There is more to the announcement at the Westbury Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) Station by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Janno Lieber and LIRR President Catherine Renaldi that the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track has been completed and is ready to go into service. It is true that completion of the LIRR Main Line Third Track will bring a number of benefits. Safety for residents and commuters will improve with the elimination of eight major street level grade crossings. When trains periodically suffer from mechanical difficulties along this corridor, there will be new operational options to maintain service and minimize disruptions. Rush hour capacity will increase, providing additional services, especially reverse peak options.
However, they also said that there was still more work to do before actually reaching 100 percent completion. Additional work for both stations and landscaping will take until April 2023. There is also completion of contract punch list items (to insure the contractors built the asset to meet design and engineering contract specifications), receipt of all asset maintenance manuals, payments for the last bills and release of contract retainage to all the contractors who worked on the project. At that point, the project is really complete
In 2005, the project was following the federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) with the intention of applying to the Federal Transit Administration for construction funding. In response to both community and political opposition from local elected officials, the project was canceled by that generations senior MTA and LIRR management team.
In 2016, the Third Track Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to support the project was found to be in compliance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQUA). Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the MTA Board and other project supporters never questioned why the federal process was not followed. Without compliance with NEPA, the MTA forfeited the opportunity to access FTA or Federal Highway Administration funding.
In January 2018, the MTA and LIRR awarded a $1.8 billion contract to the joint venture 3rd Track Constructors made up of Dragados USA Inc/. John P. Picone Inc., Halmar International LLC and CCA Civil Inc. for construction, Stantec for design, Cameron Engineering for engineering and Rubenstein Associates for community outreach to support final design, engineering and construction of the 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. Funding primarily to pay for this came from a $3 billion MTA 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Program Amendment. This action increased the MTA agency budget from $29 to $32 billion. They are paid for by adding $1.6 billion in long-term MTA debt.
Gov. Hochul, MTA Chairman Lieber and LIRR President Renaldi claim that the project is $100 million under budget. Yet none acknowledged that this savings doesn't include millions in annual debt service payments, over the years to come to cover the cost of borrowing money for financing this project in the first place. Even if the $100 million in savings were real, would it be allocated to the LIRR for funding other capital improvement projects?
Since the 1990s, estimates for construction of the Third Track have grown from $600 million to $1.5 billion in 2016, $2 billion in 2017 and $2.6 billion in 2018. To pay for the project, $1.95 billion came from the MTA $32 billion 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Plan. To complete the funding package, another $600 million was programmed within the $51 billion 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan.
The LIRR has promised a 40 percent increase in rush hour service upon completion of the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track. There is also reverse peak service increases on all LIRR branches in December 2022. These commitments are also dependent on both the $450 million Jamaica Station Capacity Improvements and $11.2 billion East Side Access (ESA) to Grand Central Terminal (now known as Grand Central Madison) being completed by December 2022. A significant portion of increased reverse peak service is anticipated to be provided on all branches operating on the Main Line.
Delivery and acceptance for the ongoing LIRR $734 million procurement of 202 new M9 electric replacement railroad cars will not be completed prior to December 2022. This contract is several years behind schedule. Some of the oldest M3 cars will have to stay around longer than planned before all new cars arrive. Instead of retirement, many M3 cars may have to remain for post COVID-19, East Side Access to Grand Central Madison and increased reverse peak service starting in December 2022. How reliable will this older equipment be?
Amtrak is spending millions on planning initiatives to support future plans of a new $105 billion High Speed Corridor Service between Washington and Boston. It would traverse Long Island via the Main Line Third Track with promised speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Is construction of the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track designed to accommodate speeds of up to 200 miles per hour?.
In our new COVID-19 world, the MTA needs to reevaluate previous anticipated future ridership growth projections for LIRR investments such as Main Line Third Track and ESA. Will there really be 60,000 plus new riders, utilizing the future ESA? How many years will it take before returning to pre COVID-19 ridership numbers? Only 70 percent of pre COVID-19 ridership has returned to date. The MTA's own independent consultant previously predicted that a return to 100 percent pre COVID-19 ridership may not occur until 2030. Many continue to work from home part or full time rather than ride the LIRR full time. What is the basis under our new post COVID-19 world to justify the promised new ridership to Grand Central Madison, as well as new reverse commuter numbers? Did the MTA and LIRR ever update their ridership modeling to validate promised increased ridership? More people are going to continue telecommuting from home part or full time. There will be fewer face-to-face meetings and conferences, with increased usage of Zoom and other teleconference technologies. Many Manhattan based corporations are downsizing existing office space. Others are relocating employees to suburban offices closer to home. Was investing $2.6 billion for Main Line Third Track and $11.2 billion for ESA worth it? The verdict is still out. Time will tell over the coming years if commuters and taxpayers will see all of the benefits from both projects promised by elected officials, MTA and LIRR presidents.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.