Governor Cuomo held a press conference at Grand Central Terminal today to announce completion of construction work on the $11 billion East Side Access project, which for the first time will provide direct Long Island Railroad (LIRR) service to and from Grand Central in addition to the LIRR’s long-established Manhattan terminus at Penn Station.

Cuomo’s remarks—generally designed to highlight ESA as another example of his ability to get big projects done—left some big unanswered questions and left out some crucial details, as Larry Penner points out in a special Guest Commentary for the Empire Center.

Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants which provided funding for capital projects and programs to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LIRR, New Jersey Transit and over 30 transit agencies within New York State.

Guest Commentary by Larry Penner

While the governor implied the tunnels under the East River were only recently completed as part of ESA, they actually were constructed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Signals, power and installation of track along with the physical connections to both Queens and Grand Central Terminal began after the FTA signed a $2.6 billion New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement with MTA in 2006.

When he took office in 2011, the governor did not inherit an inactive or dormant ESA project, as viewers of his briefing today might have been led to assume. Numerous construction contracts had already been awarded and work already had been underway 10 years ago.

Some further background on the project is in order:

Since 2001, the total direct cost for MTA 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, $10.2 billion in 2014 and, today, $11.2 billion (plus $600 million in financing costs).  This does not include $4 billion more for indirect costs known as “readiness projects” carried offline from the official project budget.  These are the LIRR’s $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, the $450 million Jamaica Capacity project, the $387 million Ronkonkoma Double Track, the $120 million Ronkonkoma Yard Expansion, and the $44 million Great Neck Pocket Track, just to name a few that support direct implementation for East Side Access. Based upon past history, the final cost of ESA could go up again over time by a $1 billion or more.

The promised opening service date has slipped on numerous occasions from 2009 to December 2022. The MTA has repeatedly increased the budget by billions and pushed back the first day of service by a total of 13 years.

The original Full Funding Grant Agreement between the Federal Transit Administration and MTA was approved in December 2006.  The $2.63 billion of FTA grant funding toward a $6.3 billion project cost remains unchanged (virtually all of which has already been spent) with the MTA as local sponsor having to cover the $5 billion-and-growing cost overruns.   After years of negotiations, in August of 2016, the MTA and FTA finally came to an amending agreement reflecting the current cost and schedule. But the cost went up and first revenue day of service slipped once more. A detailed project risk assessment by the FTA independent engineer, part of the FTA -MTA 2016 amended Full Funding Grant Agreement, predicted a final direct cost of $12 billion.

Unfortunately, the MTA under Governor Cuomo missed a golden opportunity to create a cost-effective additional link—which might have been opened by now—between New York City’s two major rail stations. Citing New Jersey Transit’s unwillingness to share the cost of the  project, the MTA declined to approve a contract change order that would have would have allowed the already-in-use ESA tunnel boring machine to dig four more blocks south (stub tracks currently end at 38th Street and Park Avenue for mid-day storage) and four more blocks west, directly connecting Grand Central and Penn Station. This could have provided additional operational options.

One of the frequent claims in support of the ESA project was that it would save Long Island commuters to Manhattan up to 40 minutes travel time each day. However, the new LIRR passenger terminal at Grand Central is 15 stories below ground. How many of those 40 minutes will be needed for commuters simply to reach street level?

Speaking of new facilities, there is also reason to question the benefit to LIRR commuters of the $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall recently opened at Penn Station. Most LIRR Penn Station commuters enter and exit 7th Avenue, either walking to work or accessing transit connections via the 7th Avenue or Herald Square subway stations or the PATH complex. Few have any reason to walk underground to Moynihan Train Hall. LIRR riders who use the 8th Avenue subway enter and exit via the $300 million 8th Avenue Concourse rather than Moynihan Train Hall.

The success of ESA to Grand Central Terminal is dependent upon completion of the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track on Long Island. Work on that project was recently suspended for one month due to safety concerns. No one has seen the agreed-upon recovery schedule between the contractor and LIRR to make up for this lost time.

Some additional questions:

  • The MTA has said the scheduled completion date for opening of the ESA is December 2022. To meet that deadline, will the LIRR have to pay any excessive overtime, as was the case prior to opening of the $4.5 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase One?
  • The governor said that while “all the construction is complete,” there is still “some systems work” to do. This was not further defined. How many contracts are there? What is the dollar value? How many punch-list items for inspection and acceptance remain to be completed? How many maintenance manuals for project components are still outstanding?
  • What is the current status of funds expended, outstanding bills still to be processed against the $11.2 billion budget? How much contingency funding is still available and not yet spent?
  • The increase of overall LIRR system capacity by 24 trains per hour during rush hour is misleading. How many of these trains will actually be diverted from Atlantic Terminal, Hunters Point or Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal?

In addition to ESA—on which, as noted, construction began 15 years ago—Cuomo has backed and is pushing an extremely broad and expensive list of other transit projects.

There already are a number of competing new services looking for non-existent rush hour Penn Station platform, track and East River tunnel capacity. Metro North wants to begin service (four trains per hour) at a cost of $1.5 billion, plus from the east Bronx via the Hell Gate Bridge and Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside Queens to Penn Station by 2025. (This slipped two years from the original 2023 promised date back in 2016.)

Metro North also has future plans ($400 million) to run additional service from Poughkeepsie and other stations via the Amtrak Empire Corridor Hudson Line using tracks on Manhattan West Side. The LIRR invested $450 million completing double-tracking on the Ronkonkoma branch.

Once the Main Line Third Track is completed at a cost of $2.6 billion, the LIRR has plans to expand Ronkonkoma branch rush hour Penn Station service. The governor wants to provide new frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point station. This is to support his $2 billion LaGuardia Air Train. Additional service from Grand Central Terminal to Mets Willets Point station may also begin once LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal is completed. To meet the promised 30-minute travel time, the LIRR will have to run six hourly trains, probably three each from Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal

Cuomo also has asked the LIRR to create frequent service from Penn Station to the new Belmont Park Islanders Arena by 2021 to coincide with the opening of that facility.

But on the heels of today’s “completion” announcement, the biggest remaining question about ESA remains the timing of its actual openining. This is supposedly scheduled for December 2022. If he ends up running for re-election, will Governor Cuomo direct the MTA to spend whatever it takes to schedule a ribbon-cutting ceremony prior to the November 2022 statewide elections?

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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