Home East Side Access Project East Side in-Access: A mid-project post mortem

East Side in-Access: A mid-project post mortem

by Benjamin Kabak
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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Stephen Smith January 29, 2014 - 12:52 am

If East Side Access is as complex as the current Panama Canal expansion, how come its overruns make Panama’s look like chump change? Sacyr’s contract for the third set of locks was $3.1 billion (the overall canal expansion was $5.3 billion), and it’s now going to cost $1.6 billion more. (Oh yeah, and the Panama Canal Authority is engaged in a brutal fight to get the contractors to pay for it. Can you imagine the MTA even trying to get its contractors to pay for overruns?)

If the MTA had pulled a Panama Canal and gone over by just $1.6 billion, they’d be calling it on budget.

Clarke January 29, 2014 - 11:40 am

Also, the Panama Canal also cuts thousands of miles, DAYS of travel, and offers safer passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

What can East Side Access brag? No safety benefit and I believe the MTA uses the 45 minutes per passenger per day estimate…not quite 10 days and thousands of miles. (Comparing maritime trade routes to commuter rail is obviously apples/oranges, but a few extra billion on the Panama Canal, which affects MANY more people is pocket change compared to a few extra billion for a project that really affects a comparative handful of commuters)

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:41 pm

Well, to be fair urban projects are simply more difficult than rural projects. The First Transcontinental Railroad was easier, cheaper, quicker, and was completed earlier than the first railroad across Baltimore. (Seriously. Look it up.)

The frustrating thing is, as Clarke says, that East Side Access isn’t that valuable. If we were seeing these sorts of overruns on the Second Avenue Subway, we’d probably say “Well, it’s definitely worth it”. Or if the overruns were on the new Hudson Tunnels, which will allow a massive increase in Amtrak and NJT service.

What does East Side Access do — provide a little relief for the subway lines between Penn Station and GCT? Which *aren’t actually full*, in the case of the Shuttle at least?

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:43 pm

“(Can you imagine the MTA even trying to get its contractors to pay for overruns?)”

This is a big issue. To be fair to the MTA, they are in fact making the contractors pay for the extra costs due to the screwups on the #7 line.

Brandon January 29, 2014 - 6:50 am

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

Im reading a blog written by a child?!

Matt January 29, 2014 - 7:48 am

The kid’s got talent.

Jerrold January 29, 2014 - 12:16 pm

HIS 40th Birthday?
It will be MY 72nd.

Jerrold January 29, 2014 - 12:20 pm

P.S. I assume he’s referring to the worst-case scenario of 2023, so I am too.

Alon Levy January 29, 2014 - 6:46 pm

Since when is a 30-year-old a child?

SEAN January 29, 2014 - 8:50 pm

Obviously you haven’t sene Wedding Crashers.

Bolwerk January 30, 2014 - 11:02 am

Obviously Alon hasn’t been to Williamsburg lately.

Alon Levy January 30, 2014 - 8:40 pm

I’ve been to Williamsburg about four times in my life. There’s a rather large city outside the hipster bubble.

Subutay Musluoglu January 29, 2014 - 7:49 am

East Side Access has truly turned into our version of Boston’s Big Dig. I have been supportive of this project from its inception (I even spent a little time working on it in the late 90s/early 00s) but I can barely contain my anger over the latest delays and cost overruns. Where is the outrage from the MTA Board and other elected officials? We have seen two consecutive MTACC presidents guarantee to the board that the project would be delivered at whatever new schedule / budget they were were presenting at the time. Where is the accountability. In the private sector, Horodniceneau would have been tossed long ago, and Naharaja would never have lasted in the post as iong as he did. While we are not privy to what is being said being closed doors, when board members get their briefings on what is going to be discussed during the public meetings, current and former MTA Board members have been passive and even muted in their criticism and oversight of ESA. It’s as if they have given up and that the delays are a fait accompli. Elected officials are equally complicit. We have state comptrollers and others who spend time focusing on trivial matters in efforts to demonstrate their fiscal prudence, while the real money is being siphoned away. And the press? Please. They would rather chase down incidents of EZ Pass usage and subsidized cars, because you know, that’s where the real money is being wasted.

If the real complex and hard work of tunnel / station excavation is now behind us, as Prendergast has asserted, then please explain how it could take up to almost another decade to install systems and station finishes? Yes, we know already how complex this project is, and how Amtrak is a difficult partner to work with, and the staging at Harold Interlocking is so challenging, etc, etc. I am so bored.

The setting up of an Executive Committee is comic. A project of this size should have had one from the start. Actually I thought that such a body had already been created a few years ago in response to earlier delays.

As one example, Prendergast and Horodniceneau discussed the one specific Manhattan Structures contract, CM012R for which bids came in way over their estimates, which required breaking it up and repackaging it into three smaller packages. We have seen this pattern repeatedly on this project. These exercises, as well as value engineering, are supposed to save money. We have yet to see if that is truly the case. We should see a detailed analysis of how much money is saved when you delay a contract award, and the associated inflation by the time it’s actually awarded, in conjunction with the cascade effects that such repackaging has on another adjacent contracts. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I highly doubt that an appreciable amount of money is being saved. In my opinion, these exercises are nothing more that window dressing, to show that the procurement folks are being fiscally prudent.

The real sad consequence of all of this, is that the longer and costlier ESA takes, the less money will be available for the other much needed expansion projects that we are hoping will be in the 2015-2019 Capital Program. With no additional money coming from the Feds, other than what’s left in the original New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement, the MTA is on the hook for all of these overruns. That means less, if any money for Second Avenue Phase 2, MNR Penn Station Access, etc. It’s a tragedy, that this one project, as critically important as it is, is sucking up all the oxygen in the room.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:44 pm

“If the real complex and hard work of tunnel / station excavation is now behind us, as Prendergast has asserted, then please explain how it could take up to almost another decade to install systems and station finishes? ”

It turns out that providing fresh air and fire protection to a cavern seven stories underground is actually a really painful, obnoxious, and difficult problem. Perhaps putting the station in such a cavern was a mistake. Like so many people told the MTA.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:45 pm

“Where is the accountability.”

Nowhere, clearly.

Ryan January 30, 2014 - 11:46 pm

Forget the oustings, where are the indictments?

Where is our legal system? Where are the measures and mechanisms that should be in place to punish the factual criminals that led us to this point, whoever they may turn out to be?

We’ve got $6 billion of overrun and counting to come up with, and I cannot think of a more deserving bunch to get shaken down for part of it than these guys. Ideally, we can at least extract through fines and penalties enough to make up whatever chunk of change has been blown on this thing and might need to be paid back to the feds (have we actually determined if and how much we would need to give back? Where’s the study to find that out?) and then we can go from there on the study to figure out whether we pull the plug or not (where’s this study?)

Those guys who got in front of us time and time again and told us how everything was great until suddenly this train was off the rails ought to be behind bars and every single liquid asset they’ve got control of drained as part of this money sink.

I am angry about this, and I will continue to be so, and I have a right to be so.

Larry Littlefield January 29, 2014 - 7:58 am

“MTA officials also said, in so many words, that Amtrak, freight operators and the LIRR have not been cooperative in adjusting to work schedules.”

Amtrak I can understand, but that does not affect the work in Manhattan except for debris removal trains. Freight operators? Where?

But the real question is the LIRR. How can they get away with it? This points right back to the heart of evil in this state — the New York State Legislature. Who’s their daddy? Skelos? Silver? How does the LIRR get away with it?

BoerumHillScott January 29, 2014 - 8:38 am

My understanding is that for the last couple of years, the largest source of delays and cost overruns have been in Sunnyside yards and with the tie-in to LIRR, not Manhattan.

It is a total shame that another MTA agency can be blamed for an MTA project having problems.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:49 pm

LIRR has been deeply uncooperative with everyone, remember.

Amtrak is building an expensive set of bypasses just so that Amtrak doesn’t have to deal with the LIRR’s management. LIRR refused a merger with Metro-North because, well, because. LIRR has the disability payments scandal, a whole bunch of featherbedding in the union contracts, was one of the last railroads to get rid of “firemen” (who became irrelevant with the end of steam), etc. etc. etc.

Who’s protecting LIRR? Nassau and Suffolk representatives in the state legislature, from what I’ve been able to tell. They come out fighting whenever there’s any attempt to reform LIRR.

Frankly there aren’t that many representatives from Nassau and Suffolk, but I suspect they have oversized influence over Skelos, because they’re his “base”. (Republicans are losing their grip on upstate, but not so much on Long Island.)

Eric F January 29, 2014 - 9:00 am

It’s too bad that there isn’t any roll out of interim improvements. It seems like ESA is a binary on/off switch. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was some GCT access in 2016, a little more in 2018, etc., but it doesn’t work that way. There are some ancillary down the line improvements in places like Great Neck and Port Wash. that have utility outside of GCT access, but those are also on a very slow boat.

Benjamin Kabak January 29, 2014 - 9:24 am

That’s another big and underreported issue with the project. Every other ancillary benefit flows from ESA opening instead of the other way around. So things like Penn Station Access and LIRR improvements are on hold until this mess if finished.

Ryan January 30, 2014 - 11:56 pm

If this project is ever finished.

In the mean time, let’s start building the Penn Station Access stations anyway. When they open before ESA does, force the LIRR to divert trains to Hunterspoint Ave. or LIC in order to free up the slots for MNCR trains in Penn and also as punishment for their role in this garbage.

Larry Littlefield January 29, 2014 - 10:11 am

This article offers an interesting point:


Wall Street is warning investors that the state (New Jersey) may fall short, with bond agencies reducing the state’s credit rating on Christie’s watch. A few months ago, Moody’s changed the outlook from stable to negative…All this may come as a surprise to those who have embraced the governor’s happy talk over the years. The truth is that New Jersey has recovered fewer than half the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, while many states, including New York, have recovered 100 percent or more.”

Because of the boom in New York City. Christie and New Jersey turned down a chance to more closely hook up to that engine. New York State tried to hook up Long Island, but has failed, making Christie look like a genius.

Eric F January 29, 2014 - 10:22 am

“Sweeney’s answer has more integrity, and more pain. He said today at a Star-Ledger editorial board meeting that it would probably require a freeze in all other state spending for three years, without even an adjustment for inflation. That includes schools, health care, transportation, the works. All new revenue produced by economic growth would be devoted to pension costs until 2018.”

That really shows where the left has its priorities. Sacrifice literally every aspect of government to feed the insane pension monster created to buy the support of government employee unions. Who works for who?

I agree that the NJ economy is weak, but I think Christie has been directionally positive for it. The simple fact is that NJ is a very high cost state and absent some political sea change you are not going to change that. Companies are just not setting up and expanding in NJ, because it makes no economic sense to do so. If you think the answer is to layer on more taxes, you’ll get your shot soon enough.

Larry Littlefield January 29, 2014 - 12:10 pm

You should read my recent posts on a database I compiled data reported to the U.S. Census Bureau on all currently active government pension plans in New York and New Jersey, from 1957 to 2011. Starting with this one, comparing the NYC, NY State and New Jersey teacher pension plans.


Basically, pensions have become a disaster because of a combination of retroactive pension increases scored by the unions in deals with politicians, and underfunding by taxpayers of the pensions public employees had been promised to begin with when they were hired.

The relative amount of damage due to each factor varies from place to place. For NYC pension plans (which also cover NYC Transit workers) it is the unions who are mostly to blame, particularly with regard to the teachers’ retirement fund. In New Jersey, it is mostly past taxpayers who are to blame. They put almost nothing into the pension plans for years, while NJ public employees put in vastly more than those in New York.

Moreover, public employee pension payments are exempt from NY State and local income taxes no matter how high, at any age. In New Jersey, public employees get a $15K exemption for one and $20K for two retired workers in a household, and only at age 62.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:51 pm

In New Jersey, the problem is indeed previous governments underfunding the pensions. They needed to have raised the income tax in the past. Now… well, now they should still raise it, frankly.

PeakVT January 29, 2014 - 11:31 am

As Ted Mann details at length in The Journal, the MTA will reestablish management control over the project.

Wait, what? Since this isn’t a FFP project (AFAIK), for what reason did the MTA give up “management control”? (Well, what reason other than the fetish for privatization that conservatives have inflicted upon the country.) Has the MTA simply been stamping “approved” on all the bills that contractors submitted for the past eight years?

Phillip Roncoroni January 29, 2014 - 11:58 am

As young people continue to flee Long Island and move into NYC, this project’s need seems questionable. The $10B, or whatever amount, would’ve been better off expanding NYCT into the neglected parts of Queens, and finishing the SAS.

The LIRR is a disaster, whose fare-structure is unsustainable going forward, and I don’t see why people can’t just walk from Penn Station.

Larry Littlefield January 29, 2014 - 12:12 pm

There isn’t enough room for all of them in NYC. A house in my neighborhood just went for $2 million. How are my kids going to be able to afford that when they get older?

Tower18 January 29, 2014 - 1:07 pm

There’s plenty of room for many more people in NYC, but not in most of Manhattan or western Brooklyn and Queens. Hence the need for better service to eastern Queens, southeastern Brooklyn, etc. Also plenty of room in the Bronx, literally and figuratively.

For the Bronx in particular, lots of burned out lots that used to be tenements or apartment buildings were rebuilt with single-family homes, walking distance from a train that takes ~20-30 minutes to Midtown. If a city repopulation does proceed en masse, this can’t last.

In Brooklyn, think of the population boom along Utica Av alone that would result from a subway being built down there. Think 4th Av-type rezoning on the avenue.

If what you really meant was there isn’t enough room in NYC for everyone to own a single-family detached home, you’re absolutely correct.

SEAN January 29, 2014 - 4:10 pm

If what you really meant was there isn’t enough room in NYC for everyone to own a single-family detached home, you’re absolutely correct.

Exactly. People need to get over the rediculous notion that they MUST have a single family home & two cars in the driveway if they live outside Manhattan. It’s more importent to have access to neighborhood shops & services that could be reached in a multimodle fashon & not by cars alone. Look at Jackson Heights, Forest Hills & Flushing as examples. Now contrast that with Bayside & Douglaston wich are far more car dependent despite the level of bus service in those neighborhoods.

Justin Samuels January 29, 2014 - 3:00 pm

The only way for NYCT to have that kind of expansion is for the city to retake control of NYCT, making the city responsible for raising the money to do so. I’m not sure if any NYC mayor wants to be responsible for the MTA.

SEAN January 29, 2014 - 4:20 pm

It maybe nessessary if one of the folllowing events takes place…

1. State finances go south to the point where no money could be alacated to the MTA.
2. Upstate polls block MTA funding because they don’t get what they wanted.

Neither is likely, but to assume it wont happen would be foolish.

Justin Samuels January 29, 2014 - 8:53 pm

At this point the ESA needs to be canceled. To just throw away more money and more resources on a project whose complete date keeps moving forward into the future is ridiculous. Those extra billions can be reallocated towards Phases 2 and 3 of the Second Avenue Subway. I think there’s no reason to build Phase 4 of the Second Avenue Subway, as the Nassau Street Tunnel could be refurbished to take the Second Avenue Subway trains downtown and to Brooklyn.

Back to ESA, after the project is canceled and the contract voided, a through investigation needs to take place into the both the engineering and the finances. Once everything is straightened out, then they can resume the process. But to continue as things are would just ruin public will towards new transit projects.

Ryan January 31, 2014 - 12:09 am

We can’t reallocate any of the money. When ESA is canceled, that money evaporates.

I have no idea if we’d end up on the hook to reimburse the feds for what we’ve spent already if the project is canceled at this stage. (Do we have an answer? Can we get an answer? In writing and on official letterhead, please, one that isn’t going to change later.) I think the answer to that is less important than the answer to “how much more are we on the hook for to see this thing out?” and perhaps also how those two numbers relate to each other.

The thorough investigation absolutely should have been started already and does need to be started as soon as possible. Further, it needs to be a criminal investigation. Several people need a one-way ticket into jail for this, preferably with a return trip scheduled for … let’s be poetic. 18 months after the first train arrives in the cavern beneath Grand Central.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:53 pm

Sean: actual upstate politicians have mostly been willing to fund the MTA provided the upstate transit services (mostly buses, but Buffalo has a rail line) and upstate roads get funded.

Suburban-NYC politicians, on the other hand, from Long Island and Westchester, have been the ones who keep cutting the funding sources for the MTA Remember that.

lawhawk January 29, 2014 - 12:35 pm

The project was sold as a way to shave 40 minutes off a commute from LI to the East Side.

At its original cost it made sense. Even with some overruns, it still did, but we’re now talking more than double the original estimate and no end (and no completion date) in sight.

That the MTA, which operates the LIRR and MNRR, can blame one of its own agencies for not cooperating in adjusting to the construction schedules to make the project go more smoothly is the height of bureaucratic bungling. What else is the MTA Board and top positions doing if not managing those underlings, but instead we get treated to an agency where fiefdoms rule the roost and undermine a project that is supposed to help the agency in the long term.

How will the MTA actions taken in the past week do anything to hasten completion or reduce the costs going forward.

And why is it that the feds were right on the money when it came to the warning signs for budgeting and completion of the project? What did they know that the MTA refused to do?

It’s not the first time that the feds correctly anticipated delays and cost spirals on the MTA projects.

Next up will be a status report on the 2d Ave line and hopefully we wont see that schedule slip even further, along with higher costs.

Justin Samuels January 29, 2014 - 3:01 pm

Cuomo himself needs to step in, and outside engineering and auditing firms need to be brought in to examine things.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:54 pm

Cuomo has never been any good at overseeing anything, unfortunately, dating back to his days at HUD.

Bolwerk January 30, 2014 - 3:37 pm

Justin’s idea sounds like a recipe for $10B racetrack under the East River.

paulb January 29, 2014 - 1:28 pm

I was once told, by an insider, that when George Pataki became governor he stuffed the MTA’s upper levels with patronage appointees who had no background whatever in anything related to what the MTA does. If it’s true, maybe this really damaged the agency.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:54 pm

Sounds like Pataki; he did it to other agencies too.

Phantom January 29, 2014 - 4:10 pm

–In Brooklyn, think of the population boom along Utica Av alone that would result from a subway being built down there. Think 4th Av-type rezoning on the avenue.–

I bet that the majority of people in the remaining low rise areas of NYC have no interest in a subway expansion to them that will rapidly destroy the low rise character of their neighborhoods.

That goes double for eastern Queens and Staten Island.

Every inch of NYC should not be apartment houses.

Tower18 January 29, 2014 - 5:38 pm

Maybe, maybe not. I doubt many would mourn for Utica Av’s present state, if the side streets stayed as-is, and they got a subway out of it. Trading auto repair and tire shops, and surface parking lots, for mid-rise apartments seems like a win-win if it comes with an expanded subway. People out there have nasty commutes.

SEAN January 29, 2014 - 5:53 pm

Not only that, mixed use buildings raise the amount of property tax collected on a given site vs empty lots orauto repare shops. that’s why there’s been a push for redevelopment on Roosevelt Avenue near Citi Field.

SEAN January 29, 2014 - 5:42 pm

Who said NYC should be all apartment houses? There are plenty of areas where townhomes or SFR’s make sence. The issue relates to street dementions, travel speeds & walkability.

wil January 29, 2014 - 9:05 pm

Just ditch this boondoggle and complete phase 2 and three of the SAS

wil January 29, 2014 - 9:08 pm

Have subway trains run on the LIRR to Jamica with tunnel access to the 21 street Queensbridge / 63 st tunnel and down south with Phase 3 of SAS. LIRR rider will then have there East Side Access

Michael Benami Doyle January 30, 2014 - 2:06 pm

We said the exact same things about East Side Access when I was Associate Director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee in the 1990s. Why is it really necessary? How will you fund it? What other regional transit priorities will be ignored because of it? Can you really complete it on time and on budget? And beware the impact that servicing all that bond debt will have on fares. MTA said all would be well and incrementalism would save the day in the end. Well this is exactly what incrementalism gets you when refuse to do true regional planning: a decade of delay and an extra $5 billion out of pocket.

East Side Access was never needed. Transit improvements from Penn Station to East Midtown would have been much cheaper. Of course, that train already left the station with the number 7 extension. Anyone who actually things true regional transit planning occurs in NYC has never worked in transit in NYC.

Jonathan English February 2, 2014 - 11:47 am

It may well be true that ESA is the most complex project in the US right now and that it’s as complicated as the Panama Canal expansion, but it’s the kind of project that’s routinely pulled off by mid-size European cities. I don’t see how it’s any more complicated than the Antwerp Central Station reconstruction, and it’s certainly vastly less complex than Stuttgart 21.


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