OP-ED: MTA/LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Madison Forgotten History

Jan. 27, 2023
Former FTA official Larry Penner offers a ride down memory lane concerning the past, present and future of LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Madison.

Interim limited shuttle service began on Jan. 25 for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) East Side Access to Grand Central Madison (GCM) between Jamaica and Queens. Hopefully, it will be followed by the initiation of full service on all 11 LIRR branches before the end of February. It is time to take a look back to see how we got to today.

There is more history for this project that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), MTA Chairman Janno Lieber and LIRR President Catherine Renaldi seldom acknowledge. Here is the real deal concerning the decades old promised MTA LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Madison project from someone who was on the inside from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) prospective.

One significant failure under the late LIRR President Charles Hoppe was a future fatal flaw in the purchase of both dual-mode locomotives and double-decker passenger cars. Those responsible for design, engineering and bid specifications to support procurement of dual-mode locomotives and double decker passenger cars failed to take into consideration height clearances for the 63rd Street tunnel between Manhattan and Queens.

Construction on this tunnel began in 1969. This was designed to be used at a future date to provide the LIRR with a direct connection to Grand Central Terminal. As a result, the LIRR fleet of 23 diesel-electric and 23 dual-mode locomotives, along with 134 double-decker passenger cars, will not be able to utilize East Side Access for service to Grand Central Madison. Diesel locomotives are also unable to be used for removal of stalled electric trains stuck in the tunnel, as well as the M3 MU electric cars may have operational difficulties accessing Grand Central Madison.

Due to multi-year delays in completion for delivery of all new M9 MU electric cars, there are a limited number of spare electric cars. Delivery, inspection and acceptance of all new M9 MU electric cars will not occur until the fourth quarter of 2023. This may result in some previous 12-car trains being reduced to 10-car trains for those traveling to GCM.

The tunnel boring machine created two storage tracks under Park Avenue south to 38th Street. Advancing beyond 38th Street could have proceeded to provide a direct connection between GCM and Penn Station. The estimated cost for this ranged between $1 to $1.5 billion.

The MTA was unable or unwilling to find additional funding or come to a cost sharing agreement with New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) to pay for this work. A simple change order to the on-site tunnel boring machine contractor would have done the trick. It will cost far more today for the same work. You would need a new tunnel boring launch pad for the machine and disposal system for excavated underground materials. Construction of this extension would benefit LIRR, NJ Transit and Metro-North Railroad riders by providing additional operational options for all three agencies.

Who remembers one example of waste, fraud and abuse found 13 years ago? A simple audit was performed by an accountant who reviewed a budget for train platforms being constructed under Grand Central Terminal. The accountant found funding was provided under the project budget to pay for 900 workers but could only find paper work to justify 700 workers.

No one on the project could explain what tasks the other unaccounted 200 workers performed. These 200 potential phantom employees were being paid at $1,000 dollars per day. They were subsequently removed from the payroll. No one ever determined how long they were on the payroll or how much they were paid. There is no evidence these lost dollars were ever recovered.

Promised travel time savings up to 40 minutes daily for those with Manhattan midtown east side destinations doesn't apply to most riders who would switch from Penn Station to GCM. This new LIRR facility is 15 stories below ground. Riding escalators alone requires up to two minutes each. More time is needed exiting to reach street level versus Penn Station. Validation of any time savings depends upon how close your final destination is to GCM.

Penn Station is a 24/7 facility with overnight service to and from between 1 a.m. and 5 a.. Grand Central Terminal is closed overnight from 2 a.m. to 5:15 a.m. Unlike 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? Ms. Catherine Renaldi is the first MTA official to serve as president of both Long Island and Metro North railroads. The LIRR should provide equal levels of 24/7 service to both Penn Station and GCM customers.

When the shuttle hours end and full time service to GCM begins, a simple analysis of the schedules reveals, that depending upon your branch or station, there is no LIRR train to or from GCM between three to five hours overnight on weekdays and weekends.

With the initiation of full time service to GCM, the LIRR will suspend virtually all direct one seat rides through 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 the Atlantic Terminal Brooklyn will now have longer commutes.

One riders gain in time savings (being able to get to Manhattan midtown east side via GCM versus Penn Station) is a loss for another rider trying to access destinations via Atlantic Terminal Brooklyn.

The MTA & LIRR are considering reducing the length of trains, along with canceling some trains as one way to deal with the multi-billion dollar, multi-year budget deficit. How does this impact all the promised new services to GCM?

Our Valentine's Day gift from MTA and LIRR some time in 2023 will be a fare increase up to 5.5 percent. Another gift from Gov. Hochul later this year will be the introduction of a 24/7 city ticket. The result could be thousands of new riders boarding in Queens joining those from suburban Nassau and Suffolk County. This may result in overcrowding and riders standing in the aisles, especially when trains are delayed, combined or canceled due to periodic service disruptions. Finding a seat on east bound evening rush hour trains may become more difficult. How will conductors check tickets with potential crowding and so little time before arrival at GCM?

Debt service payments for the cost of borrowing brings the basic project cost of $11.6 billion to $12.6 billion. Debt service costs are buried under a separate agency operating budget.

There are more than $4 billion more for indirect costs for what is known as LIRR readiness projects to support East Side Access service to Grand Central Madison. They take place east of the Woodside Harold Interlockings and are carried off line from the official project budget. These include the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, $450 million Jamaica Capacity Improvements, $387 million Ronkonkoma Double Track, $120 million Ronkonkoma Yard Expansion, $44 million Great Neck Pocket Track, $423 million for rail car fleet expansion and others that are necessary for implementation for East Side Access.

Without these projects, the LIRR would lack the expanded operational capabilities to support both promised 24 rush hour train service to GCM, along with a 40 percent increase in reverse peak rush hour service. Any honest transportation project cost allocation plan would include these expenditures. This would bring the full true cost of East Side Access to $16.6 billion.

Each time the project has been delayed since 2006 from the agreed upon FTA Capital Investment New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement completion date of 2013, the MTA has to keep its own Construction Management firm, Independent Engineering Project Management Oversight firm, Office of Capital Construction, LIRR Force Account and other employees on the payroll assigned to East Side Access for nine more years than originally forecasted in 2006. How much has all of this cost the MTA during the life of this project?

In our new COVID-19 world, will there really be 160,000 riders utilizing East Side Access? 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 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 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. There will be fewer face-to-face meetings and conferences, with increased use 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 $12.6 billion in direct costs for East Side Access worth it? The verdict will not be known for years. There is still outstanding work remaining, when service begins to GCM. How many of the 72 East Side Access contracts will be closed out by Jan. 31, 2023? There are still open contracts needing completion of all contract punch list items (to insure the contractors built the asset to meet design and engineering contract specifications), receipt of all asset maintenance manuals for any project components worth $5,000 or more under each of the remaining open contracts, payments for outstanding bills and release of contract retainage to contractors.

Some contractors may submit claims for additional reimbursement for work based upon delays attributed to insufficient track outages or force account support from both Amtrak and LIRR. It may be several more years before all 72 project contracts are closed out. At that point, East Side Access will really be 100 percent complete. Only then, will the final true project cost be known.

There are still many chapters to be written before we can close the books on LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Madison.


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.

About the Author

Larry Penner

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. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.