OP-ED: LIRR's $2.6 billion main line third track: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Oct. 16, 2020
In our new COVID-19 world, the LIRR will have to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections including those on the Main Line.

There is more to the recent announcement by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) that the $2.6-billion Main Line Third Track project is ahead of schedule and under budget. As a Nassau County resident, I have seen first hand some of the progress, especially the benefits of using the "design build" concept for this project.

Completion for installation of both under and over passes to eliminate several grade crossings with a minimum amount of inconvenience has been impressive. MTA Chairman Pat Foye and LIRR President Phil Eng, along with the current generation of employees working on this project, may be unaware of past history going back decades. The project might have cost far less, been completed and available for riders years sooner, as well as requiring far less borrowing of funds. 

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 LIRR 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.

These contracts, totaling $1.95 billion, were part of a $3 billion MTA 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Program Amendment, which increased the budget from $29 to $32 billion. They are paid for by adding $1.6 billion in long-term MTA debt. When they claim that the project is coming in under budget, the MTA doesn't include the millions in annual debt service payments over the years to cover the cost of borrowing money for financing this project. For the past 30 years, estimates for construction of the Main Line Third Track have grown from $600 million to $1.5 billion in 2016, $2 billion in 2017 and $2.6 billion in 2018. There is only $1.95 billion available under the MTA $32 billion 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Plan. To complete the financing package, another $600 million is needed as part of the $51 billion 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. The worst kept secret is that funding this program has always been fragile at best. Everyone knows it is just a matter of time before this program is reduced by billions.

To validate the claim of Main Line Third Track coming in below budget, we would have to see a real detailed project budget. It would include the estimated costs for each project component, amount spent to date and available balance. This would include, but not be limited to, design and engineering, overall construction, private property easements, utility relocation, commuter parking, platform and station improvements, track, signal and power work, sound barriers, construction for each of seven grade-crossing eliminations, construction management firms to supplement LIRR engineers in oversight of Third Track Contractors schedule, budget, staff and work, LIRR force account (LIRR track employees who provide protection for construction contractors employees working on active track right of ways), LIRR budget and financial staff, LIRR quality assurance and quality control staff (to insure that Third Track Contractors adheres to the contract specifications and requirements), substitute bus service during periodic track outages, funding reserve to pay for change orders due to unforeseen site conditions or changes in scope requested by various LIRR user groups, local villages, community groups or other issues during construction) and contingency for unforeseen costs. This just highlights a few of the major project cost components. If the MTA/LIRR shared this information with commuters, residents, taxpayers, transit advocates, elected officials and the media, it would help build credibility for this project. It would also honor New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's promise to have the most transparent administration in history.

No one can predict the future for Main Line Third Track over the next two years. There is always the potential for adverse weather conditions or other disruptions in service that could require additional time. We also do not know how much float time was built into the project schedule to deal with any potential delays.

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 generation's senior MTA and LIRR management team.

Fast forward to 2016. The Main Line Third Track Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to support the ongoing project was found to be in compliance with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQUA). Gov. Cuomo, the MTA Board and other project supporters never questioned why the federal National Environmental Protect Action (NEPA) process was not followed. Without the compliance with NEPA, the MTA forfeited any opportunity to access FTA or Federal Highway Administration funding. The project would have easily qualified for various FTA formula grant programs.

The MTA averages receipt of $1.4 billion in FTA funding each year. Main Line Third Track also would have been a good candidate for various FTA discretionary grant programs such as New Starts or Core Capacity. The positive environmental impacts of removing several thousand cars from the road would have made the project a great candidate for FHWA Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funding. These funds are available to be transferred from FHWA to FTA. There are also other FHWA grant programs for which the MTA could have applied. Gov. Cuomo, the MTA Board, MTA HQ and LIRR senior leadership may have had no interest in applying for FTA capital funding for this project. Gov. Cuomo instructed the MTA and LIRR to "fast track" the project. Perhaps it was to avoid more detailed federal oversight for the project from the environmental review process through construction. The FTA would have been lead agency for review and approval of the environmental document and finding. FTA would have also assigned staff from the Region 2 NY Office along with its own project management oversight independent engineering consulting firm to keep a detailed close eye on a capital improvement project of this size from pre-construction to completion. They would have closely monitored the Project Management Plan, Scope of Work, Construction Schedule including the Critical Path, Budget, Buy America, Change Orders, Track Outages, Force Account, Quality Assurance, Quality Control and Asset Maintenance Plans. This would have complimented the MTA's own independent construction oversight consulting firm.

MTA Chairman Foye and LIRR President Eng have a serious problem when it comes to keeping promises for new LIRR service. The MTA threatened a 50-percent reduction in LIRR service if they don't receive a second $12 billion federal emergency stimulus bailout. These proposed service cuts conflict with previous commitments of new service on the Hempstead branch for the Elmont LIRR Station (the first new station to open in 50 years) to serve the Islanders Belmont Arena in October 2021, with a 40-percent increase in rush hour service upon completion of the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track (which runs between Hicksville and Floral Park serving the Huntington, Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branches along with limited service to Babylon, Speonk and Montauk) and 24 trains hourly (anticipated to serve all nine branches) during am and pm peak and supporting the $11.2 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, which were to be delivered in December 2022. There is also reverse peak service increases on all LIRR branches in December 2022. A significant portion of reverse peak service is anticipated to be provided on all branches operating on the Main Line. The MTA is only 12 to 24 months away from promised first day of service dates.

If the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey LaGuardia AirTrain comes on line by 2024, Gov. Cuomo's promise of increased service on the Port Washington branch will need to be honored. This will mean several additional trains on an hourly basis to meet his promised 30 minute travel time from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan via the AirTrain with a transfer to the LIRR. Few peak hour trains stop at the LIRR Mets Willets Point Queens Station. Service off peak and weekends averages every 30 minutes or twice per hour. Add this to all the other promised benefits of Main Line Third Track service improvements.

In our new COVID-19 world, the LIRR will have to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections including those on the Main Line. Will there really be 60,000 plus new riders, many of which will travel via Main Line Third Track, to access the new LIRR Grand Central Terminal? No one can predict how many years it will take to come even close to a return to pre COVID-19 ridership numbers. Who knows how many more years will pass before ridership numbers will significantly increase beyond pre COVID-19 numbers. Clearly, more people are going to telecommute from home on a permanent basis. There will be fewer face to face meetings and conferences, with increased usage of Zoom and other teleconference technologies. The growing crime rate and decline for quality of life in NYC will make working, shopping, dinning, visiting or living in Manhattan even less desirable. Fewer people may travel via the LIRR to events at Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, Broadway Theaters or Madison Square Garden for hockey, basketball, rock concerts and other entertainment events. Many Manhattan based corporations including those based in the World Trade Center and Wall Street Financial District are considering relocating employees to satellite offices in the surrounding suburbs. The same is true for those from out of town needing to conduct business in NYC.

Commuters, taxpayers, transit advocates and elected officials remain hopeful that all the benefits promised by the MTA LIRR's $2.6 billion investment for Main Line Third Track come true. Time will tell over the next few years. Stay tuned.


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 Railroad, MTA Bus, NYC DOT, NJ Transit, along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey. 

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.