Sunday, December 21, 2014

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NY1 Political Director Bob Hardt's daily look Inside City Hall.

NY1 ItCH: The NYRA Nightmare of Escaping from Belmont

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More than 100,000 racing fans were set to leave Belmont Park on Saturday night after California Chrome came up short in his quest for a Triple Crown – and most of them paid a nasty price that had nothing to do with a bad bet at the track.

It's not surprising that there would be traffic jams or long lines for Long Island Rail Road trains because of the massive crowd, but what was shocking was the near-total lack of communication from track and LIRR employees, as well as the police.

The insane mob scene – and yes, I was a member of that mob – was part "Walking Dead", part "Titanic", with people at one point being told by the police that the platform leading to the LIRR trains was collapsing. There was no one in charge of a situation that easily could have taken a turn for the worse had one person panicked or done something stupid.

I had taken the train to the track with a friend and while it was very crowded, we made it there in one piece because we arrived relatively early. Later trains were so packed that one rider described it to me as "the worse experience of her life." But that was before she tried to get out of the track and was stuck there for hours.

Our departure was somewhat less horrific because we eventually decided just to walk out of the track and hit the streets of Queens. After asking a cop for directions, we made our way out to the Queens Village LIRR station with thousands of others where we finally got a train to take us to freedom.

But we had to make our own transit sundae. There was no one from the New York Racing Association – which runs the track – telling the thousands of people their options if they didn't want to wait for hours and hours for a train at the overwhelmed LIRR station at the track. A couple of dozen people with bullhorns would have made a major difference. Just like in politics, communication – even if it's telling someone bad news – is key.

It sounded even worse on the auto front. People in cars said they could have abandoned their vehicles in traffic for hours because they weren't moving. Those directing traffic were in short supply. And forget about dedicated bus lanes.

NYRA officials knew for three weeks that more than 100,000 people would descend on their track but their response was as if they had been surprised by a blizzard or a sudden summer squall. Admittedly, it's not easy to adjust when the typical day at the track brings fewer than 10,000 people to Belmont but that's why some people at LIRR and NYRA are paid the big bucks.

Following the Belmont Stakes, Gov. Cuomo was all smiles as he handed over the winning trophy to a smiling Robert Evans, the owner of Tonalist. The governor should have stuck around to see 100,000 other New Yorkers frown as they had a lousy finish to a great day.

Bob Hardt

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