When the MTA Board begins its meetings on Monday this week, the Capital Program Oversight Committee will hear its quarterly update on East Side Access, and for the most part, the project seems to be humming along. The opening date for the long-awaited arrival of the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central remains on pace for December of 2022, and the project seems to be adhering to its re-basedlined $11.2 billion budget.
At a top level, project management seems to have improved as change order requests and processing times have dropped while the heavy construction work — including the complicated Harold Interlocking rebuild — is proceeding apace. At this point, work on the last heavy contract has begun, and testing will begin in earnest later this year. East Side Access remains a boondoggle amidst New York City’s recent spate of 21st Century boondoggles, but with recent estimates showing the work is approximately 80-85% complete, it’s a boondoggle with an end in sight.
It is, thus, awfully strange that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his ninth year in office, has decided that now is the time to review the East Side Access project in an effort to speed up completion. He’ll yet again turn to his trusted panel of Columbia and Cornell engineering professors who threw the L train work into chaos, but the Governor’s ultimate end goal — another project for which he can attempt to play savior? A ribbon-cutting before his next reelection campaign? — remains elusive. Let’s try to unpack it.
A budget maneuver and a project review
The East Side Access review arose in the context of the budget negotiations which ushered in congestion pricing and a slew of MTA “reforms” that drew less-than-stellar reviews from good government groups. The legislation was a simple paragraph clearly engineered by the Governor. It reads:
For purposes of an independent review of the project commonly referred to as “East Side Access”, the metropolitan transportation authority shall establish an outside expert advisory group to review such project and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. Such outside experts shall include members of the outside independent review team established to review the project commonly referred to as the “L-train project”. Such review shall be completed as soon as practicable for consideration by the metropolitan transportation authority board.
That’s the entirety of the mandate. It involves once again gathering a panel of local academics who may or may not have expertise in the management and scoping of a massively-complex, multi-year, multi-billion dollar project and asking them to overhaul the whole thing with a decade into construction and with just 15 percent of the work left. To say this is shutting the barn door after the horse escapes is an understatement.
In comments after the budget was passed, Cuomo added some color to the request. He put out a rather milquetoast statement, relying on one major exaggeration concerning construction timelines, as local reporters unpacked the three-sentence order for a project review. “East Side Access is one of the biggest challenges facing the MTA,” the governor said. “It has taken over 50 years and the price has increased 11-fold. The project is still about four years from completion and operation. We recently had great success by having outside experts review the L Train tunnel project where their recommendations made a dramatic difference, bringing cutting edge technology and different design ideas to the MTA. The budget that just passed directs the MTA to conduct a similar process on the East Side Access project to see if there are any new ideas that could expedite construction or reduce cost. It can only be a net positive exercise.”
At this stage, it’s worth noting that ground-breaking for East Side Access in its current iteration was held in 2007, and while parts of the tunnel had been built in the 1960s and the project had been in the discussion and planning stages on and off over the decade, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it’s taken 50 years of work to get to where we are today. It’s taken over 20 years though from when then-Senator Al D’Amato and then-Governor George Pataki began to pressure the MTA to plan for the project and helped fund the initial assessments and engineering work. That by itself is far too long, and Cuomo could make his point effectively without bending this timeline. But I digress.
At a subsequent luncheon in front of the Association for a Better New York, the governor yet again focused on his favorite rhetorical trope — his eventual death — and added some very Cuomo-esque color, most of which again stretched reality:
East Side Access project—started in 1969. Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay got together, I love that headline, “Mayor and Governor unite to start transit tube.” Yeah, you see how well that worked out, right? 1969, this is the cost estimates of the East Aide Access. Starts at $75 million in the 60s, it’s now up to $11 billion. 2012, it was $8 billion. How do you go from $8 billion to $11 billion? That is $3 billion, 2012, you’re already into the project for 50 years. How can you be that wrong? You can’t be. And, how can it take so long? At this rate, I don’t think I’m going to be alive for the opening of the East Side Access. I think my grandchild will be there at the opening. Somewhere in the decade of 2040…
With the East Side Access, before I die, we’re going to bring a new team in, the same way we did with the L train, we’re going to have them overlook all the construction, all the design, and see if there’s a better way to do it. East Side Access will be transformative when it’s done. It allows the trains from Long Island to come right in to Grand Central. It will be phenomenal, but we have to get it done and we need a new set of eyes to do it…
Over the next four years, I am willing to put my name on the line and tell you exactly what we are going to get done…East Side Access is going to be open or you can bury my heart in the East Side Access.
Whether the governor’s last line on East Side Access is a promise or a threat remains to be seen. What is true though is that Cuomo’s tortured attempts at proving a point aren’t accurate. Cuomo’s own MTA continues to assert that East Side Access will open in 2022 when Cuomo, who currently has no grandchildren, will still be the governor. It won’t be in 2040 or 2030. The end, as we can see from recent photos, is literally in sight. So what’s going on here?
A tortured timeline and missed budgets
To address that question, let me teach a quick history lesson. As long-time readers know, the tale of East Side Access (which you can peruse via my archives) is one of poor project planning and management. The MTA initially projected costs at $4.3 billion with a completion date of 2009 if construction began promptly after scoping documents were prepared in 1999. Costs grew as the start of the project was delayed, and when funding came through in 2006, the agency estimated it would cost around $6.3 billion and be finished in 2012. Clearly, the executives at MTA Capital Construction, who are now long gone from their jobs, never really knew what they were talking about in the early going.
The project hasn’t fared much better since work began as unanticipated complexities and a lack of inter-agency coordination plagued work from the start. The timeline slipped from 2012 to 2016 to 2019 and finally to 2022 while the budget increased rom $6.3 billion to $7.3 billion to $8.3 billion to $9.7 billion to $10.2 billion to its current price tag. Newsday ran down the cost estimates and timelines last year, and it is a textbook example of bad planning.
No one will ever make the mistake of defending East Side Access. As I wrote last year at around this time when I examined the increasing costs, this project wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis, and the no-build option would have been chosen had costs been scoped properly from the outset. The feds wouldn’t have funded it, and the money would have been put to better use in New York.
“The MTA has gotten away with capital construction larceny here, and no one in Albany has raised a hand to question the worth of this project at any point in the last decade. It is a failure in construction management and a failure in politics as scarce transit dollars flushed into the deep-bore cavern below Grand Central time and time again,” I wrote last year, and I stand by it.
Why then am I skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s motives here? Is it because anyone watching for the last nine years should have an inherent distrust of Cuomo’s relationship to transit and his willingness to abuse the MTA to make him look good? Of course.
Andrew Cuomo has been the governor for most of the East Side Access construction
Construction on East Side Access began just over 12 years ago, and Governor Cuomo has now been New York’s chief executive for nearly 75 percent of the construction life of East Side Access. Since Cuomo took office and assumed responsibility for the MTA, whether he wants to admit it or not, the construction timeline has slipped by six years while costs have increased by nearly $4 billion. The first thing Cuomo should have done on East Side Access when he took began his first term on January 1, 2011 was order a full-scale top-to-bottom review of the project. Instead, he sat on it for over eight years as project timelines slipped and costs ballooned by almost 55 percent.
Now, Cuomo is on the verge of pulling a Second Ave. Subway on East Side Access, and it’s obvious how this will play out. The experts will conduct their review of the project and recommend some accelerated concurrent testing plan that will likely add to the costs while Cuomo can celebrate a ribbon-cutting prior to his next reelection campaign in 2022. The MTA will have to spend more money to meet the Governor’s timeline, and the proper post-mortem, one that explores how the MTA whiffed so badly on its initial scoping for East Side Access, why the agency couldn’t properly manage this project for over a decade and how we can avoid repeating these mistakes on, say, future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or Penn Station Access or Gateway or any number of badly-needed infrastructure projects, won’t happen.
Ultimately, then, that’s Cuomo’s transit legacy in a nutshell. When it’s too late to enact real reform and push for a transparent overhaul of clearly faulty project scoping, construction management and contracting practices, Cuomo steps in to gain headlines and photos for electoral benefit. That’s not reform; that’s manipulation. He did it with the Second Ave. Subway, and with the assist of Columbia and Cornell Universities, he’s going to do it again on East Side Access. New York City, stuck a precipitous moment in its infrastructure history, deserves better, and better should begin with a real assessment of everything that went wrong with East Side Access. This maneuver is not it.