During the MTA Board’s Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting on Monday, one board member asked MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast if the agency should continue work on East Side Access. The news out of the meeting was grim as the worst-case estimate came with a $10.772 billion price tag and a late 2023 completion date. With the delays mounting, Prendergast unequivocally expressed his support for the work. A plan to bring the Long Island Rail Road to the East Side has been part of the MTA’s mission since its founding in 1968, and the agency isn’t about to give up now.
It isn’t quite as simple or noble as Prendergast makes it out to be. Yes, East Side Access in some form or another has been around since the 1960s when the 63rd St. tunnel was designed and then constructed with a lower level for commuter rail trains. But the truth is that the MTA has already sunk billions into this project, has already dug out tunnels from Queens to Manhattan, has already made progress on the caverns and would owe the feds a significant amount of money if the project were to go kaput. The politics and economics of it have left the MTA in a tight spot: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
With that said, Monday’s meeting wasn’t just a pro forma attempt to save face. It had its awkward moments as MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu spent the first few minutes describing the progress the MTA made last year while letting the 800 pound gorilla in the room languish in the corner. It also had its bad news as the MTA’s independent contractor unveiled the range of completion dates. The MTA still feels it can finish the project by the end of 2020 at a cost of $9.6 billion but three other estimates — including one from the FTA — have completion dates that range from November 2022 to September 2023 with price tags going from $9.7 to $10.7 billion. It ain’t 2012, and it ain’t $4.5 billion.
What came out of the meeting though is rather damning. As Ted Mann details at length in The Journal, the MTA will reestablish management control over the project. It will restructure leadership to have better oversight over workers and contractors, and the resulting structure will be aggressive in working to keep the timeline and costs in line. Outside of the inherent design flaws, a lack of clear oversight and leadership has been the criticism most frequently levied at this project from a variety of sources. This restructuring is, at worst, a few years late, and at best, a clear attempt to regain control.
But my takeaway from the meeting was more philosophical: In so many buzzwords, stutters and timelines, the MTA essentially admitted that it had no idea what it was getting itself into when East Side Access began and was in over its head for years. Prendergast repeatedly stressed how this project is the largest public work in the country and as complicated as the ongoing Panama Canal projects. MTA officials also said, in so many words, that Amtrak, freight operators and the LIRR have not been cooperative in adjusting to work schedules. It has been an utterly perfect storm of problems.
In the end — or I guess the middle if this thing still has another eight years to go — we can look to nearly everyone for blame. Contractors had no idea how to bid on this project (or intentionally bilked taxpayers and the MTA). The MTA had no idea how to adequately and accurately plan this project. With turnover at nearly all levels, the MTA also couldn’t put in place an adequate oversight program. The list goes on and on. Maybe we’ve reached a turning point, but it would be naïve of us to think that. Still, we now have a better sense of what went wrong and a path, if a muddled one, toward completion. East Side Access will arrive, if slowly, and for now, it’s still just a money and time sink that is a reminder of our inability to complete anything on time and on budget.