While walking with New York City’s transit reporters through the future home of the East Side Access terminal underneath Grand Central yesterday, the same question came up over and over again: Is this thing worth it? Buried at its lowest point 140 feet below Park Ave., the East Side Access project will bring under 200,000 daily LIRR to Grand Central, shaving up to 30 minutes per day in commuter times. It will also cost over $10 billion and likely won’t open before December 2022, a few months shy of my 40th birthday and 18 years after the MTA and FTA signed a full funding grant agreement for the project.
At this point, you should know the details of East Side Access. It will be an eight-track LIRR terminal that allows for a better distribution of Long Island commuters. It has little effect on the problems plaguing the subways, and its cost per ride — $10.2 billion for 162,000 riders — makes it the least efficient transit construction project in the world. Anyone starting to examine it now would tell you not to bother.
But there I was yesterday, in a dark, dank, loud cavern with reporters who are wise to the MTA’s cost problems and Michael Horodniceanu, the president of MTA Capital Construction who seemed exhausted by the pestering that needs to happen over and over again. When asked by Dana Rubinstein of Capital New York about the escalating costs, Horodniceanu blew off the question. It would, he would say, take “a dissertation” to assess why everything costs so much.
His full answer was even less satisfying. “Why does it cost $10 billion?” he said. “Because New York is expensive.” As if the tautology proves the rule. He added that similar projects the world over cost less because they are built “without using unionized labor.” That’s a political hot potato, but it’s one that contains an element of the truth. Labor costs are driving up New York City’s transit construction costs, but so are FTA impositions, environmental standards and plain old corruption.
Meanwhile, Horodniceanu kept saying “it’s needed.” And why? “The only way you’ll remain competitive on a world map, to be like London, Shanghai, like Paris,” he said, “you need to have public transport. This piece of public transport is extremely important because it brings additional flexibility to be able to bring people from Long Island to the East Side of Manhattan and vice versa.”
There’s so much ex post rationalization going on here that it’s hard to know where to being. London’s construction costs are probably the closest to New York’s, but they’re getting two Crossrail build-outs for far more riders. Plus, they believe in cooperation amongst commuter rail lines and sharing space in underutilized terminals. The LIRR is being sent to a new sub-basement 100 feet below Grand Central’s lower level all for an improvement that will benefit the same number of people as 2% of our daily subway ridership.
It’s hard when you’re underground to look past the grandiose nature of the work. The concourses and platforms will stretch to 50th St., and the space is enormous. Plus, as the MTA has completed 60% of the work and is set to issue contracts by the end of January to cover up to 80%, there is no going back. The agency would have to pay the feds nearly as much in refunds as it would cost to simply finish this seemingly never-ending project. And yet, it’s throwing good money after bad.
Maybe in ten years we’ll look back on the East Side Access project and its Penn Station Access partner and wonder how we lived without the ability to send the LIRR to the East Side and Metro-North to the west. But today, it’s hard to see this as the MTA’s answer to London, Shanghai or Paris, and it’s much, much easier to see this as the MTA’s answer to a lack of inter-agency cooperation, costs run amok and planning in bad need in reform. This is a project that New York City ultimately needs but not at this cost.
I’ll be posting photos throughout the day to my Instagram account. Click through for a slideshow of other shots from underground.