, and I’m proud to say that we are delivering the most reliable train service in modern history. Last year, we broke our own record for highest on-time performance with 95.9% of all trains running on-time. So far this year, we’re ahead of that record-breaking figure at 96.07%.

All thanks go to the LIRR workforce and managers, who demonstrated throughout the pandemic their dedication to public service as they improve our transportation system for current and future riders. The workforce has successfully accomplished record amounts of infrastructure work and they’re doing it more efficiently than ever.

But it’s their spirited commitment for their crafts that keeps them coming in every day even during the pandemic. With an open line of two-way communication with our labor union partners, we jointly ensured the safety of our workforce enabling them to continue to do their jobs both before and during this pandemic.

Now with weekday ridership hovering around 40% of pre-pandemic levels and weekends topping 66%, more and more customers are experiencing these improvements first-hand.

We’re rebuilding the railroad piece by piece, while simultaneously supporting major system expansions like Third Track and East Side Access. With these improvements and achievements, all of us here at the LIRR are feeling a strong sense of Long Island and New York pride, and we’re excited to be part of building a better and brighter future for our region.

The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” are trains carrying more Long Islanders every week. LIRR is here for you – indeed we never left!

Phillip Eng is president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: Ridership Numbers Keep Climbing on Long Island Rail Road

rail road
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The number just keeps climbing: 32%!

Last week, we marked yet another milestone for the highest level of ridership in one day on the Long Island Rail Road since the start of the pandemic. To those heroic essential workers who have been riding throughout the entire COVID-19 crisis, we thank you. And to our recently returning riders, it’s a great feeling seeing you back on the rails.

We are witnessing more and more people returning to public transit because they know it’s the best way to get around our region – and it’s safe.

Even better: we’re seeing weekend and off-peak ridership continue to climb. On Mother’s Day weekend, we recorded ridership at 55% of pre-pandemic levels. What does this mean? My hope for you, the beginning of the return to a new normalcy. If there is a place to be, riders will return for work or pleasure. And we will be there for you.

Customers are returning to MTA services across the board. NYC Transit Subways and Buses and Metro-North Railroad also recently clocked pandemic highs in their respective ridership figures. We still have a long way to go, but the upward trend is promising — not just for the MTA, but also for what the progress means for the region as a whole.

Throughout the entire pandemic, we’ve taken customer and employee safety extremely seriously. Never-before-seen sanitizing protocols were instituted that have made LIRR and MTA stations, trains, subways, and buses cleaner than ever before. We’ve distributed millions of free masks to customers in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And we’ve launched aggressive mask and vaccine campaigns both for our customers and employees.

Last week, the MTA went a step further to make it easier than ever to keep you and your fellow passengers safe. We launched a pilot public vaccination program at eight walk-in sites across the MTA system, including at LIRR’s Penn Station and Hempstead Station. The program is proving successful. More than 2,200 people were vaccinated the first two days alone. A truly remarkable effort. But please remember, even if you are vaccinated, masks continue to be required for everyone in the mass transit system, including on trains and at stations and outdoor platforms.

As the weather improves and sporting events and shows return to New York, we are excited to see our ridership grow. With summer just around the corner, Long Island’s busy tourist season will soon ramp up – with safety precautions, of course – at beaches, wineries, breweries, and other local destinations. Keep your eyes open for LIRR tours and beat the summer Island traffic the way seasoned travelers know how – and take the train.

Don’t forget to download our completely revamped LIRR TrainTime app. It has everything you need to plan a safe trip, including tools that show real-time seating availability, accessibility information, historical and real-time passenger loading data, and much more. We’re providing riders with as much information about their ride as possible so you can feel empowered, informed, and most of all, safe.

Catch you on the rails and keep sharing your thoughts with me when you see me!

Phillip Eng is president of MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: Here’s Why You Should Take the Long Island Rail Road Today

Long Island Rail Road
Long Island Rail Road riders board a train in Long Beach (Photo by Joseph Abate).

2020 was a year to remember and a year full of unprecedented challenges. Heroes across so many walks of life rose to the occasion including our own LIRR workforce to meet them head on. I’m proud to say that the LIRR has never been safer, cleaner or more reliable than it is today. Last year we implemented Positive Train Control across our territory, accomplished record infrastructure state of good repair work, implemented industry leading sanitization efforts, and saw strong mask compliance from our riders. Essential workers have been safely riding the LIRR throughout the pandemic and now we are seeing ridership tick up.

This is a direct result of everyone’s commitment to beating the virus and now with  more and more vaccinations, we are working with communities as they look to rebound. Restaurants are staying open later with expanding capacity, as businesses reimagine their workplace, workers are returning, destinations are welcoming folks back, and sport fans can again root for the home team in person; and throughout all of this, the LIRR continues to run and serve the returning ridership.

Those who have been riding know better: no need to sit in traffic, or to worry about parking, leaving the driving to us.

We’ve made it easier than ever for you, too: with a host of industry leading user-friendly features, our innovative LIRR TrainTime app can be used before and during your trip, to help you find the least crowded trains and the least crowded cars – so you can feel as comfortable as possible. And no phone, no problem, this information is now available on our platform signs.

So as riders come back you will see we’ve been hard at work continuing to rebuild a new railroad for Long Island. Third Track and East Side Access continue to progress and when complete will allow us to better support returning ridership in more ways than ever before on this railroad in its 187-year history. This will prove invaluable in serving changing ridership patterns and successful transit-oriented development that’s surging across the Island.

Prior to the pandemic, we continuously broke ridership records with significant growth in discretionary travel – and we have faith that ridership will continue to grow and build up as more and more people get vaccinated allowing everyone to get out and enjoy all that Long Island and New York have to offer.

I’m glad to see that customers remain vigilant by wearing a mask while at our stations, on our platforms, and aboard our trains, for the duration of their trip. And if you forgot yours or need another, don’t worry we have them available at our ticket windows and continue to hand them out for free. This ensures the safety of our customers, of their fellow passengers, and of our employees.

We’re committed to doing everything we can to keep essential workers moving during this entire pandemic, and we’re excited to welcome back more customers who are beginning to commute to work again, or those who simply want to use us to get to leisure destinations across the Island and New York City.

So get out of your cars, help the environment, join us and #TaketheTrain. We look forward to having you back!

Phillip Eng is president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: LIRR, Back on Track and Vaccinating Employees

LIRR conductors
Long Island Rail Road Station. (Photo by Joe Abate)

Covid-19 has affected us all in so many ways and battling it for the past year has pushed us all to our limits.  Personally, professionally and socially, we’ve all made sacrifices and been touched at all corners of our lives. We’ve lost loved ones and have had to adjust our routines and way of life to fight the virus.

But all of this will make us stronger, and for a moment I want to focus on what’s ahead of us. With vaccination programs across New York State getting shots into the arms of millions of New Yorkers, I say we’re well on our way to getting back to the way things used to be. Or at least a version of it.

At the LIRR specifically, we’ve been steadily vaccinating our own employees. At last count, 2,300 employees (almost 33% of our total workforce) have gotten at least one shot. I’m proud of this effort and continue to encourage all employees to get vaccinated as we continue to work to keep our workforce and our customers safe.

Restaurants in New York City are now allowed indoor dining capacity at 50%, with 75% capacity permitted on Long Island. Just last week, Governor Cuomo announced that the Mets and Yankees will start allowing fans to return to the stands, with limited capacity on April 1, alongside large outdoor venues for live concerts and shows. These reopening announcements are the good news we’ve all been waiting for. But it’s also a stark reminder that what we’ve been doing to keep COVID-19 transmission rates low has been working. So please, keep wearing your mask, keep washing your hands, and get a vaccine when it’s your turn.

We have been adjusting service throughout the pandemic to meet the needs of LIRR customers, and on March 29, we’ll be adding additional service back to our schedules. As more and more people rejoin the system, we’ll be keeping track of ridership figures and will add service as necessary to keep New York moving. We’ll continue working with our local elected officials as well as engaging with our ridership about service as we work to serve the diverse ridership needs across Long Island.

Haven’t ridden public transportation in a while? Don’t worry, we have your back. Plan your trip ahead of time using the new features in our TrainTime app that show you how crowded a particular train was over the last several days, along with real-time loading data that can help you find the least crowded car on a currently running train. Our aim is to arm you with all the information you need to have a safe, comfortable ride.

As we well know, the weather only gets better from here. Let’s all help New York’s economy by getting back on the LIRR, Metro-North, the subways and the buses. Let’s take advantage of everything our diverse and wonderful state has to offer. Your hometown train is ready for the ‘great New York comeback.’ Join us. We can’t wait to see you.

Phil Eng is president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: LIRR and MTA Are Bouncing Back

rail road
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The world is changing in more ways than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime – but we’re keeping up. At the MTA and LIRR, we’re meeting these new challenges, adapting to current circumstances while strategically planning and building for the future.

We energized our commitment to customer satisfaction in 2020 as we shattered several records at the LIRR: our on-time performance for the year was 95.9% (3.5 percentage points above 2019’s figures), maintenance and state-of-good repair work was completed at a pace not seen before in recent history, and we launched a total revamp of our LIRR TrainTime app to include industry-leading features to help customers navigate the system with more information than they’ve ever had before.

This year we’re continuing this momentum and we’re off to a great start. In mid-January, we launched a brand-new feature in the TrainTime app that connects users via chat to one of our customer service agents, who are at the ready to answer your train-related questions seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Initial signs point to the success of this latest feature, with agents answering nearly 450 chats on our busiest day so far – during the Feb. 1 snowstorm – and more than 1,150 chats since the January 18 launch.

This latest effort is helping us build on a robust customer service effort we launched shortly after I joined the railroad in spring 2018. That summer, we launched LIRR Care, a service that allows us to better serve customers with limited mobility who need an extra hand while using the LIRR. It’s proving vital as ever, with more than 6,000 customers helped to date – with more than 1,500 helped last year. Simply give us a call at 718-LIRR-CARE before you travel, and we’ll be there with a smile to help you along your way.

To us, delivering premium customer service includes managing several key criteria: safety, reliability, accessibility, and robust, clear communication. Our teams across the entire agency are hard at work ensuring, even during this global pandemic, that our customers have public transportation they can count on to get them to and from where they need to go.

Our goal is to help customers navigate our system the safest, easiest, and quickest way possible. Innovative features like the app chat and programs like LIRR Care help us accomplish just that. We want to bring LIRR to even greater heights but through this pandemic we’re going to need significant additional emergency aid from the federal government to do so. With their partnership, we can make the LIRR the best commuter railroad our region has ever seen. I look forward to seeing you back on our trains – and I know you’ll see the difference.

Phillip Eng is president of MTA LIRR.

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OpEd: LIRR Essential Workers Begin to Receive Vaccines

LIRR conductors
Long Island Rail Road Station. (Photo by Joe Abate)

As we start 2021 with new hope, I’m grateful that LIRR employees are beginning to receive vaccines as part of the coordinated MTA effort. This will ensure the continued health of our frontline heroes, allowing them to continue to safely deliver essential service supporting our region’s economic rebound as we continue the fight against this deadly pandemic.  

We look forward this year to ongoing accomplishments of mainline expansion and to providing eastbound service to the new Belmont station ahead of the Islanders 2021-22 season.

While we are optimistic about 2021, I want to recount what was achieved in 2020. To do this amount of work in any year is a great accomplishment, but to do it in the midst of a global pandemic makes this even more remarkable. The efforts by our workforce and management are reflected now in on-time performance, and will be felt by customers for many years to come. 

Our engineering department fortified and renewed our system, ensuring its continued safety today and for the future. We broke a number of installation records in 2020, including more than 287,000 feet of continuous welded rail, and more than 73,000 concrete ties. Every day, we ensure that this work is executed as safely as possible, while constantly looking for ways to minimize costs and achieve efficiencies to make available funding go further. 

This all leads to better and more reliable service for the public. For 2020, our entire system collectively operated on-time at 95.9%, reaching an increase of 3.5 percentage points over 2019. Customers on all our branches benefitted as each of our 11 branches made or exceeded our goal of 94%.

We’ve made great strides toward our goal of cutting down delays that have notoriously frustrated our riders. In just two examples, compared to 2019, our efforts decreased switch trouble delays (down 75%) and broken rails (down 59%). All this was in addition to completing Positive Train Control on schedule, providing an additional layer of safety for riders and employees.

I’m proud that we are continuously improving and have been able to provide safe, reliable service to our customers who have needed us during this pandemic, and for being a vital source of transportation to medical workers, and other frontline employees.  When others return they will find a more efficient and reliable railroad.  None of this could be possible if not for everyone working together as a team.   Battling the pandemic, delivering service, performing vital work, and building for the future has truly been an all-hands effort as we take care of each other. Thanks to the public, all our employees, and labor leaders for their partnership in helping us continue to build the best railroad Long Island has ever seen.

Phillip Eng is president of the Long Island Rail Road.

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OpEd: Long Island Rail Road Is Safer Than Ever, Ready For 2021

LIRR conductors
Long Island Rail Road Station. (Photo by Joe Abate)

By Phil Eng, MTA LIRR President

With 2020 over and with the Covid-19 vaccine distribution underway, I know we’re all hopeful for a fresh start in 2021. 

And I’m proud to say that going into the new year, the Long Island Rail Road is the safest it’s ever been. In December, the Long Island Rail Road, alongside our sister railroad Metro-North, successfully completed a nationally mandated safety project called Positive Train Control, designed to protect against human error while operating trains to help prevent accidents. 

This effort could not have been done without our incredible PTC project team, led by Debbie Chin and Andrew Arenth, whose leadership, expertise, and innovative thinking ensured that we met the federal deadline amid a year of unprecedented challenges. 

This team worked tirelessly to install equipment on 305 route miles across the entire LIRR territory, along with equipment on 1,055 train cars, 151 wayside interface units, 108 communication locations, and more than 4,200 transponders. More than 3,000 LIRR personnel are now trained on this PTC system, ensuring a safer ride for all. 

This important accomplishment adds to the roster of recent safety improvements we’ve made, including the installation of new safety measures at all 289 railroad crossings; the first-of-its-kind partnership with GPS navigation app WAZE to alert motorists to upcoming railroad crossings; and the continuing efforts to modernize infrastructure and our signal systems, along with concrete tie replacements, enhanced rail testing, and the installation of continuous welded rail. 

As we embark on new infrastructure activity for 2021, flowing into the spring months, we are looking forward to another successful year of delivering critical projects, and will continue to keep safety at the forefront of everything we do. 

Despite all the new challenges we faced and had to overcome in 2020, I’m thankful for all the significant accomplishments that we have been able to deliver. Looking ahead, all of us here at the railroad remain committed to continuous improvement for our customers and our employees. 

Let’s all watch out for each other, have a safe and healthy holiday season, and a promising start to 2021.

This op-ed first appeared on amNY.com.

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