Apr
22

East Side Access price tag passes $11 billion after latest increase

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This week’s MTA Board materials feature a glimpse inside the East Side Access project.

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.

Via Newsday.

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.



25 Responses to “East Side Access price tag passes $11 billion after latest increase”

  1. Jim Kingdon says:

    The sad thing is that there is utility to the project: it does allow a pretty big increase in the number of LIRR trains tp Manhattan.

    But yeah, not at this price. It is the most extreme example of the cost issues which can be a bit hard to nail down (in terms of just what something should cost), but where we should be able to agree got way out of whack here.

  2. Larry Greenfield says:

    “…expected to serve around 162,000 people per day,” really means 81,000 individuals twice a day. At a cost of $11.1B it’s really outrageous to think of the cost per person served.

    • Stephen says:

      To play devil’s advocate, what if it does mean those 162K people twice a day? Yep, still way out of whack.

  3. Stephen says:

    Silly question: His letter says that not just Amtrak & LIRR trains go over the Harold Interlocking, but also New Jersey Transit. I’ve not seen any such trains going anywhere after that location, so is it just so they can ‘turn around?’

    • Subutay Musluoglu says:

      NJT trains use Sunnyside Yard for daytime storage, and have to go through Harold Interlocking in order to do so.

  4. Keith Istré says:

    I believe the impact of this project will come from more than LIRR ridership. If you add the MNR prospect of shifting the New Heaven line through ESA and adding new Bronx stations, the benefits increase. Still, as usual, it is overpriced. However, it is still needed. If we wait, at least currently, for such projects to be reasonable, we will never get any. The parties involved should have had a better plan and compact. Failure of stated coordinations should have penalties and consequences. We really need unibus and standardized guidelines for all our infrastructure projects. This would allow everyone to learn from past mistakes and prevent each project management and or contractor from reinventing the wheel.


    • BenW says:

      MNRR won’t use ESA, so this projected impact comes down to the hope (which LIRR executives throw dirt on every chance they get) that after ESA is completed, the LIRR will release its death grip on East River Tunnel slots, in order to allow MNRR New Haven Line trains to go to Penn Station. As an alternative, for approximately $11 billion less, you could replace all of the senior management of the LIRR and then start working on getting MNRR trains into Penn Station through the East River tunnels based on the fact that those two railroads are actually part of the same agency.

    • Jimmy Snoogans says:

      Through-running trains are the best solution to congestion at Penn (and can increase ridership greatly). I am so glad to see the RPA embrace this (as well as others like the ReThink NYC project). Now we have to combine NJT and the PATH trains under the same umbrella as the MTA.

  5. Subutay Musluoglu says:

    NJT trains use Sunnyside Yard for daytime storage, and have to go through Harold Interlocking in order to do so.

  6. anon_coward says:

    This is going to save people a lot of money once it’s done

    And I think it’s a secret plan to get LIRR out of Penn and to stop dealing with Amtrak

    • SEAN says:

      That very thought crossed my mind as I read your post, but in a slightly different way. I don’t think it is a secret at all… in fact it may benefit almost everyone involved if you think about it for a few minutes.

      1. Penn Station becomes a bit less crowded.
      2. This opens the door for MNR to expand it’s services.
      3. Many LIRR riders will be closer
      to their offices & may not need to filter to the E to get to East Midtown. Of course this is offset by being deep under GCT & the time it takes to exit the station.
      4. Easy transfers between MNR & the LIRR, something I & others can take advantage of & save upwards of 30-minutes round trip.

      • anon_coward says:

        If this means the LIRR and MNR can share a common monthly ticket then it opens up easy commuting options for people in the outer boroughs to work in westchester and Connecticut as well.

      • t-bo says:

        …and more riders feeding into the packed 4-5-6 subways, which also will be crammed with higher-density East Midtown development. And no one has shown how more trains can be run on those lines until the signals get fixed someday.

        • SEAN says:

          In many cases you can just walk the rest of the way unless you are going to the UN or the far east side.

  7. Jimmy Snoogans says:

    If this really is to benefit 81,000 people, that comes to about $140,000 per rider. Not the best way of looking at it, but wow.

    • Jimmy Snoogans says:

      Also, this will be a 20 year project, by the time it’s all done. I hope that they will get a lot more out of this than just adding a few more LIRR trips a day.

  8. AlexB says:

    If the cavern is done, the tunnels are done, and the interlocking in Queens is underway, why are we still four years away from opening? There must be a reason but seems crazy to me it has to take so much more time.

    Management of this project is a joke. Like that time they laid off a bunch of workers because no one even knew what they were hired for. Obvious no one’s paying attention.

    Combined with third track Floral Park to Hicksville, second track to Ronkonkoma, and potential electrification of father out track, ESA does have the potential to transform the LIRR into a near subway like service if they could switch to proof of payment and fire most of their over paid ticket collectors. It’s a sad project now but could be the backbone for much better service long long term.

    • anon_coward says:

      the tunnels weren’t finished when I stopped taking the LIRR last year. And the LIRR still has to do a lot of track work to lay the tracks in the tunnels and connect them to the tracks outside along with the signaling.

      All this stuff has to be scheduled months in advance and Amtrak has to sign off on it.

  9. BrooklynBus says:

    Wasn’t the tunnel completed around 1970? So his could this have first been proposed in 1999?

    What about all the Atlantic Terminal all riders who will lose direct service? Has this been weighed against the numbers who will benefit?

    • anon_coward says:

      there is a shuttle that LIRR runs from Atlantic terminal to Jamaica. No more direct trains from east to Atlantic and vice versa.

  10. LLQBTT says:

    Yet another in a long line of boondoggles.

    Next up: Port Authority Bus Terminal. One can still hope for actual transport improvements at a less than astronomical cost.

  11. johndmuller says:

    I keep wondering if there wasn’t some monumentally stupid mistake made that no one can manage to bring themselves to admit. Like mixing up feet and meters. So several tunnels are missing each other when they are supposed to intersect, or an underground river is in play when the stupid numbers showed it out of play. Maybe all the tunnels were bored too small or the turns too tight. So now it takes double the time because so much of it has to be redone.

  12. Brooklynite says:

    After all this investment, it will still be faster to take the LIRR to Hunters Point and change for the 7 to GCT than to take the LIRR to GCT. That’s not even mentioning how long it’ll take to get out of that absurdly deep cavern!

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