After years of delays, the first Long Island Railroad (LIRR) passenger trains connecting to the brand new Grand Central Madison terminal from Jamaica began service on January 25th.
Governor Kathy Hochul departed Jamaica Station with MTA Chair Janno Lieber, local politicians and 900 commuters at 10:46 AM and pulled into Grand Central Madison 17 minutes later at 11:017 AM a few minutes ahead of its scheduled 22 minute run. “We love Grand Central, it is the Temple of Mass Transit,” Hochul said. “And now it has a new chapter.”
The goal of the much delayed $11.2 billion tunnel is to increase ridership by shortening commute times between the East Side of Manhattan and Long Island and Queens. Until now, commuters on the LIRR have always had to travel to Penn Station on the West Side where it sits beneath Madison Square Garden and is the only disembarkment point in Manhattan.
Hochul, called the new terminal, “a major milestone for mass transit.”
Lieber told reporters that the improved transit system on the LIRR will help bring workers back to the city post pandemic.
After years in the planning stages, construction on the new terminal began in 2001 and the original plan called for it to open in 2009. More recently, the plan was to open for regular service in December 2022, but even that was delayed by eleventh hour safety system testing. Lieber told reporters that the latest delay was “because of one stupid fan” that malfunctioned because of a downdraft from regular Grand Central which sits above the new terminal.
Initially, the new shuttle will only travel between Grand Central Madison and Jamaica and the goal of having many commuters disembarking on the East Side with connections to ten of the LIRR’s eleven lines still at least three or four weeks away.
15 Year Delay
Because of the ongoing delays, not everyone was thrilled by all the opening day fanfare.
Reza Chowdhury @RezaCIon complained on the governor’s Twitter account, “15 years late. At least 217% over budget. Despite this, it’s opening with LIMITED service. Why should the MTA, in its current form, be given another dollar through congestion pricing with such an exemplary track record?”
Larry Penner, a transportation advocate and former director of the Federal Transportation Administration’s New York office of operation and project management said many ancillary costs were left out of the cost estimate. He said the cost of building the tunnel and terminal was $11.6 billion. But that figure leaves out $1 billion in long term debt service, he said, and it ignores massive ancillary projects that had to be built to enable trains to run in and out of Grand Central Madison. Those other projects included multi-hundred million dollar contracts stretching from Ronkonkoma to Great Neck. The real cost, if all the side enhancements for the East Side Access would put the total tab at $16.6 billion, he claimed.
“Without these projects, the LIRR would have lacked the expanded operational capabilities to support both promised 24 rush hour train service to Grand Central Madison along with a 40% increase in reverse peak rush hour service. Any honest transportation project cost accounting would include these expenditures. This would bring the true cost of East Side Access to $16.6 billion.”
And even now he said the ESA project still has a punch list of over 70 ongoing contracts that have yet to be closed out that will add to the total cost.
”Was investing $16.6 billion in direct cost for East Side Access worth it?,” Penner asked. “The verdict will not be known for years.”
The MTA is confident that the first LIRR expansion in 112 years–with eight tracks spread over four platforms and 714,000 sq. ft. of space–will increase LIRR service by 41%. The new terminal is 17 stories below ground in Manhattan, features the longest escalator in the city and also includes several permanent art installations, with glass mosaics by artists Yayoi Kusama and Kiki Smith decorating the walls.
“Infrastructure is all about connections, and this project is an extraordinary step forward to better connect millions of New Yorkers with their homes, their families and their jobs,” Hochul said.
While Hochul and Lieber are taking the bows for finally seeing the terminal open, it was a bipartisan coalition of Republican Senator Al D’Amato, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Governor George Pataki who actually oversaw the first shovels in the ground after literally wish list planning that stretched back to the 1960s. D’Amato wasn’t among the invited guests for the opening ride however. “They’re going to celebrate something that took 40 years when it should have taken ten,” he complained to the New York Times.
But the new terminal was getting a thumbs up in some quarters. Tweeted @SimonOstrovsky, on Hochul’s account: “Great work. Now bring the subway directly to the airport please.”
Was investing $16.6 billion in direct costs for East Side Access worth it? The verdict will not be known for years.” Larry Penner, former Federal Transportation Administration’s NY office of operations and project management.