A few weeks ago while speaking to a group of Long Island Business owners, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota previewed what had long been rumored concerning the East Side Access Project. The MTA did not anticipate finishing the project until mid-2019. For an agency long accused of mismanaging large-scale construction projects, this news was not surprising, and on Monday, when the authority confirmed its projections in a presentation to its Capital Project Oversight Committee, we learned just how deep the delays and cost overruns ran.
On the surface, the bad news is, well, bad. According to the most recent MTA projections, the project will not wrap until August 2019 and costs could run as high as $8.24 billion. That price tag is up nearly $1 billion since the last official estimate was released in 2009, and the expected date for revenue service has been pushed back by nearly three years. Those are the 80-percent probability projetions, and the news is bad all around.
As this news broke on Monday, MTA Board members, reporters and train riders all wanted to know the same thing: How did we get here? Six years ago, the MTA had hoped to wrap the project by 2013; three years ago, that date had shifted three years forward. Now, we’re still seven years away from seeing this massive project realized, and skepticism over this newly revised schedule is entirely warranted.
Still, much as they did with the similarly troubled Fulton Street Transit Center a few years ago, MTA officials pledged to stick with the current schedule. “The era of underestimating the cost of big projects is over,” Lhota said. “We’re going to be realistic about the cost and we’re going to budget accordingly.”
Ascertaining how the MTA has botched this project requires two separate arguments, First, the MTA ran into internal problems three years ago when they last assessed their own timeline. In 2009, the MTA put forward their 2016 estimate with no official risk analysis and no determination of the completion percentage. In 2010, when they finally conducted the analysis, the authority determined that their estimate was wildly optimistic. They had a 20 percent chance of hitting the cost and timeline goals. The 80 percent figures were closer to 2017 and $8.01 billion, but the authority never pushed that in public.
In 2011, the authority opted to change its risk analysis figures. Instead of providing a 50/50 figure, they would offer up an 80/20 figure and conduct a risk analysis on every project. So this new figure is a more concrete one. The MTA says there is an 80 percent chance the project wraps at $8.24 billion and by August 2019. There’s also a 20 percent chance the project comes in at $7.81 billion and is ready by September 2018, but that’s clearly an optimistic estimate. The current 80 percentile projection does, for what it’s worth, contain a 12-month contingency period and a cushion of around $0.36 billion should things go wrong.
The other problem, though, highlights what happens when various agencies — city, state, federal — who need to share resources have to work together. The short of it is that the MTA and Amtrak seem to be unable to properly coordinate train schedules and work on the Harold Interlocking, thus leading to massive delays and other assorted headaches. Ted Mann went in depth on this issue in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, and I strongly urge you to read that article if you haven’t already.
As Mann relates, the interaction between the MTA and Amtrak reached inept proportions when the federal agency decided to move workers at the last minute to Grand Central for National Train Day, leaving the MTA out in the cold. In official documents on Monday, the authority stopped short of pointing fingers, but it’s clear the MTA is fed up with working with Amtrak. It is, Michael Horodniceanu said of the East Side Access problems, “like riding a bicycle while trying to change the tire.”
So as the feds gear up to audit the project, we are essentially left where we were when things began. The project is optimistically seven years away from revenue service and another billion dollars in the hole. The money has to come from somewhere, and the faith in the MTA does too. At some point, funding partners will dry up, and large-scale projects will never materialize right at the time the city needs them the most. So now we wait seven more years. It’s always seven more years.