OP-ED: MTA $11.6 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Madison update

Feb. 23, 2024
There is still much to do one year after the opening of MTA's LIRR $11.6 billion Manhattan East Side Access to Grand Central Madison.

There is still much to do one year after the opening of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) $11.6 billion Manhattan East Side Access to Grand Central Madison (GCM). A soft opening was held on Jan. 10, 2023, with limited shuttle service between GCM and Jamaica, Queens Station. The real opening took place on Feb. 26, 2023, when full-time direct service on multiple branches began. Thirteen months later, MTA Chairman Janno Lieber, LIRR Past President Catherine Rinaldi and current Acting LIRR President Richard Free still never seem to acknowledge or address a number of outstanding project related issues.  

How many of the original 73 East Side Access contracts has the MTA completed inspection and acceptance, punch list, receipt of maintenance asset plans resulting in final payment and release of retainage resulting in contract closeout? What is their collective dollar value?

How much of the $600 million in debt service payments buried in the agency operating budget, which covered project costs, are still outstanding? The same applies to several hundred million more in debt service payments that financed.

There are $4 billion worth of LIRR readiness projects to support start of full service in February 2023. They 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 and $423 million for rail car fleet expansion. Without these, the LIRR would lack the expanded operational capabilities to support promised 24 rush hour train service to GCM and 40 percent increase in reverse peak rush hour service.  Honest accounting would include these other expenditures bringing the true cost of ESA to $16.1 billion.

How many of the original 73 East Side Access contracts are still open? What is their number and collective dollar value? How many thousands of the original promised daily ridership projection as anticipated under the National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Impact Statement and $6.3 billon MTA East Side Access Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grant Full Funding Grant Agreement has not been achieved?  This goes for the reverse peak as well.

Why does GCM still not provide 24/7 service, as does Penn Station? How could past MTA chairman, MTA Office of Capital Construction and LIRR presidents have been unaware of the fatal flaw in the past purchases of both duel mode locomotives and double-decker passenger cars? 

Those responsible for design, engineering and bid specifications to support procurement of duel mode locomotives and double decker passenger cars failed to take into consideration height clearances for the 63rd St. tunnel between Manhattan and Queens. Construction on this tunnel began in 1969. It 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 duel-mode locomotives, along with 134 double decker passenger cars, are unable to utilize GCM. This includes the ability of diesel or duel mode locomotives to rescue stalled electric trains in the 63rd St. tunnel or GCM station.  

Why 13 months later after service began, are they now going to purchase a battery powered locomotive to rescue trains stuck in the 63rd St. Tunnel accessing GCM? How can MTA Chairman Lieber or Acting LIRR Chairman Free not be aware of the cost, funding source, budget, design and engineering status, procurement schedule for advertising, response to bidders questions, opening and awarding of bids, followed by the anticipated construction, delivery, testing and acceptance of future battery powered locomotives?  

If there is ever a power outage, how could only one battery powered locomotive rescue multiple stuck trains? Would it not be wise to purchase more than one?  

Remember this equipment could also serve the same purpose for any LIRR trains stuck in the East River (Queens to Manhattan Penn Station) or Atlantic branch (Jamaica, Queens to Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn) tunnels.  With two East Side Access tunnels, why would you purchase only one rescue locomotive?  

GCM still has only two men's bathrooms, with a total of 18 urinals and 13 toilets, two women's bathrooms, with a total of 25 toilets, one lactation room and two gender neutral bathrooms, each with a single capacity, all located on the Madison Concourse. There are none on the lower or upper level platforms and mezzanine.

There is still only one waiting room located on the Madison Concourse. It has only 29 seats and seven stools for Wi-Fi connections to serve riders. There are no other seating options on the platform and mezzanine levels while waiting. 

Options for recycling newspapers or beverage containers, disposal of garbage or other waste continues to be nonexistent except for a handful of garbage cans at the platform level. There are few options to dispose of waste at either the mezzanine or Madison concourse levels. This conflicts with MTA's claim to be environmentally friendly.  

There are still no open news stands.  These services are readily available in Metro-North Rail Road Grand Central Terminal, New York Penn and Queens Jamaica Stations. 

There are 11 ticket vending machines (TVMs) still waiting to be installed. It appears that the designed space is not wide enough to accommodate standard LIRR TVMs. 

All the facility storefronts still stand vacant.  The original completion date was 2011. Full time service began in February 2023. MTA Real Estate had years to find tenants for the 32 vacant storefronts.

MTA Real Estate will not issue a Request for Proposals to find a master tenant to manage all 32 vacant storefronts until March 2024. It will probably require several months more before a contract will be awarded. Who knows how many more months to a year will be required before all 32 storefronts are subsequently leased, occupied and eventually open for business. 

The MTA Arts & Design recent announcement that they are presenting a selection of works from photographer Stephen Wilkes’ “Day to Night” series of famous New York landmarks at this facility is of little value to most commuters. Some advertising posters would be better and generate some badly needed revenue.

Transparency on the part of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Chairman Lieber and Acting LIRR President Free in sharing with commuters, taxpayers, transit advocates and elected officials in dealing with these remaining open issues is required.

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.