Archive for East Side Access Project
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a sense, the MTA’s East Side Access project has gotten a pass from just about everyone. It’s a worthwhile project, but it was originally supposed to be in revenue service by late 2012. It’s nearly a decade over schedule and billions of dollars over budget, but few people seem to care. The media has barely covered it; the public doesn’t care. Unlike the Second Ave. Subway, it doesn’t disrupt lives, but it just goes on and on and on.
By and large, the MTA has been forthcoming with budget information on East Side Access. We know that the project will cost more than $8 billion, and we know that this figure is well beyond initial estimates. We know it’s been delayed and delayed again, and we know the agency is going to have to spend money on new rolling stock to meet demand. In all senses, managing the budget for this project has been a disaster.
Enter Thomas DiNapoli. The New York State Comptroller has the power to do any number of audits on the MTA with any sorts of conclusions, but I’ve often been frustrated by his results. He re-reports numbers that already available in MTA materials without offering guidance on controlling costs. This time around, DiNapoli has discovered that East Side Access is — gasp — over budget and late. Shocking news, I know.
“Time and again, the MTA has come up short on the goal to deliver the East Side Access project on schedule and within budget,” DiNapoli said in a press release. “While this project is an important addition to the regional mass transit system serving New York City and Long Island, taxpayers will have to bear the brunt of these unanticipated costs. There must be lessons learned at the MTA from this experience as they move forward with their capital program.”
Here are some of DiNapoli’s stunning conclusions:
The MTA’s current cost estimate for East Side Access is $8.25 billion, but that figure grows to $8.76 billion when the cost of additional passenger railcars needed to meet service demand is factored in.
The MTA has acknowledged that its initial cost estimates and schedules (which were released in 1999) were based on conceptual plans with virtually no engineering work behind them.
By the time design work had advanced in 2006, the estimated cost had grown to $6.3 billion and the completion date had been pushed back four years to December 2013.
Since 2006, the cost has grown by $2.4 billion, or 38 percent, and the completion date has been pushed back another six years. A range of factors, including overly aggressive schedules, the number of large concurrent infrastructure projects, a contractor that performed poor quality work and unforeseen construction challenges increased cost and contributed to delays.
The MTA estimates that there is an 80 percent probability that the actual cost of East Side Access may be at or below its current estimate, and that service could begin up to one year earlier than currently forecast. Conversely, there is a 20 percent probability of additional costs or delays…
Debt service on bonds issued by the MTA to fund the cost of East Side Access is estimated to exceed $300 million in 2019 when the project enters service. This represents nearly 11 percent of the debt service for the MTA’s entire capital program in 2019. Debt service is reflected in the operating budget and is funded with fares, tolls and tax revenues.
A rezoning of the area around Grand Central Terminal to permit higher density office buildings proposed by Mayor Bloomberg, in combination with the completion of East Side Access in 2019, is expected to increase overcrowding on subway platforms and surrounding passageways.
None of these bullet points were conclusions DiNapoli reached through his own analysis, and they were all available in MTA board books released to the public last May, if not earlier. DiNapoli is, in other words, telling us something we already know: The East Side Access project has turned into a boondoggle. Contractors are reaping the benefits, and we the taxpayers are getting worked over on a daily basis.
So how can the MTA control costs in the future? What does the New York State comptroller offer as to lessons for the future? Well, he offers up a big fat nothing. His ultimate bullet point concerning rezoning could be culled from recent newspaper headlines and has very little to do with the costs or completion of the East Side Access project.
I would love to see DiNapoli’s office do more. We all know there are problems, inefficiencies and massive budget overruns, but tell us why. Tell us how to avoid it for future problems, and add to the dialogue. Regurgitating public records is simply an additional waste of taxpayer dollars albeit from the Comptroller’s Office instead of the MTA.
It’s a good time to be Grand Central Terminal. Currently being feted by politicians and rededicated for another century, the Terminal is celebrating its centennial today with a full slate of musical performances, celebrity appearances and a whole slate of fun and games. For such an iconic building and an important part of New York City’s transit infrastructure, the grand building deserves the accolades.
While not everyone may want to celebrate the landmark, over the past century, the building has seen a lot. It has lived through the age of the railroads, the rise of the car, rapid growth in Midtown, two World Wars, a New York City collapse and, more recently, a city revitalized. It has served as the grounds for many a romantic encounter. It has become such a sought-after destination that an Apple Store has taken up prime real estate and a Shake Shack may one day arrive in its lower level food court. No longer just a launching point for travelers from the north, the building is a destination unto itself.
Yet, for all the talk of 100 years, it’s not where Grand Central has been that counts; rather, it’s where it’s going. The next 10 years for the Terminal will set the stage for the next 100 and beyond. Under and around Grand Central, there is a lot happening that will impact the future of Midtown. An effort to rezone and up-build the area has taken off, and Grand Central will be the focal point. Along with investments in the Terminal, the city wants to improve the subway infrastructure in Midtown East as well, and I’ll have more on that next week.
Underneath, East Side Access is lumbering to completion. It’s a flawed project, with rampant cost overruns and an extended timeline well beyond its original projected completion date. It suffers from the same problems that the ARC Tunnel had — namely, that it’s about 15 stories underground — but will serve to bring around 160,000 daily LIRR riders into Midtown East.
Recently, The Wall Street Journal’s Ted Mann took a tour of the construction site and wiggled some choice words out of Michael Horodniceanu’s mouth. The head of the MTA’s Capital Construction unit spoke about the project:
“There’s no doubt in my mind that people will use it,” Horodniceanu said, walking through what was once a rail yard for trains on the existing lower level of Grand Central. The space is now on its way to becoming a concourse for travelers heading down to the unfinished platforms below…
“It’s always hard when you have a project that is, in many ways, visionary to accomplish it,” he said. “People, they want to know what’s on their plate tomorrow night when they have supper. They don’t want to know what’s going to be here in 2020 or 2019.”
Holding court with a group of reporters, Horodniceanu conjured a favorite image: Some future archaeologist uncovering the tunnel boring machine his crew buried into rock after completion of their tunnels, somewhere near 37th Street. In the meantime, he said, the station he and his workers are building would be destined to become as much a part of the city’s fabric as the grand edifice up at street level.
“After 200 years of Grand Central, they’re going to be able to see two pieces: the original Grand Central and what we’re building now,” he said.
By the end of the decade, when East Side Access work is completed, it may be tough to reconcile that experience with the one we know at Grand Central today. Tracks feed off of the main concourse or a lower level, and access is easy. In the future, it will take a few minutes longer to get down the tracks, and soaring historic ceilings will be a part of the ride but not the first sight for many. As the city grows, though, it may not matter. We need more rail capacity, and a Long Island connection to the East Side is long overdue.
Here’s to the next 100 years, no matter how imperfect.