Once again the MTA has left coal in the stockings of Long Island Rail Road commuters. “East Side Access full opening delayed” (Robert Pelaez — Dec. 30).
Every Christmas, since 2011 the MTA has failed to initiate the promised East Side Access to Grand Central Madison service. The original Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement to MTA was approved in 2006. It included a project cost of $6.3 billion, federal share capped at $2.6 billion with the start of passenger service including a promise to run 24 hourly trains rush hour (most of which were supposed to provide a one seat ride) in 2011.
The temporary shuttle service, which did not start in December 2022, comes nowhere close to meeting this commitment. I can just imagine the overcrowding on shuttle trains between Jamaica and GCM. Riders on the Port Washington branch will have to transfer at Woodside for access to the shuttle train.
The project cost has grown to $11.6 billion today. This does not include debt service payments of $1 billion for borrowing costs buried under the MTA operating budget. There are also $4 billion worth of LIRR readiness projects to support the start of service. They take place east of the Woodside Harold Interlockings and are carried off line from the official project budget. Without these projects, the LIRR lacks the expanded operational capabilities to support both promised 24 rush-hour train service to GCM along with a 40% increase in reverse peak-rush-hour service.
Even when full ESA service to GCM begins, thousands of potential new LIRR customers will continue to be left stranded in Hunters Point, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Elmhurst and Woodhaven, Queens, neighborhoods. Both Hunters Point and Long Island City continue to grow with thousands of new residents, businesses, and office workers. The LIRR currently runs a handful of trains in the AM rush hour in one direction westbound from Jamaica to Hunters Point and LIC returning eastbound in the PM rush hour. There is no service in both directions rush hour along with hourly off peak and evenings.
There are thousands of potential new LIRR customers who would take advantage of increased frequent bi-directional services to both Hunters Point and LIC peak and off peak. Reopening the old Elmhurst Station closed in 1982 and Woodhaven Station closed in 1976 could do the same.
Also missing is a promise dating back to 1998, as part of the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access to Grand Central Terminal project, that there was to be construction of a new station at Sunnyside Yard.
Penn Station is a 24/7 facility with overnight service to and from between 1 AM and 5 AM. Grand Central Terminal is closed overnight from 2 AM to 5:15 AM. Unlike the LIRR, Metro North provides no service in or out during that time period. Why does MTA hold the LIRR and Metro North to different standards when it comes to utilizing these two facilities? Catherine Renaldi is the first MTA official to serve as president of both Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads. The LIRR should provide equal levels of 24/7 service to both Penn Station and GCM customers.
A simple analysis of the proposed schedules reveals that depending upon your branch or station, there is no LIRR train to or from GCM between 3 to 5 hours overnight weekdays and weekends.
With the initiation of LIRR ESA service to GCM, the LIRR will suspend virtually all direct one-seat ride thru service between Jamaica and Atlantic Terminal, Brooklyn. Travel time for thousands of LIRR riders bound for downtown Brooklyn, Wall Street, World Financial Center, World Trade Center or other destinations in downtown Manhattan via Atlantic Terminal Brooklyn will now be longer.
One rider’s gain in time savings (being able to get to Manhattan Midtown East Side via GCM vs. Penn Station) is a loss for another rider trying to access destinations via Atlantic Terminal Brooklyn.
Was investing $12.6 billion in direct costs for ESA worth it? The verdict is still out. It is doubtful in a post COVID-19 world that there will be anywhere near the anticipated 160,000 daily riders using this new facility. Time will tell if commuters and taxpayers will see all of the benefits from this project promised by generations of elected officials as well as MTA and LIRR presidents going back decades.
When it comes to East Side Access, the LIRR 1960s motto “Line of the Dashing Dan” should be changed to “Line of the Slow Moving Sloth.”
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former Director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management.