Public deserves to see details of the LIRR’s ballooning third-track budget

Public deserves to see details of the LIRR’s ballooning third-track budget
By Larry Penner

There is more to “LIRR expansion project contracts awarded, work to begin Jan. 2018” (Mark Hallum, Dec. 26), concerning the recent approval of $1.8 billion in contracts awarded to the joint-venture 3rd Track Constructors for design, engineering, community outreach and construction of the Long Island Rail Road Main Line third track.

An additional contract, for $99.9 million, was awarded to an Arup-Jacobs joint venture to assist the LIRR in project management. These contracts, totaling $1.95 billion, were part of a $3 billion MTA 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Program Amendment, which increased the budget from $29 to $32 billion. They are paid for by adding $1.6 billion in long-term MTA debt. Over the past 30 years, estimates for construction of the Main Line Third Track have grown from $600 million to $1.5 billion two years ago, $2 billion last year and now $2.6 billion today. There is only $1.95 billion available under the MTA $32 billion 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Plan.

What is the justification for this most recent $600 million project cost increase in less than one year? If $356 million of the additional $600 million is expected to come from the next MTA 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan, what is the source of the $244 million balance? The final cost could be even higher when the project is completed by the end of 2022 or later. Who will pay for any potential construction contract change orders and other unforeseen expenses?

What are the components that make up the $2.6 billion budget? When will we see a real, detailed project budget that would include the estimated costs for each project component? This would include design and engineering, overall construction, private property easements, utility relocation, commuter parking, platform and station improvements, track, signal and power work, sound barriers, construction for seven grade-crossing eliminations, construction management firms to supplement LIRR Engineers in oversight of 3rd Track Constructors schedule, budget, staff and work, LIRR force account (LIRR track employees who provide protection for construction contractors employees working on active track right of ways), LIRR budget and financial staff, LIRR quality assurance and quality control staff (to ensure that 3rd Track Constructors follow the contract specifications), substitute bus service during frequent track outages, AND contingency for unforeseen costs.

This just highlights some the major costs. When will the MTA/LIRR share this information with commuters, residents, taxpayers, transit advocates, elected officials and the media to build credibility for this project?

Gov. Cuomo previously admitted that with a reduction in private property acquisition, virtually all construction will take place along the existing right of way. He went on to say that this will result in increasing construction costs. This has now proved to be true. When you combine this with elimination of seven grade crossings, clearly overall costs are only going to rise even more. This is an incredibly complex project to perform 100 percent of the work within two active tracks. There are 194 weekday and 152 weekend trains on the Huntington/Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay, Ronkonkoma and Babylon-to-Speonk branches. This does not include additional LIRR work trains, freight trains and movements of non-revenue passenger trains not in service.

Besides relocating two existing tracks on parts of the Main Line to make room for construction a new third track, you have to deal with noise abatement and sound barriers, new platforms, stations and commuter parking, along with additional safety improvements at grade crossings, including elevating or sinking tracks. Don’t forget LIRR force account support to provide flagging protection for construction workers. Imagine how many times per hour they will have to stop work when a train passes by. Don’t be surprised when you learn that a significant amount of construction ends up taking place evenings, overnight and on weekends, when there is less activity on the Main Line. Each grade-crossing elimination may require numerous weekend track outages resulting in full suspension of Main Line service. Around-the-clock shuttle bus service may be needed between Jamaica and Mineola or Hicksville. Costs for substitute bus service could easily run into the millions.

Given past experiences and history with other major projects, like LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, don’t count on the Main Line Third Track being completed by December 2022, as promised. It may take several months to a year or two more before riders can board and find out the final cost for the Main Line Third Track.

Larry Penner

Great Neck

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