Readers Write: LIRR Eastside access delayed as costs rise

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Readers Write: LIRR Eastside access delayed as costs rise
Daughters of the American Revolution visit Port’s Historical Society / Photo by Robbie Lager

Once again, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to announce that construction costs and completion date for the Long Island Rail Road Eastside Access to Grand Central Terminal project have gone up by $955 million from $10.8 billion to a new record $11.8 billion (this includes $600 million in project financing charges).

Since 2001, the total direct cost for MTA East Side Access 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 now $11.8 billion in 2018. 

It will easily end up between $12 and $13 billion in direct costs when finally completed.  This does not include $4 billion more for indirect costs to pay for other projects such as $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track and others which support East Side Access. 

Based upon past history, the final cost might go up again over time by a billion or more.  The anticipated opening day for passenger revenue service date has slipped on a number of occasions from 2009 to December 2023 date.  

Over the next six years, will both this date and budget hold? 

No one should be surprised if it ends up in 2024 or later. The MTA has repeatedly missed every budget and schedule for this project.  They have ended up being worthless promises.

What MTA leadership and elected officials who support the project never share with LIRR riders and taxpayers is the original Full Funding Grant Agreement between the Federal Transit Administration and MTA approved in December 2006. 

The $2.63 billion of Federal Grant funding remains unchanged (virtually all of which has already been spent) with the MTA (as local sponsor) having to cover the $6 billion and growing cost overruns.  

Ten years later in August 2016 the FTA amended this agreement which was signed off by both FTA and the MTA.  

After years of negotiations, the MTA and FTA 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. 

Based upon a detailed project risk assessment by the Federal Transit Administration independent engineer, the final cost could easily end up at $12 billion.   

As a result, based on past history taxpayers may end up paying $12 billion or more indirect and $4 billion more in indirect costs for this project.

The odds continue to grow in favor of riders waiting until December 31, 2023 or even 2024 before boarding the first LIRR train to Grand Central Terminal. 

Several weeks ago, the MTA announced that the project will fall behind schedule several more months and the costs have gone up. 

This is due to continued delays in testing of new signals adjacent to the Harold Interlockings west of the Woodside Station. 

Progress is impacted by coordination issues with Amtrak who is performing work on their own projects at the same location.   

The completion date is well on its way to slip once again by one year from December 2022 to December 2023 accompanied by cost increases.

We have heard this story over and over since 2001.

I have previously written and predicted about both possibilities during the past years and sadly they have come true on several occasions.

A cat has nine lives and this project long ago already used all of them.  

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 East Side Access 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 for the project.

This problem will grow even worse in coming years with all the emergency repairs at Penn Station.  

Amtrak needs to assign its own limited Force Account staff to work in both the Hudson and East River Tunnels, Penn Station tracks and signals along other competing projects along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston including the new $29 billion Gateway Tunnel (between New Jersey and Penn Station) and $1.6 billion Penn Farley Complex including the Moynihan Train Station rather than support the MTA 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 state of good repair system-wide projects, installation of Positive Train Control, additional work in the East River Tunnels, $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, $450 million Jamaica Capacity Improvements, $387 million Ronkonkoma Double Tracking along with MTA East Side Access. 

It continues to be challenging for the LIRR 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 pay for.  

There is no guarantee that these issues will be resolved any time soon. This could even result in missing the Dec. 31, 2023 first day of passenger service.  

When it comes to completion of East Side Access, the 1960’s LIRR motto “Line of the Dashing Dan” in 2018 might have to be changed to “Line of the Slow Moving Sloth.”

Larry Penner

Great Neck

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.)

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