Archive for East Side Access Project

Escalators underneath 45th St. will take LIRR riders into the East Side Access caverns. (Photo via MTA Capital Construction)

When the MTA Board begins its meetings on Monday this week, the Capital Program Oversight Committee will hear its quarterly update on East Side Access, and for the most part, the project seems to be humming along. The opening date for the long-awaited arrival of the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central remains on pace for December of 2022, and the project seems to be adhering to its re-basedlined $11.2 billion budget.

At a top level, project management seems to have improved as change order requests and processing times have dropped while the heavy construction work — including the complicated Harold Interlocking rebuild — is proceeding apace. At this point, work on the last heavy contract has begun, and testing will begin in earnest later this year. East Side Access remains a boondoggle amidst New York City’s recent spate of 21st Century boondoggles, but with recent estimates showing the work is approximately 80-85% complete, it’s a boondoggle with an end in sight.

It is, thus, awfully strange that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his ninth year in office, has decided that now is the time to review the East Side Access project in an effort to speed up completion. He’ll yet again turn to his trusted panel of Columbia and Cornell engineering professors who threw the L train work into chaos, but the Governor’s ultimate end goal — another project for which he can attempt to play savior? A ribbon-cutting before his next reelection campaign? — remains elusive. Let’s try to unpack it.

A budget maneuver and a project review

The East Side Access review arose in the context of the budget negotiations which ushered in congestion pricing and a slew of MTA “reforms” that drew less-than-stellar reviews from good government groups. The legislation was a simple paragraph clearly engineered by the Governor. It reads:

For purposes of an independent review of the project commonly referred to as “East Side Access”, the metropolitan transportation authority shall establish an outside expert advisory group to review such project and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. Such outside experts shall include members of the outside independent review team established to review the project commonly referred to as the “L-train project”. Such review shall be completed as soon as practicable for consideration by the metropolitan transportation authority board.

That’s the entirety of the mandate. It involves once again gathering a panel of local academics who may or may not have expertise in the management and scoping of a massively-complex, multi-year, multi-billion dollar project and asking them to overhaul the whole thing with a decade into construction and with just 15 percent of the work left. To say this is shutting the barn door after the horse escapes is an understatement.

The lower level platforms, seen here in late January of 2019, are coming into view as East Side Access is projected to open in late 2022. (Photo via MTA Capital Construction)

In comments after the budget was passed, Cuomo added some color to the request. He put out a rather milquetoast statement, relying on one major exaggeration concerning construction timelines, as local reporters unpacked the three-sentence order for a project review. “East Side Access is one of the biggest challenges facing the MTA,” the governor said. “It has taken over 50 years and the price has increased 11-fold. The project is still about four years from completion and operation. We recently had great success by having outside experts review the L Train tunnel project where their recommendations made a dramatic difference, bringing cutting edge technology and different design ideas to the MTA. The budget that just passed directs the MTA to conduct a similar process on the East Side Access project to see if there are any new ideas that could expedite construction or reduce cost. It can only be a net positive exercise.”

At this stage, it’s worth noting that ground-breaking for East Side Access in its current iteration was held in 2007, and while parts of the tunnel had been built in the 1960s and the project had been in the discussion and planning stages on and off over the decade, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it’s taken 50 years of work to get to where we are today. It’s taken over 20 years though from when then-Senator Al D’Amato and then-Governor George Pataki began to pressure the MTA to plan for the project and helped fund the initial assessments and engineering work. That by itself is far too long, and Cuomo could make his point effectively without bending this timeline. But I digress.

At a subsequent luncheon in front of the Association for a Better New York, the governor yet again focused on his favorite rhetorical trope — his eventual death — and added some very Cuomo-esque color, most of which again stretched reality:

East Side Access project—started in 1969. Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay got together, I love that headline, “Mayor and Governor unite to start transit tube.” Yeah, you see how well that worked out, right? 1969, this is the cost estimates of the East Aide Access. Starts at $75 million in the 60s, it’s now up to $11 billion. 2012, it was $8 billion. How do you go from $8 billion to $11 billion? That is $3 billion, 2012, you’re already into the project for 50 years. How can you be that wrong? You can’t be. And, how can it take so long? At this rate, I don’t think I’m going to be alive for the opening of the East Side Access. I think my grandchild will be there at the opening. Somewhere in the decade of 2040…

With the East Side Access, before I die, we’re going to bring a new team in, the same way we did with the L train, we’re going to have them overlook all the construction, all the design, and see if there’s a better way to do it. East Side Access will be transformative when it’s done. It allows the trains from Long Island to come right in to Grand Central. It will be phenomenal, but we have to get it done and we need a new set of eyes to do it…

Over the next four years, I am willing to put my name on the line and tell you exactly what we are going to get done…East Side Access is going to be open or you can bury my heart in the East Side Access.

Whether the governor’s last line on East Side Access is a promise or a threat remains to be seen. What is true though is that Cuomo’s tortured attempts at proving a point aren’t accurate. Cuomo’s own MTA continues to assert that East Side Access will open in 2022 when Cuomo, who currently has no grandchildren, will still be the governor. It won’t be in 2040 or 2030. The end, as we can see from recent photos, is literally in sight. So what’s going on here?

A tortured timeline and missed budgets

To address that question, let me teach a quick history lesson. As long-time readers know, the tale of East Side Access (which you can peruse via my archives) is one of poor project planning and management. The MTA initially projected costs at $4.3 billion with a completion date of 2009 if construction began promptly after scoping documents were prepared in 1999. Costs grew as the start of the project was delayed, and when funding came through in 2006, the agency estimated it would cost around $6.3 billion and be finished in 2012. Clearly, the executives at MTA Capital Construction, who are now long gone from their jobs, never really knew what they were talking about in the early going.

The project hasn’t fared much better since work began as unanticipated complexities and a lack of inter-agency coordination plagued work from the start. The timeline slipped from 2012 to 2016 to 2019 and finally to 2022 while the budget increased rom $6.3 billion to $7.3 billion to $8.3 billion to $9.7 billion to $10.2 billion to its current price tag. Newsday ran down the cost estimates and timelines last year, and it is a textbook example of bad planning.

No one will ever make the mistake of defending East Side Access. As I wrote last year at around this time when I examined the increasing costs, this project wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis, and the no-build option would have been chosen had costs been scoped properly from the outset. The feds wouldn’t have funded it, and the money would have been put to better use in New York.

“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,” I wrote last year, and I stand by it.

Why then am I skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s motives here? Is it because anyone watching for the last nine years should have an inherent distrust of Cuomo’s relationship to transit and his willingness to abuse the MTA to make him look good? Of course.

Andrew Cuomo has been the governor for most of the East Side Access construction

Construction on East Side Access began just over 12 years ago, and Governor Cuomo has now been New York’s chief executive for nearly 75 percent of the construction life of East Side Access. Since Cuomo took office and assumed responsibility for the MTA, whether he wants to admit it or not, the construction timeline has slipped by six years while costs have increased by nearly $4 billion. The first thing Cuomo should have done on East Side Access when he took began his first term on January 1, 2011 was order a full-scale top-to-bottom review of the project. Instead, he sat on it for over eight years as project timelines slipped and costs ballooned by almost 55 percent.

Now, Cuomo is on the verge of pulling a Second Ave. Subway on East Side Access, and it’s obvious how this will play out. The experts will conduct their review of the project and recommend some accelerated concurrent testing plan that will likely add to the costs while Cuomo can celebrate a ribbon-cutting prior to his next reelection campaign in 2022. The MTA will have to spend more money to meet the Governor’s timeline, and the proper post-mortem, one that explores how the MTA whiffed so badly on its initial scoping for East Side Access, why the agency couldn’t properly manage this project for over a decade and how we can avoid repeating these mistakes on, say, future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or Penn Station Access or Gateway or any number of badly-needed infrastructure projects, won’t happen.

Ultimately, then, that’s Cuomo’s transit legacy in a nutshell. When it’s too late to enact real reform and push for a transparent overhaul of clearly faulty project scoping, construction management and contracting practices, Cuomo steps in to gain headlines and photos for electoral benefit. That’s not reform; that’s manipulation. He did it with the Second Ave. Subway, and with the assist of Columbia and Cornell Universities, he’s going to do it again on East Side Access. New York City, stuck a precipitous moment in its infrastructure history, deserves better, and better should begin with a real assessment of everything that went wrong with East Side Access. This maneuver is not it.

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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.

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A glimpse inside the future home of the East Side Access terminal. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

This cavern will one day host four tracks on two levels for LIRR trains. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

Waterproofing efforts loom over the massive East Side Access tunnel. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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. Read More→

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An East Side Access drill bit, right, and an F train had an unfortunate encounter today. (Photo: MTA)

When you or I think about a drill bit, we probably conjure up images of something small used to secure some houseware to the wall, maybe 3/4 of an inch. We don’t really think of drill bits on the scale of the East Side Access project, but today, numerous subway riders and the MTA had a close call with a giant drill bit as it pierced a subway tunnel and narrowly avoided an F train with 800 on board.

The Daily News had the story about the runaway 10-inch drill bit:

A contractor operating a drill as part of the MTA’s East Side Access project mistakenly penetrated a Queens subway tunnel on Thursday, and the massive bit scraped the top and side of an occupied F train, transit officials said. Some 800 passengers were aboard the Jamaica-bound train at the time, about 11:45 a.m. Nobody was hurt in the terrifying blunder, but it was far too close for comfort. “That’s a near miss,” an MTA supervisor said, wondering what would have happened if the bit had made a direct hit and punctured a subway car’s passenger compartment. “Oh my God! If it had hit the train, you could forget about it! Of course we are concerned.”

…A contractor working on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, was operating the drill above ground, roughly at the intersection of 23rd St. and 41st Ave. in Long Island City.

The contractor, Griffin Dewatering New England, Inc., was using the drill to expand a well, said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. An MTA source familiar with the work said the contractor was at fault. “Some people don’t follow instructions; they drilled deeper than they were supposed to.”

This comes at the end of the week during which the MTA David L. Mayer, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board, to be the agency’s first Chief Safety Officer. It also comes at the end of the week during which the NTSB ripped into Metro-North, calling last year’s derailments, injuries and deaths “preventable.” For more on that — and criticism lobbed toward the FRA as well — check out Railway Age’s take and The Times’ piece on the press conference.

Much like the drill bit exiting the tunnel today, the only way to go from here is up.

East Side Access may be completed sometime around my 40th birthday.

East Side Access may be completed sometime around my 40th birthday.

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.

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East Side Access progress as of October. The project is not expected to be completed until 2021. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

When word came down a few weeks ago that East Side Access was again over budget and late, I guessed the delay would be minimal, pushing the project’s completion date back into 2020. Today, Ted Mann blew the cover off that theory as he reports in The Wall Street Journal that East Side Access may not be completed until 2021 and could cost as much as $10 billion. It is the latest setback for a deeply flawed project beset with problems.

Mann reports:

Officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will present a new timeline for the project, known as East Side Access, to members of the MTA board on Monday, and now believe trains might not run into the station until 2021 or beyond. Others within the authority said the project cost might not reach $10 billion, and noted that the higher estimates build in the risks of future delays. The timeline for completion also could be shortened, one official said. The MTA’s most recent cost estimate was $8.2 billion.

Amid the disappointment with the latest delays, the project executive overseeing East Side Access is departing, according to a person familiar with the matter. Alan Paskoff, a senior vice president at the MTA’s Capital Construction division, will leave the agency in April, according to this person. Mr. Paskoff couldn’t be reached for comment…

The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. In 2006, when a federal grant agreement was completed, the MTA said it could run LIRR trains into the station by December 2013. The date slipped to 2016 by 2010, when Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff wrote to a U.S. senator that progress had been “grim.”

The new completion estimate has its roots in November 2012, when officials at the MTA’s Capital Construction division rejected the bids for a major contract to build the “Manhattan Structures”—construction in the station caverns and related facilities and systems. The bids had come in some $365 million over the MTA’s budget for that phase of work. Rather than accept the bids, MTA officials said, the authority rejected them and broke the Manhattan Structures contract into smaller segments, some of which are still being advertised for bids.

The MTA has reserved all comments on East Side Access until after Monday’s board committee meetings, but this thing is a mess. While officials have repeatedly called it the “most technically complex” of all MTA mega-projects, this is a self-inflicted wound. The station cavern is unnecessarily deep, and the engineering challenges have added to the project’s woes. It’s not yet clear exactly why this project will be eight years and billions of dollars over budget, but heads should roll and causes discovered.

With the latest news, the questions will sure to focus around its future. Should the MTA continue? Can the money go elsewhere? At this point, too many federal dollars have been sunk into this project and too much of it exists to stop now. It was flawed from the start and continues to be a never-ending morass seven stories beneath Grand Central.

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Penn Station Access may have to wait for East Side Access. (Image via @NYGovCuomo)

The news that East Side Access is yet again over budget and off schedule isn’t just an embarrassment for a project that’s been plagued with troubles. It has a cascade effect too on the entire region. The longer we wait for East Side Access, the longer we have to wait for Penn Station Access, and the longer we wait for Penn Station Access, the less likely its current champion will be in office. Meanwhile, the MTA is trying to incorporate commuter rail into the city’s transit fabric, but can it do so without rationalizing the fare?

In a sense, Penn Station Access is the dependent stepson of East Side Access. When ESA finally opens, a few trains will shift from the West Side to the East Side, and despite the selfish whining from Long Island politicians, the MTA will have space to send some Metro-North trains to the West Side. New Yorkers from both sides of New York City’s suburbs will be better distributed to the side of the city with their places of employ, and everyone wins. The planning for Penn Station Access can start now, and if the money is there, work can begin. But until East Side Access opens, Metro-North riders hoping to get to Penn will have to wait.

Furthermore, with Gov. Cuomo throwing his support behind the Penn Station plan, we may cast a wary eye at East Side Access delays. There’s a chance Cuomo could still be governor in 2020 when ESA opens, but he could move on to bigger and better things by then. If he’s not around, will Penn Station Access live to see the light of day (and the green of money)? It’s no sure thing, but the longer East Side Access takes, the more likely enthusiasm for Penn State Access will dim.

Finally, there is a question of fares. The MTA clearly views Penn Station Access as a way to better serve areas in the Bronx that seem — and are — remote. As The Times details today, Co-Op City would stand to benefit tremendously from a Metro-North stop promising access to both Midtown and Greenwich, CT, in 30 minutes. But some residents are skeptical, and the culprit lies in the fares.

As Stephen Smith detailed in a New York Magazine piece a few weeks ago, the MTA’s desire to get city residents on commuter rail clashes with fare policy and operations. He wrote:

The MTA treats Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road as a limited, luxury service for suburbanites commuting during peak hours, with city residents largely excluded from the lines that run through neighborhoods like Ozone Park and Jamaica in Queens and Tremont in the Bronx. But each of them could be transformed into super-express subways: The LIRR, for example, could easily handle trains every twenty minutes from Forest Hills into the city midday and late at night (to pay for it, retrain conductors as train drivers), compared with the hour-long waits between trains today—a welcome relief line for the overcrowded subway beneath Queens Boulevard. And with more frequent trains, railroad stations in Queens that were axed decades ago could be added back without slowing down existing commuters. Elmhurst could get its LIRR stops back, and the confluence of lines at Sunnyside Yards merits a major transit junction, with all of the development that would follow.

A one-way, peak-hour, off-board Metro-North from Fordham is $8.25 per ride and the monthly for MNR service only is nearly twice as much as a 30-day MetroCard. The costs are out of proportionate to the benefits and do little to encourage ridership. There is, after all, a reason why as of the mid-2000s fewer than 1000 people per day used some of the Bronx’s Metro-North stations.

So these are the challenges the MTA faces: Get East Side Access under control; continue the push for Penn Station Access; and figure out a way to better integrate intra-city travel into the Metro-North and LIRR fare structure. These aren’t insurmountable challenges, but the deck is ever so slightly more stacked against timely forward progress.

A glimpse at progress on the Manhattan side of the East Side Access project as of October. The giant construction effort is once again delayed and over budget. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin.

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.

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A proposed build of the Penn Station Access plan.

Despite the fact that Long Island has thrived due to transit, LI residents and politicians have long fought against any sort of transit upgrades for the area. Nassau County’s NICE has not been a success while NIMBYism has killed a much-needed third track for the LIRR’s Main Line. Now, with East Side Access inching forward an the MTA’s Penn Station Access plan for Metro-North coming into view, Long Islanders are throwing a selfish fit over transit improvements that will benefit the region.

The latest salvo in the inexplicable war pitting Long Islanders against New Yorkers from points north of the city comes to us courtesy of Jack Martins, a State Senator from Nassau County. He’s not the first to object to Penn Station Access. In fact, we first heard word of Long Island insurgency in March when Charles Fuschillo raised some concerns. But Martins, in an Op-Ed he wrote for a local Hicksville newspaper, takes this opposition to an entirely new level.

Claiming his missive comes from the “Department of Bad Ideas,” Martins writes against Penn Station Access. With a misguided reference to the Payroll Tax as a selective tax targeting “only downstate businesses whether their employees used mass transit or not,” Martins rails against the future plans:

Lest these ideas feel lonely, they’re now trumpeting yet another that is so illogical that, if adopted, certainly belongs in their top goofs of all time: displacing LIRR trains at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. That would mean by 2016, four railroads – LIRR, NJ Transit, Amtrak and now Metro-North – would share the tracks and platforms with Metro-North adding an “estimated” ten trains per hour. I can just hear the collective sighs of those who regularly brave Penn as it is now and trust me, I sympathize with you. Why would the powers that be at the MTA want to make it worse?

But Thomas Prendergast, the newly-nominated Executive Director of the MTA has already gone on record as supporting the idea and essentially sticking it to us Islanders. He reminds the more than 300,000 daily LIRR commuters, that “…we are a regional agency and we need to make sure we’re doing everything across the region to provide benefits to the people.” (In case you don’t recognize canned statements prepared by out-of-touch PR bureaucrats – that was one.)

I see where this came from. Soon, the Long Island Railroad will have East Side Access into Grand Central station, so there should be room, right? Wrong. I’d love for someone involved – anyone really – to just try to remember why we’re spending billions of dollars to carve through millions of tons of bedrock under the East River. It was because Penn was overwhelmingly recognized as being much too crowded – and I might add – nobody could find any room on tracks leading into Grand Central for the LIRR. Are they now suggesting that taxpayers and commuters foot a bill that will eventually top out at $18 billion only to see the problem we attempted to alleviate made worse?

It’s nonsense. The whole point of the East Side Access Project was to create a terminal under Grand Central Station that would increase ridership on the LIRR, accessing central Manhattan without affecting Penn. In fact, Metro North went undisturbed by the LIRR move to Grand Central because the LIRR was forced to create its own space, literally carving out a cavern for its own terminal.

Where to even begin with Martins’ insanity? Perhaps the price tag would be a good start. East Side Access will clock far over budget and behind schedule, but Penn Station Access won’t cost an additional $9-$10 billion. It uses preexisting tracks and connections to deliver Metro-North trains to the West Side, a booming business center these trains currently do not access. These numbers are simply pulled out of thin air to further a poorly made point.

Second, relying upon the mistaken belief that Penn Station Access would be ready by 2016 when it wouldn’t be considered until after East Side Access is ready, Martins claims that Penn Station Access would make matters at Penn Station worse. It won’t at all because when East Side Access is ready, a lot of the train traffic and passenger traffic into Penn Station will shift to Grand Central. Despite Martins’ protestations concerning more studies, the MTA and regional transit advocates have recognized the impact ESA will have on alleviating some train traffic into Penn and know that Metro-North can slot in without major issues. Politicians, on the other hand, cannot see the forest for the trees.

Throughout the rest of the piece, Martins’ complaints about fare increases ring hollow, and his attempts to portray Long Islanders as victims of the MTA’s callousness seem petty at best and ignorant at worst. He’s distorting transit as a whole and making a mockery of a project that will vastly improve regional access to both sides of Manhattan. As long as we continue to elect these representatives, though, transit policy will remain forever locked in some soft of stasis chamber, not moving forward and nearly moving backward.

Ultimately, Penn Station Access is not nonsense, and it is part of a regional economy and a regional transit network that should deposit riders on both sides of Manhattan. Provincialism from Long Island politicians is nonsense, and I fear these voices will only grow louder as the project nears reality.

After a month containing nearly 2400 controlled explosions, blasting has wrapped underneath Grand Central as part of the East Side Access work, the MTA announced today. According to the agency, crews blasted out 857,000 cubic yards of muck from the future LIRR terminal. It’s enough debris to cover the entirety of Central Park one foot deep.

“This is a very significant milestone for the East Side Access project,” Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction, said. “The caverns are essentially now fully excavated. Much work remains to be done to build the platforms and tracks, and finish what is currently raw, cave-like space. But we now have a fully built shell in which all future work will take place.”

As part of the milestone announcement, the MTA released the video I’ve embedded above showing blasting and progress at the site. The East Side Access project is expected to wrap up eventually this decade.

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