Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The MTA’s East Side Access project is over budget and unlikely to be finished by the end of 2019, the current deadline for the multi-billion LIRR cavern underneath Grand Central. For the MTA, this is but another delay in what has been an unmanageable project. Originally set to cost around $4 billion with a revenue date of 2013, East Side Access will cost over $8.3 billion and may not be ready until 2020.
The agency hasn’t yet released a revised timeline or budget; that’s expected to arrive in a report due in February. But at a hearing in front of the state assembly’s Committee on Corporations, MTA Capital Construction officials said East Side Access was “slipping a little bit further [beyond 2019] and could cost more.” Said Craig Stewart, the senior director of capital programs, “I haven’t heard the update yet on the projected time, but we don’t think we will make 2019.”
As of mid-2012, when the MTA pushed back the completion date from 2018 to 2019, officials said they were 80 percent certain they could meet the new deadlines, and current MTACC President Michael Horodniceanu has focused on deadlines and budgets. Still, the hearing on Friday painted a picture of missed opportunities and poor management. Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo has a comprehensive report:
William Henderson, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said the latest delays will put further out-of-reach critical capacity improvements for “weary” and “disgusted” Long Island commuters. “It is discouraging. I mean, you talk to people on Long Island and they say, ‘I’m never going to ride this thing. I’m going to be retired before it happens,'” Henderson said. The MTA should have done a better job predicting the project’s risks before releasing a projected completion date and budget, he said. “They just weren’t realistic.”
MTA officials noted the project, which entails linking the LIRR to a new, 350,000-square-foot customer concourse at Grand Central via newly bored tunnels, is the largest construction project underway in the country, and a complicated one. “This project has gotten very large,” Robert Foran, MTA chief financial officer, told the Assembly panel. “It’s gone well beyond what the preliminary scope and scale anticipated.”
East Side Access has faced multiple obstacles, including unexpected engineering challenges and underperforming contractors. Stewart said Friday that the MTA has hired an outside consultant with “expertise that we don’t necessarily have” to find ways to expedite the project and reduce its cost. It also has recently gotten some favorable bids from contractors for future phases of the job.
At this point, the only way out of this morass is forward, but there’s no doubt that East Side Access has become a transit disaster. Officials formerly involved with the project have come to regret the shape of things. Though few will talk on the record, fingers have been pointed at politicians, Metro-North/LIRR turf battles and misguided advocacy efforts. It has also given credence to those who supported Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel.
I’m anticipating further details in the next report to the MTA Board. I’m sure for now many people wish these billions could be spent on something not quite as problematic. It is, after all, enough money to wrap up the next two phases of the Second Ave. Subway, and with six years left, who’s to say we won’t have more delays and more cost overruns? That’s been the norm now for nearly a decade.