East Side Access, the long-awaiting plan to bring LIRR trains to the East Side, is one of New York City’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind public works that just keeps on going, seemingly without end but also without disruption. To that end, it comes and goes as part of the public conversation around transit priorities and any attempts at reassessing the project over the years via normal metrics has gone nowhere. Now, East Side Access is back in the news as costs have ballooned by another $1 billion, and the project which was originally expected to serve around 162,000 people per day, is going to cost at least $11.1 billion. Why exactly are we doing this?
The story first broke about a week and a half ago, and Alfonso Castillo had a deep-dive into the cost increases in Newsday, the Long Island-based paper that has been on top of the troubles with this complex for over a decade. In short, and as this week’s MTA Board materials make clear, the MTA wants to blame Amtrak for these latest cost increases, but finger-pointing doesn’t mean anyone else will cover this latest $1 billion uptick in a project that the MTA once estimated would cost $3 billion. Here’s Castillo:
The MTA is blaming much of the latest $955 million budget increase on Amtrak, saying that its failure to provide needed help at a critical work site in Queens has resulted in lengthy delays and ballooning costs. Despite the latest setback, MTA officials say the project — called the largest public works effort underway in the United States — will remain on schedule to be completed by the end of 2022, thanks in part to new management strategies that will speed up the pace of the work.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief development officer Janno Lieber, who last year took over management of East Side Access, acknowledged that MTA mismanagement of the project was also a factor in the latest cost overrun. Among the agency’s mistakes, Lieber said: setting unrealistic budget and timeline estimates “without really knowing the complexity” of the project; unnecessarily splitting the project into 50 different contracts that have frequently conflicted with each other; making discretionary design changes after the project was well underway; overpaying for some contracts that were not competitively bid and even at one point ordering steel beams that were the wrong size.
“We bear some of the responsibility. But the principal change impact to the cost is the extension of the time of the construction. And that is mostly attributable to Amtrak,” said Lieber, referencing what the MTA has said is Amtrak’s inadequate cooperation at the Harold Interlocking in Queens, where all work involving Amtrak’s overhead catenary wire system must be overseen by the federally funded intercity passenger railroad.
In a letter to new Amtrak president and chief executive officer Richard Anderson sent Friday, [April 13,] Lieber said Amtrak had ”ignored” the MTA’s repeated pleas for cooperation and caused $340 million in cost overruns just since 2014. “Going forward we need Amtrak to give the East Side Access project a very different level of effort,” Lieber wrote in the letter.
Lieber’s letter is available here, but it does not make clear exactly why Amtrak’s lack of cooperation has cost the MTA so much or why the MTA couldn’t simply pay Amtrak to staff up to ensure crews had proper access and oversight to the Harold Interlocking. This week’s Capital Project Oversight Committee materials that the MTA Board will be discussing tomorrow morning sheds some light on the dollar amounts involved. Take a look:
The bulk of the cost increases in the “force account” bucket are assigned to Amtrak, and this aligns with the letter blaming the national rail agency. But the larger increases are around third-party and soft costs. The soft cost increases, in particular, this late in a project’s timeline are alarming as it seems the MTA cannot project and manage costs that should have been anticipated at the outset (or at least during the 2014 re-baselining exercise). On the bright side, the MTA still anticipates a December 2022 opening date, and so at the least project timeline has not slipped over the past few years.
The exact details this time around are almost besides the point as we as a city have become inured to the utter absurdity of this project. Take a look at this timeline of delays and dollar spikes from Newsday for a project that is expected to serve fewer people than the total ridership for just the current phase of the Second Ave. Subway.
It seems almost too late at this point to ask why this project is continuing; it is after all far too late to go back and most of the money has already been spent. We seemingly have no choice but to keep going because the alternative is a costly infill of a massive cavern and a refund to the feds of billions of dollars spent years ago. But why wasn’t this a question years ago when costs started creeping up and timelines started falling by the wayside?
When first proposed in 1999, the project was billed at around $18,000 per rider. At current expectations and with the same ridership projects, East Side Access will now run to nearly $70,000 per rider. Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway came in at around $22,000 per rider, and ESA’s per-KM costs are now at around $5.5 billion. By any measure, this is an absurdly expensive project that wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, with only around 8000 New York City residents expected to shift from the subway to the LIRR when East Side Access is complete, it’s a massive expenditure by the state in a project that benefits suburban commuters by an extreme amount as the city’s transit needs founder. It is practically antagonistic to a smart investment in transit capacity expansion.
These aren’t easy questions, and they pit New Yorkers against New Yorkers and suburban residents visit urban dwellers in fights that have unfolded for decades. It is also a thought experiment in futility as the MTA isn’t going to stop building the East Side Access project simply because the price has gone up again. But the MTA has gotten away with capital construction larceny here, and no one in Albany has raised a hand to question the worth of this project at any point in the last decade. It is a failure in construction management and a failure in politics as scarce transit dollars flushed into the deep-bore cavern below Grand Central time and time again.