By Larry Penner
At a recent Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting, it was announced that construction of the Long Island Rail Road Eastside Access to Grand Central Terminal project had fallen behind another year. This means that the completion date may slip once again by one year from December 2022 to December 2023, and the costs might also increase. We have heard this story over and over since 2001.
I have previously written and predicted about both possibilities over the past two years and sadly they have come true. A cat has nine lives, and this project may have already used them all up.
After years of negotiations, the MTA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Authority finally came to an agreement which would reflect the true current cost and schedule. Both the cost went up and first revenue day of service slipped once again. Taxpayers may end up paying $12 billion in direct costs for this project. The odds have increased that riders may have to wait until December 31, 2023, before boarding the first LIRR train to Grand Central Terminal.
The MTA has repeatedly increased the budget by billions and pushed back the first day of service by years. On numerous occasions the MTA has blamed Amtrak for being responsible for additional delays on the progression of LIRR ESA to Grand Central Terminal project. Insufficient support from Amtrak has been responsible for periodic delays since 2006. This includes failures to provide both sufficient track outages along with Amtrak Force Account (employee) support. As a result, both LIRR workers and East Side Access third party contractors have had problems with timely and adequate access to work sites necessary to progress the project. This problem will grow even worse in coming years.
Amtrak needs to assign its own limited Force Account staff to work in both the Hudson and East River tunnels, Penn Station and other competing projects along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, including the new $24 billion Gateway Tunnel (between New Jersey and Penn Station) rather than support the East Side Access project. Just like Amtrak, the LIRR may also have insufficient force account, including inadequate numbers of certified signal maintainers and other specialized trade employees to support annual, routine systemwide projects, installation of Positive Train Control, additional work in the East River Tunnels, and future proposed $2 billion Main Line third track along with East Side Access.
How will the LIRR be able to coordinate daily track outages and “go slow” work zones to support all of this work, while at the same time providing the basic service customers for which are entitled? There is no guarantee that these issues will be resolved any time soon. This could even result in missing the new December 31, 2023, first day of passenger service.
Since 2001, the total direct cost for the East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal has grown from $3.5 billion to $4.3 billion in 2003, $6.3 billion in 2006, $8.4 billion in 2012, $10.8 billion in 2014 and easily up $12 billion when finally completed.
Based upon past history, the final cost might go up again over the next 6 years by $1 billion or more. The anticipated opening day for passenger revenue service date has slipped on a number of occasions from 2011 to December 2022, and now December 2023. Over the next seven years, will both this date and budget hold? No one should be surprised if it ends up drifing into 2024 or later.
The MTA has repeatedly missed every budget and deadline for this project. They have ended up being worthless paper. No one at the MTA, LIRR or any elected official will acknowledge that the real project cost may be over $15 billion.
When it comes to completion of the East Side Access, the 1960s LIRR motto “Line of the Dashing Dan” in 2017 might have to be changed to “Line of the Slow Moving Sloth.”