Home East Side Access Project Inside East Side Access: A new LIRR connection but at what cost?

Inside East Side Access: A new LIRR connection but at what cost?

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

East Side Access - November 2015

You may also like


Alex November 5, 2015 - 1:24 am

Isn’t the main reason they did the cavern instead of connecting to the lower level of GCS due to how deep the 63rd street tunnels are? wouldn’t that result in an incline that is too steep?

g November 5, 2015 - 10:14 am

I’ve read conflicting things over the years but I think the root of it is that MNRR did not want to give up any platforms at GC or have LIRR trains clogging up their ops. It was not technically ideal and would have resulted in less TPH than the deep cavern but would have been vastly less expensive and time consuming.

Stephen Smith November 5, 2015 - 12:36 pm

No, they’re not connecting to GCT’s lower level because Howard Permut didn’t want to share his toys. While mostly about the Tappan Zee, former MTA planner Phil Plotch’s new book covers the ESA saga (briefly) and Howard Permut’s intransigence and refusal to work with other agencies (in more depth) very well. I highly recommend it.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:23 pm

And here we have the core of the problem. It’s not so much unions… it’s empire-building and fiefdoms in general. This affects the unions too, but it affects management a lot worse.

Stephen Smith November 5, 2015 - 4:48 pm

It takes a village to get to NYC’s transit construction costs. Unions and management (along with their enablers – politicians) are both to blame in very, very, very, very big ways.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:34 am

The common problem is fiefdoms and empire-building — it’s a *mentality*, and it’s endemic, whether it’s the multiple (no-solidarity) LIRR unions, the separate LIRR and Metro-North fiefdoms, the “we won’t help you by doing our job” attitude at the Department of Buildings, etc.

It’s the sort of attitude which caused the *fall of the Soviet Union*. Really. Every department acted like basic information (“When is the next shipment of bread to your store?”) was a state secret, and nobody cooperated with anyone else. This is what Gorbachev was trying to fix with “glasnost” (openness — just tell people what you know, dammit) and “perestroika” (restructuring — change the organizational tree so that organizations which need to work together are forced to work together), before there was a coup against him.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:35 am

Heck, the hostile attitude of the Long Island suburbs towards New York City (which they are dependent upon) is perhaps the best example of fiefdom thinking in the region.

Alex November 5, 2015 - 6:44 pm

My understanding is that the incline would have been too steep. This can still be true even with Permut’s nonsense.

g November 5, 2015 - 7:14 pm

IIRC, the estimated grade would have been approximately 3% which would not be excessive for operations. MNRR simply didn’t want LIRR in the building.

adirondacker12800 November 5, 2015 - 8:18 pm

The tunnel under the East River was planned before there was an MTA or Metro North. And completed years before there was a Metro North.

g November 5, 2015 - 11:18 pm

Facts which have no bearing on the issue being discussed.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:36 am

Yes, and that tunnel under the East River was originally supposed to connect into the existing Grand Central Station, not a deep cavern underneath it. Your point?

adirondacker12800 November 7, 2015 - 1:23 pm

It was going to be a separate terminal


June 11, 1967 Speaking on NBC’s Searchlight program, William J. Ronan announces a plan to build a new terminal for the LIRR on the East Side between 42 nd & 59 th Streets east of Madison Avenue. (NYT)

June 12, 1967
MCTA announces it will build new LIRR terminal on the East Side near Grand Central to be reached by the new 63 rd
Street Tunnel and another at Broad & Wall Street to be eached by the BMT subway from Brooklyn

Peter November 8, 2015 - 3:16 pm

The terminal was going to be at 3rd Ave. and 48thh Street.

Part of the 1968 “Plan For Action”. Details here.

Eric November 6, 2015 - 4:17 am

It would actually save fuel and money to have gravity pull you out of the station and slow you down as you approach the station.

Tower18 November 6, 2015 - 10:11 am

Many old transit systems were built this way (some Chicago, London, etc.) but I recall reading somewhere that it was abandoned for later systems because it didn’t work out to be true. I can’t recall the details.

Brooklynite November 6, 2015 - 9:03 pm

I’ve read that the Victoria Line in London, built in the 60s, used the same idea. So clearly it was valid sometime in the last 50 years…

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:36 am

It works just fine, it’s just finicky to build and not always worth the hassle.

Thomas Graves November 5, 2015 - 2:59 am

East Side Access is needed, but your point asking “at what cost?” is valid. Exactly the same point can be made about virtually every transportation project underway or recently completed. 7 Extension, PATH Station at WTC, 7 extension, all useful as far as they go. And all way more expensive than they should be.

Horodniceanu’s comment about using union labor is spot-on. In NY, union construction labor IS corruption. It IS organized crime. Just try changing the law mandating the use of union workers and bring in non-union labor to do the job. The baseball bats and crowbars will be flying.

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 7:22 am

If it is needed now, then it is needed now, and it was needed five years ago.

As bad as NJ commuting has become, NJ is winning the battle as the suburban location of choice for those who hold the high-wage jobs in Manhattan. The number of commuters from Long Island to Manhattan is lower than 1990. Young people won’t move there. See the table in this report.


All you have out there is the grifters and their victims. And some of those victims are in NYC.

Do I need to remind anyone that as part of the original MTA, the deal in which NYC agreed to turn over the TBTA toll surplus, which had been solely city, to the state, the entire Second Avenue Subway along with this connection were part of the deal?

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 9:14 am

Again, look at the table in that report.

I guess the only good thing about the delay until 2022 is that some of Long Island’s grifter class might have to sell their houses for less before then.

But I wouldn’t buy until it is absolutely certain that the project will be completed. See all those buildings sprouting on the Far West Side? They didn’t start going up until the Flushing extension was almost open.

Fool me once (the far east Upper East Side) shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

eo November 5, 2015 - 9:37 am

I am not defending the cost of ESA, but when 10 years after it opens the trends will get reversed in a very big way. With ESA, the double track to Ronkonkoma, the new pocket tracks at Great Neck and Messapequa the commute from Long Island will improve greatly compared to commute from NJ. The tunnels under the Hudson are not getting fixed for at least another 20 years. As long as there is space and developers are able to build on Long Island, it will prosper much more than NJ. NJ is looking more and more backwards — NJTransit a month ago eliminated trains (what?, 6 years after the recession ended), LIRR and especially Metro-North are adding trains because there is demand. NJTransit has not expanded service or laid a single foot of new track (replacement does not count) since the Meadowlands and the River Line opened more than a decade ago. The only attraction of NJ is that it is cheaper, but there is a good reason for that — the commute from there into Manhattan sucks more and shortly will cost more (how do you think the Port Authority is paying for the $10B bus terminal? higher tolls on the GWB and the tunnels!). Ten years after the opening of ESA the table you are referring to will look different — Long Island will be growing and NJ/PA declining.

Furthermore, it will not be right to count the people who use the new terminal of ESA during the first year and say that it was a failure because it did not match projections. The proper comparison is going to be at least 10-20 years after opening. It might even be 50-100 years later. Look at Secaucus Transfer Station — when it first opened, it did not match projections and people called it a failure. More than 20 years later it is one of the busiest stations in the NJTransit system. We can debate all day whether they should have spent as much on it as they did, but reality is that it is well utilized and worthwhile for society as a whole.

The other problem is that the benefits of this sort of infrastructure do not necessarily accrue to its owners. I think we all would agree that the existing Penn Station with the 4 East River tunnels and the 2 Hudson Tunnels has paid itself many times over in benefits to the New York Area and the society as a whole during its 100 or so years of operations. It did not pay off for its initial owner and constructor Penn Central which went bankrupt primarily because of huge debts over infrastructure costs (such as for Penn Station). The reality is that most vital infrastructure (not “bridges to nowhere”) pays for itself in benefits to society. That is not to say that we should build it at any cost. I am not defending the costs, but if it is vital, it usually ends beneficial over its lifetime. The real problem is that ex-ante we do not know if something is vital or a “bridge to nowhere”.

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 9:51 am

Will the LIRR mafia allow those benefits to be realized?

Or will they just strike until Cuomo restores 90 percent disability pensions and “retirement” at age 50 or 45?

Who will pay for LIRR cars to be replaced every 25 or 30 years because those paid to maintain them don’t have to?

People are fleeing Long Island for a reason. It’s Tammany Hall. They may have called themselves Republicans rather than Democrats out there, but it’s the same thing. Dean Skelos Sheldon Silver.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:26 pm

Yep. The corruption in Long Island government seems to be endemic. There’s probably some exceptions in a few towns or villages, but my god. They can’t even clean up LIPA.

On Long Island, they have corruption in the *streetlight district boards* for goodness sake; most cities in the rest of the state don’t even have boards for their streetlight districts and the city government just handles them.

adirondacker12800 November 5, 2015 - 7:48 pm

I live in one. The rest of the town doesn’t have streetlights. Something to do with sidewalks too. It means we don’t have to incorporate a village.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:38 am

We have streetlight districts up here in Ithaca too, but *the city council or town board handles the management of the streetlight districts*.

In Nassau and Suffolk, apparently a lot of the places *actually have streetlight district boards* and *they get paid significant salaries*. Really.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:27 pm

P.S. People liked Tammany Hall as long as they *got the job done*. When the Tweed House was 10 times over budget and years beyond schedule and still wasn’t finished, people threw out Tammany Hall.

The corruption in the NY area has gotten to that point: it’s eating its host. Any system can tolerate some corruption, but when it starts preventing the work from getting done on time, people get *mad*, and they should.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:28 pm

“Tweed Courthouse”, that is.

Larry Littlefield November 6, 2015 - 9:48 am

Back then there was a viable alternative. You want to vote Republican now? There aren’t a lot of LaGuardias left in that party. There are none on Long Island.

Tower18 November 6, 2015 - 10:14 am

This is how Chicago tolerated the Daley dynasty for so many years. Everyone knew the administration was corrupt and rife with patronage, but it WORKED. Daley Jr. never really got his comeuppance, retiring instead of sticking around until the chickens came home.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:40 am

In Chicago, Mayor Washington got elected because Daley *wasn’t* getting the services delivered for the black communities. After that, the black communities got allowed in on the “machine” patronage, and everyone calmed down.

It’s not actually corruption that gets most people mad, it’s *failure to get the job done*. If a patronage appointment is highly competent and dedicated, nobody minds.

AG November 7, 2015 - 12:57 pm

Nah – people are fleeing Long Island because of property taxes and poor transportation. Aside from the areas closest to NYC – New Jersey is floundering terribly. Which is why they NEED that other tunnel into NYC. The rate of high wage earners in NJ who work in NYC is only increasing.

Bolwerk November 8, 2015 - 3:02 pm

Nobody who flees cares about corruption. Look at the places they go. Florida and Texas are corrupt too.

The reason people flee LI is probably simply economic opportunity. Absent a war or something, that’s usually the main driver for migration.

Corruption might be why economic opportunity sucks, of course.

AG November 8, 2015 - 3:23 pm

Yes economic opportunity has a whole lot to do with it. However for the younger demographics – people are having children later (and less of them). Long Island is dominated by single family homes. I forgot the ratio but a LI group did a study and saw that compared to Westchester and Fairfield – Nassau/Suffolk is severely “under-apartmented”. That’s both rentals and condos. Obviously it would show the same thing if you compared it to northern NJ as well.
It’s not that LI is losing people. It is natural for NY’s to leave at retirement age. The problem is that they can’t keep their young people. The only way they stay afloat is Brooklyn and Queens families who are looking for more space. Again – people are having less children though.

lawhawk November 5, 2015 - 3:34 pm

Secaucus was and remains a boondoggle despite its utility as a transfer point between the North Jersey lines and those from elsewhere in the state. It was meant to be built for $80 million, but ended up being $450 million – and when it opened, it had no on-site parking, limited bus access, and the design of the lower level meant that the diesel trains had to stop under the Turnpike or else fill up the upper levels with exhaust.

The turnaround in usage began once the park and ride opened across the Turnpike from the station.

Since then, they’ve had to spend millions to fix deteriorating exterior escalator banks, spent millions more to extend the lower level platforms, millions to build additional bus terminal space, and while ARC was being discussed, they would eliminate one of the main reasons that anyone actually transfers at the station in the first place – because they would loop the MBPJ and Pascack Lines onto the NEC to go to NYP (rendering much of the need for the station obsolete).

Oh, and I forgot the millions spent reconfiguring the fare gate areas because the original design didn’t work.

All of this doesn’t begin to get into the mess that NJ Transit made of the spur to the Meadowlands, which instead of being a through-line to the Pascack Valley, allowing direct and regular service once Xanadu/American Nightmare opens along with games, they’re only running spur service during events at MetLife that delays service on the MBPJ and Pascack lines as a result.

eo November 5, 2015 - 7:07 pm

I do not disagree that many things could have been done differently, but I want to correct the record on a few:

“The turnaround in usage began once the park and ride opened across the Turnpike from the station.”

It was a blunder to not have the parking facility there in first place, however the bulk of the passengers does not come from the parking facility. It comes from the diesel lines dumping passengers there, so no the park and ride was not the decisive factor to make the station useful.

“because they would loop the MBPJ and Pascack Lines onto the NEC to go to NYP (rendering much of the need for the station obsolete).”

Until the loop happens the station is the only game in town. The loop is not really going to happen without Penn South because while not constraint as much as the tunnels Penn Station cannot handle the extra trains of the diesel lines — there just is not enough space during rush hour. I really doubt that we will see the use of the loop earlier than 25 years from now. Till then, Secaucus Junction Transfer Station it is for everyone in Bergen County and west of Hudson NY.

AG November 7, 2015 - 12:54 pm

While I agree overall – PATH has a lot do with with northern NJ’s “suburban success”. But yes – this will indeed make LI more desirable as a suburb again. Especially as you noted the double tracking. The only thing they didn’t fare well in is getting the LIRR to go to Lower Manhattan – as proposed post 9/11 – through Atlantic Terminal.
Talk of suburbs and rail capacity/efficiency – can someone explain why the Hudson line north of Croton still doesn’t have 3rd rail???

Douglas John Bowen November 5, 2015 - 10:18 am

I think Mr. Littlefield has a good take on the matter of competitive suburban locations — for the present. But if the NEC takes a capacity hit, the situation changes dramatically for the worse across huge swaths of northern New Jersey.

The “sixth borough” zone of Hoboken, Jersey City, perhaps portions of Bayonne and Weehawken, certainly will remain a draw competitive to Long Island. But Long Island’s overall attractiveness may improve even if it just stays in place. New Jersey’s peril, in my view, has yet to be fully appreciated.

I’ll readily allow that I may be biased in a reverse “grass-is-greener” scenario. And I certainly don’t dispute Mr. Littlefield’s citations (I also agree with his take of same). But all is not well in the Garden State when it comes to rail transportation, and for some of us, ESA, and even Phase 2 of SAS, look a bit healthier than the non-plans being advanced west of the Hudson Ocean.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:30 pm


If you’re talking competitive suburban locations, both New Jersey (once you get outside the PATH/HBLR zone) and Long Island will fare very poorly in comparison to Westchester and Connecticut.

SEAN November 5, 2015 - 5:28 pm

Absolutely correct.

Stamford has been densifying it’s downtown area over the past few years along with the redevelopment of Harborpoint south of the train station.

In White Plains, a plan has gone out for the RFP process http://www.whiteplainsweek.com. This plan includes the complete rebuild of the train station with new residential & corporate towers, reconstruction of the transcentter, renovations to the county center & numerous other properties on the west side of the city including the post office & white Plains Mall.

AG November 7, 2015 - 1:01 pm

A lot of the jobs in Stamford has moved back to NYC.. So they have to go back to marketing to commuters instead of building an office district as they did 20 years ago.

adirondacker12800 November 5, 2015 - 7:51 pm

no they don’t

Douglas John Bowen November 6, 2015 - 8:28 am

Concur with that assessment, and that order of suburbia. Absolutely.

Douglas John Bowen November 5, 2015 - 10:09 am

Concur with Mr. Graves; ESA is a worthy project.

And/but I was pleased to see Mr. Kabak get in a quick sentence — too short due to TV priorities, alas — on the issue of cost on one local newscast. At least the idea got floated.

Ferdinand Cesarano November 5, 2015 - 11:02 am

Using union labour is a guarantee of top-quality workmanship. To whatever extent the cost of building something here in New York is linked to the cost of paying unionised workers, then that cost is justified. This is a project that New Yorkers will live with for the next century; to ensure that it is done properly makes perfect sense.

In addition, the use of union labour is correct from the standpoint of social policy. To return the benefit of this dangerous hard work to the expert workers whose blood goes into every inch of this project is entirely appropriate.

A decent society would acknowledge that these workers are our heroes, and would never begrudge them the pay and the benefits that they have won in collective bargaining. And a sane society would follow these workers’ good example by not letting unions wither in other sectors with the only possible result — namely, the ongoing decline in real wages and the plunge in workers’ quality of life.

But in our sick and twisted society, this is quite clearly not the case.

Jimmy November 5, 2015 - 12:10 pm

I love that top-quality union workmanship on the South Ferry Station!


Glad we paid that premium for the corrupt union special interests.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:30 pm

There are good unions and then there are corrupt unions.

We know which sort we’re looking at in this case, unfortunately. The police union for the NYPD is in the “totally corrupt” category too.

Jimmy November 5, 2015 - 12:14 pm

From a standpoint of social policy, union wages for public sector jobs is regressive, not progressive. It makes the work of government on behalf of the poor less efficient. In effect, it creates a small class of upper-middle-class union workers at the expense of a large class of people not lucky enough to get the cushy union jobs, who have to live with reduced government services such as transit and education.

Ferdinand Cesarano November 5, 2015 - 1:23 pm

Union jobs would not be rare if we workers had not let unions die. Working people suffer on account of having turned our back on our working-class identity, and having become indoctrinated into the brutal individualist ideology of the fictional “middle class”.

Those workers who didn’t go down this road and who maintained their unions (and hence their quality of life) deserve respect and admiration. We’d have a more just society if the rest of us workers had done likewise.

Jimmy November 5, 2015 - 2:09 pm

They may deserve your admiration, but they do not deserve our money more than the masses who have to make do with hour-long commutes to work because they have to transfer from buses to subways (along 3rd Ave in the Bronx, and Utica and Nostrand Avenues in Brooklyn, for example), or than people who need social services that aren’t provided because the labor to provide them is too expensive.

Work to bring back unions for all if you like, or to redistribute income from the wealthy to the working poor (a measure I support); but the wrong way to go about things is to starve our government services for the benefit of what has become a politically powerful special interest class of public sector union members.

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 2:11 pm

Those who maintained their unions are those who are either in a monopoly position (utilities) or can force unwilling customers to pay at the point of a gun (government).

Government union workers and retirees seek more for less every time they go shopping, thereby wiping out private sector union jobs for a better deal. That is the difference in power.

If everyone was in a union, those remaining union jobs would not be worth as much. If the same rules applied to everyone, no way everyone could have more years in retirement than worked, which is what you get under a 25/55 deal.

You know top executives are workers too, and they have a de facto union, the most rapacious of all. That doesn’t mean they deserve what they have decided to pay each other, relative to everyone else.

BK November 5, 2015 - 4:25 pm

When I left the construction industry a while back, Local 147 tunnel workers had just had a new contract ratified. The rate for a standard tunnel worker was 52 and change per hour, with all overtime paid at double time rate. As for the crane operators, they are all making upwards of 70 per hour with all overtime paid as double time. There were walking bosses in local 147 clear 200k easily. And it’s not uncommon for operators to make 250-300k a year. This doesn’t even include benefits. Do they have a dangerous job, absolutely, and they deserve to be compensated well for the risk they take, but when the majority of the workers on the job are clearing 6 figures or high 5 figure salaries, maybe we should look into that.

Joe blow November 7, 2015 - 1:00 pm

I’m a local 147 worker and I earned every cent of my 200k… All of the dust, shotcrete and other toxins that we breathe in on a daily basis and the MTA does not even care because they only want one thing.. And that’s the job to finish.. Local 147 is the strongest and most skillful set of workers around

Eric November 8, 2015 - 6:44 am

So work for $100k and wear a mask…

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:34 pm

There are plenty of unions still fighting for the workers who really need ’em — everything from SEIU to the nurses’ unions to much of UNITE HERE.

The horrible LIRR unions have not been in that category for a very long time.

Heck, even the TWU is really valuable in *many* cities, like Seattle where it demanded proper rest periods and bathroom access for its bus drivers.

In NY, on the other hand, under the misleadership of John Samuelsen, the TWU local 100 has been an obstacle to effective subway operations, and even supports murdering pedestrians for crossing the street.

Tim November 5, 2015 - 1:27 pm

I noticed that the union labor that built the Battery Park station on the 1 led to leaks in the structure almost as soon as it was opened. Union labor is way overpriced for the shoddy work it puts out like that.

Phantom November 5, 2015 - 5:40 am

Did they consider building a direct connection between Penn and GCT as part of this?

Webster November 5, 2015 - 7:04 am

I believe that was an alternative they studied for the ARC Project…

In any case, I’ve also wondered if it might have been effective to simply have Gateway, East Side Access, and West Side Access essentially be coordinated to achieve that end (i.e. have re-oriented them around that goal).

It could have added a bit of capacity, I suppose, if you could through run some services: Metro North into GTC to Penn could then continue on via West Side Access (vice versa), LIRR into GTC could then continue on via East Side Access (vice versa), and Inter-City Services/NJT could serve GCT as well and continue on into Sunnyside Yards.

However, there are horrendous operations/management issues that would have to be solved for any of that, I’m sure, and THAT is the real crux of the issue: the biggest problem is inter-agency coordination and long-term/strategic planning. That’s what the MTA’s peers in places like Paris and London lapse them in. It says a lot that none of the technological and managerial barriers have been lowered between the three commuter agencies + NJT.

I have reservations about a lot of the things Shanghai is doing with its system, but if we’re solely examining cost and not effectiveness, then I’ll throw them that bone, too.

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 7:26 am

The last thing they need is to hire more planners and do more studies. They cancel each other out.

Planners wait for the political deal to be cut and provide the rationalization. That’s one reason I left the field. And in those “regional” deals NYC gets screwed.

Bolwerk November 5, 2015 - 9:34 am

What Webster, AFAIK, is referring to was a link from Penn to GCT’s current lower level, not a link to ESA.

I don’t believe ESA was ever intended to be anything but a deep bore terminal.

Webster November 5, 2015 - 9:40 am

Actually, I didn’t know that particular fact.

I guess the major thing I was highlighting is that it would have been nice if a lot of these projects could be more cohesive parts of a greater whole, rather than stand-alone projects…

SEAN November 5, 2015 - 10:44 am

Second. But that’s life in the me first USA.

Phantom November 5, 2015 - 7:25 am

It seems like such a no brainer.

So many locals and visitors have to deal with that pain in the ass slog from Penn Station to GCT/East Side, when through trains that went from points south / Penn / GCT / points north would have eliminated all of that noise.

The magnificent GCT would have been an intercity train station again, and so many fewer people would have had to take street clogging taxis, walk or take a two subway journey cross town.

Unless there were insurmountable engineering issues involved, it is as if they intentionally built it wrong . They’d have had a few decades to solve system management and technology issues, which I strongly suspect would have been overstated in the first place, since very many Metro North trains would have continued to go to GCT and very many LIRR trains would have continued to go to Penn Station, etc.

paulb November 5, 2015 - 8:11 am

Run MetroNorth at GCT to 33th St? Under Park Ave, where there’s already a bigwide subway? It might make ESA look inexpensive.

When ESA was proposed it seemed like a good idea, to me. I mean, the tunnel was already there, under the river. And I think it will look good eventually, making midtown east more convenient to LI. But I concur, the price. Frightening.

Avi November 5, 2015 - 9:28 am

Have you seen where Metro North terminates at Grand Central? To run the trains further south you’d be running through the middle of the terminal and effectively destroying it. Good luck getting landmark approval for that. It would be Penn Station all over again.

paulb November 5, 2015 - 11:34 am

It seems impossible to me as well, but it’s there in many ideas for NYC transit.

Tim November 5, 2015 - 2:12 pm

If you run it through the lower level, it would go under the dining concourse. NARP had a diagram of how to run the tracks at their booth a few years back on Train Day. It actually should’ve been done instead of ESA’s cavern, but alas.

johndmuller November 5, 2015 - 7:15 pm

It seems that it is possible, but it would be very expensive, would require some delicate working around of various things (e.g. subways, infrastructure and buildings), and would be extremely disruptive over a (no doubt longer than hoped for) period of time.

Still, many supporters are out there.

Perhaps a spur off the 7 line to somewhere underneath Penn Station is a not totally bad idea. Perhaps an additional branch line off the 6 train to Penn (with its station spanning the distance between the 7 line stgation and Penn) then perhaps continuing on to NJ might have some supporters too.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:46 am

It would be quite disruptive, but every estimate for “Alternative G” — even the ones which were deliberately sandbagging it — came out with the lowest price of all alternatives, and said that it would *reduce operating costs*.

So it actually has a direct return on investment, unlike most megaproject proposals.

adirondacker12800 November 7, 2015 - 1:26 pm

You have a cite for it? Foamers ranting on railroad.net and zealots with a website don’t count.

mister November 5, 2015 - 9:22 pm

There are loop tracks that run around the terminal platforms.


Larry Greenfield November 5, 2015 - 8:18 am

Since most of the rides are round trips aren’t we talking about spending $10B on 81,000 individuals?

SEAN November 5, 2015 - 10:51 am

Not really. That number assumes there won’t be any new riders. LIRR trains maybe crowded, but the system isn’t near it’s total capacity.

Tower18 November 6, 2015 - 10:24 am

I don’t know if I buy the idea that this will generate a lot of new riders. Am I supposed to think that some guy from Ronkonkoma is driving to his Midtown East office because the Penn Station to GCT commute is too hard? No. He’s already taking LIRR. Or if he is driving, East Side Access is not likely to change him into a train commuter, because he’s driving for his own reasons.

Any growth in ridership will come from more tracks along the Main Line.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:47 am

The three-track program on the Main Line, unfortunately for Long Island, seems to be have been killed for at least a decade by NIMBYs. Oy!

Phillip Roncoroni November 5, 2015 - 8:21 am

How does Horodniceanu still have a job?

Jimmy November 5, 2015 - 12:18 pm

I ask myself the same thing.

Danny B November 5, 2015 - 1:56 pm

to me it is just astounding that he still has a job

Frank November 6, 2015 - 9:25 am

To be fair, there are probably not a lot of remotely qualified people who would be willing to do that job.

Josh Karpoff November 5, 2015 - 8:23 am

Don’t forget Amtrak’s role in the rise in costs and delays. Amtrak controls much of Sunnyside and has caused massive project delays with taking forever to approve designs and severely limiting the amount of in house labor available for utility relocation work and flagging of work areas. A friend of mine used to be a specifications writer for MTACC Esa and said that every time you needed to involve Amtrak in anything, it became impossible to move forward in a timely manner.

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:37 pm

Amtrak, on the other hand, has blamed LIRR for interminable project delays. Which is also convincing, given the LIRR management reputation for never fixing or improving anything — and the proven record of LIRR workers collecting pay for wandering off the job site and going to restaurants.

Amtrak has a reputation for changing specifications way more often than you’d want, so I can believe “taking forever to approve designs”. But LIRR has a reputation for not actually *doing* the designed work on schedule.

I strongly suspect that both Amtrak and LIRR are to blame. MTACC, being independent of both of them, is understandably frustrated.

Frank November 5, 2015 - 8:35 am

Billions to build another terminal or dead end in NYC. Talk about 19th century thinking.

=+= November 5, 2015 - 10:26 am

It’s worse than some terminals that were built in the 19th century; the thing doesn’t even have a balloon loop.

paulb November 5, 2015 - 8:44 am

I wonder how far $10 billion would have taken a new speedy subway line from Houston St out into Queens, maybe even into Nassau County.

eo November 5, 2015 - 9:52 am

Not further east than Jamaica assuming no stations. At our costs one does not get very far even with $10B. Look at Second Avenue subway — less than 2 miles for $4B, so yes,on $10B even without intermediate stations you will not get further than Jamaica.

Jeff November 5, 2015 - 11:59 am

Not necessarily. If they can get through the NIMBYs then its possible to utilize concrete viaducts in Queens which are far cheaper (the Airtrain was $2 billion for 8 miles)

Even a subway through Queens should be cheaper since real estate acquisition/eminent domain costs would be cheaper, and infrastructure is younger and better documented, presumably.

AG November 7, 2015 - 1:08 pm

that’s just dreaming

=+= November 5, 2015 - 9:08 am

Did anyone ask Horodniceanu why the LIRR and MNR still hate each other despite being part of the same agency?

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:38 pm

I’m sure he knows. But what can he do about it?

lawhawk November 5, 2015 - 9:12 am

New York is expensive isn’t an answer. It’s an excuse for not doing better. It means that Paris and London, each of which are densely built and centuries of underground archeology and infrastructure to weave through, can still build for a fraction of the cost that NYC can.

It’s inexcusable. Both cities are working on major rail projects, but neither is running up the per mile tab that NYC has. There’s no reason that construction costs can’t or shouldn’t be in line with either of those cities – and if NYC could even approach those levels of costs, we would have been well into Phase 2 by now, and ESA wouldn’t be that great big sucking sound on the MTA budget.

Projects like Fulton Center wouldn’t have run to $1.4 billion, meaning still more funds to go to other capital projects and infrastructure upgrades.

And it’s not all on the unions either – not when London and Paris have union work on their infrastructure projects. So, it’s something else affecting the cost disparity. In part, it has to do with the companies that do the work in Europe seeing the US as a piggybank and making up for the lean profits they get in Europe. That has nothing to do with unions.

Privatization has also robbed the MTA (and PANY) of the personnel who could be in a position to do cost control – because they’d be able to do the design/scoping rather than leaving it up to the company that actually builds the project.

Larry Littlefield November 5, 2015 - 9:35 am

I keep saying this and no one pays attention. The issue may very well by the multi-employer pension funds. The MTA, by itself, is being made to bail out these funds in higher construction costs.

“And it’s not all on the unions either – not when London and Paris have union work on their infrastructure projects.”

France has a national health care system, and a national pensions system that covers EVERYBODY. Equalite, solidarite. Whereas we have the executive/financial class, the political union class, and the serfs, with generational inequities on top of it.

When France has to make adjustments for too many years in retirement after too few years of work, everyone is in on it. Here the serfs and the future are being sacrificed for those cashing in and moving out.

Recall the MTA got ripped off at 2 Broadway? Where did that money hit the budget? Everyone who worked at 2 Broadway was budgeted at 3 times their salary, that’s where. So the cost of private sector pension underfunding and retroactive pension increases is likely sneaking its way into MTA debts.

Elvis Delgado November 5, 2015 - 9:26 am

I don’t know, Ben, you present numbers that make a case for this being reasonably cost effective, and – in the same breath – characterize it as being “the least efficient transit construction project in the world”.

If this does save 162,000 people 30 minutes as day, that’s 81,000 hours saved. It’s not possible to precisely quantify the value of that time, but these are likely highly compensated folks, so $15/hour is not too high. So that’s $1,215,000 save per day, which becomes about $301 million per year for 52 work-weeks minus holidays. That’s a return of 2.95% on the $10.2 billion investment. I wouldn’t call that a huge bonanza, but it’s more than you can get in safe government bonds today.

And none of this attributes any value to the reductions in congestion at Penn Station, etc. that come with the project.

Chris November 5, 2015 - 1:37 pm

This is a pretty bad way of measuring the efficiency of a project. Free helicopter rides for billionaires would be your #1 ranked public works project.

Rob November 5, 2015 - 2:47 pm

Don’t forget, the 162,000 are round trips for 81,000 different people. So only ~81,000 would directly benefit. Or a lot less. That is a huge % of LIRR’s daily ridership. Is the 30 minutes per day savings one way or R/T?

Eric November 5, 2015 - 4:21 pm

Realistically, 30 minutes is round trip savings.
But the appropriate salary for a Midtown worker is probably $30 not $15 per hour, so the overall savings work out to the same amount.

DF November 5, 2015 - 4:12 pm

That assumes no operating costs and that the capital assets last forever.

RobNYC November 5, 2015 - 9:34 am

If we’re striving to be competitive on the global stage, the money would have been much better spent on direct routes to the NYC airports. It would also be darn convenient for us locals.

eo November 5, 2015 - 9:47 am

True, but you “locals”, (and I do not mean you personally) are the NYMBIs that killed the N to LaGuardia Airport. There is no sane politician who will touch it with a 10 feet pole for another 50 years. There are no NYMBIs underground, but the costs are enormous.

Stephen November 5, 2015 - 1:58 pm

The phrase is Not In My BackYard – NIMBY. Just thought I’d clarify that for everyone.

Tim November 5, 2015 - 2:22 pm

That was literally one neighborhood that said no, and got their (corrupt) state senators to shout it down. Fun times.

SEAN November 5, 2015 - 10:39 am

Yes the costs are enormous, but there’s more to it than that. Does ESA creat multi-transit options from LI? Of course it does. will it defuse some of the madness that is Penn Station? You bet & it may even cause some residents not to have the erge to drive into Manhattan if they can get home from either Penn or GCT.

On a personal note – I have been spending more time on LI & this project would help me greatly since I could avoid the subway mess between trains.

Jon Y November 5, 2015 - 11:13 am

I agree that it will actually benefit LI more than people realize. There has been a mass exodus in the past few years (I don’t recall the numbers) of millenials from LI. Once millenials (myself included) are ready to “settle down”, I would likely reconsider living in LI (born and raised in Nassau County) because of how much easier the commute will become.

Tim November 5, 2015 - 2:23 pm

If you can afford a house there, of course.

Phantom November 5, 2015 - 5:51 pm

I think that a lot more Long Island and Queens people travel to Westchester and CT and vice versa than people realize, and this will make those trips easier. Its not all about commuting to Manhattan.

Eric November 8, 2015 - 6:59 am

A direct Jamaica-CT train would be an interesting idea.

AG November 8, 2015 - 12:56 pm

But why at this point? From either Penn or GCT you will be able to get to the New Haven Line now (when this is done). The two railroads need to be merged though – but who knows when that will happen. Hopefully by the time the project is finished people will able to use the new payment systems. So you don’t need to carry two monthly passes… Or even if you are just on a “one off” trip – you don’t have to waste time going to another ticket machine to buy another ticket.

Tower18 November 6, 2015 - 10:31 am

The problem with living on LI is not the commute to Manhattan, which is fine actually, for most of Nassau County. The problem is the insane traffic, the high prices, the taxes, and the lack of any sort of village center in most towns. Compare popular NJ, Westchester, and even CT town centers with those in Long Island. What is there to attract these millennials? They don’t want Levittown, they want Montclair, Tarrytown, etc.

There are only a few towns on Long Island that even have good town centers at all, and then you need to subtract those town centers that have been hollowed out by highways or parking for the LIRR station. Many of the South Shore towns are nice, but have fun crossing Sunrise Highway and 1/2 mile of parking lots on your way.

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:49 am

And the politics of Long Island make it damn near impossible to improve anything. There may be a few towns where “critical mass” of Millenials is enough to change the politics,…

…but that’s already happening in Westchester, and in the Bronx, and in Brooklyn, and it’s more likely to happen in eastern Queens than it is to happen in Nassau or Suffolk.

Robert November 5, 2015 - 12:18 pm

Here’s something I’ve always wondered: why do we need to build an entirely new terminal underneath the existing one? (Also, why do we need to build corresponding ticket booths, etc. to go with this new LIRR terminal?) There are many tracks at GCT that MetroNorth doesn’t use. Why can’t we consolidate ticket booths and other services to serve both MNR passengers as well as LIRR passengers?

I know these questions raise the MNR and LIRR failing to show a lack of inter-agency cooperation; but aren’t they’re both run by the MTA? And with MNR trains (eventually) heading to Penn Station, does this mean Penn Station needs its own MNR area (in addition to LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak)?

Years ago, I remember reading a WikiPedia post about merging MNR and LIRR and creating “MTA Railroad.” Is that something anyone else has heard of?

JJJ November 5, 2015 - 4:09 pm

It’s 2015, why are there ticket booths?

Nathanael November 5, 2015 - 4:41 pm

The entrenched, corrupt managements at MNRR and LIRR both refused to cooperate with the proposed “MTA Railroad” merger.

I’d love to know which departments specifically objected. I remember the corrupt LIRR unions were really unhappy because their current sweetheart corrupt deals would slowly go away over time as new workers were hired under the more-reasonable MNRR terms with the totally separate MNRR unions. But I’ve also heard that the MNRR President was utterly hostile to sharing anything with LIRR. So it seems to have come from both sides.

mister November 5, 2015 - 9:27 pm Reply
Stephen Smith November 5, 2015 - 12:39 pm

He added that similar projects the world over cost less because they are built “without using unionized labor.”

“An element of truth” is putting it generously, Ben. He’s outright lying. All first world countries use union labor for transit construction projects. There are only unions in the world outside of Local 147.

JJJJ November 5, 2015 - 4:08 pm

I wonder why people love to beat the “send the buses to new Jersey” drum (and make people transfer to subway), when talking about the PANY replacement, but nobody is beating the “send the trains to Queens” drum (and make people transfer to subway) when talking about this project.

Eric November 5, 2015 - 4:24 pm

Because transferring from a 40-seat bus to a 1000-seat train is efficient, while transferring from one 1000-seat train to another 1000-seat train is inefficient.

Tower18 November 6, 2015 - 10:34 am

Additionally, how are those people supposed to fit on the E train? If the 7 was extended to NJ, it’d be empty for all those transfers. Not that I’m necessarily in support of that project, but cutting LIRR service at Jamaica and dumping everyone on the subway is entirely different, and impossible without building the Queens Blvd Super Express, which would negate any cost savings.

JJJJ November 6, 2015 - 10:44 am

Except its not one 40 seat bus. The buses enter the tunnel as a train. You essentially have a 50 car train, with 40 passengers per car, at any given moment.

AG November 7, 2015 - 1:21 pm

The buses the NJ idea isn’t going to happen. There wouldn’t be enough to capacity… Not to mention the intra-city buses won’t stop at NJ.. Not gonna happen.

mister November 5, 2015 - 9:46 pm

We’re obviously well past the point of return here, but the ESA project should have made use of the Upper Level Loop Alternative (a pdf of a report made by IRUM can be found here: http://www.irum.org/schabus.pdf). ESA always made some sense to build because the lower level of 63rd street exists. The question is: did the deep cavern make sense? An alternative using the upper level loop was dismissed by MTA way back when because it was going to “severely constrain Metro-North:. Unfortunately, that’s really not a good excuse. The existing terminal at GCT has more tracks than Penn station and it serves fewer trains. Of course, Metro-North has a problem with reverse capacity on its Park Ave viaduct and since it has no yard in midtown, it needs to store consists at GCT. But since LIRR won’t need to add an extra 21 (or 24) trains per hour to it’s system the first day that ESA opens, operating trains to GCT Upper Level would have allowed MNRR to send trains to NYP, as they are now planning to do with the West Side Access project. The report from IRUM indicated that this was going to save up to $2 Billion in cost.

The real test for ESA will be if they allow it to benefit City riders. There was some talk of making CityTicket a full-time option after ESA opens. If they can do this, and integrate the fare structures to allow a free transfer, then ESA might just end up being worth it at the end of the day. But right now, it’s not looking great on a cost per rider analysis.

Ian November 6, 2015 - 7:27 am

I love the second paragraph of that doc

“MTA’s current proposal is to deliver LIRR passengers to four new platforms in deep
caverns 13 stories under Park Avenue, with long escalator journeys to the surface. Partly
because of the complexity of building so far underground, the MTA does not expect
completion before 2012.”

It should read “…before 2012, give or take 2 decades”

Nathanael November 7, 2015 - 11:51 am

More evidence that fiefdom thinking is the core problem.

Robert LaMarca November 7, 2015 - 9:43 am

Why couldn’t we have had East Side Access AND another SAS phase?

Since they ended up building 2 extremely difficult miles of tunnels in Queens under the rail yards.

AND since they ended building a whole new station under GCT…instead of using the existing tracks and 67 or so platforms…

Why didn’t they just build a new tunnel under the river from Hunters Point to a spot just East of GCT, perhaps under 43 or 44 st…. or ever to the same spot where they ended up now?

No need for freezing ground solid, no more tunnels under working train yards probably less utility relocation..

less new tunnel than even reusing the old 63 st lower level.
maybe even less time. Maybe even work now

union workers then would be put on SAS phase II or III or ADA stations or internet or … anything else …

maybe the lower level of 63rd tunnel could be used in the future for additional service into queens or exotic rails to trails

AG November 7, 2015 - 12:45 pm

Undoubtedly – like almost every other infrastructure project in this area – this is too expensive. It is also absolutely true that Met North and LIRR should be merged… However there should be no question that this project is needed. Integrating 2 of the 3 area commuter rails (again – should be one) at two hubs is absolutely a necessary project. Just because it won’t carry as many people as subways – doesn’t matter. The problem is costs.


Leave a Comment