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March 26, 2006

The MTA's "Big Dig"

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the central artery. What was intended to be a seven year, $2.5 billion project became a ten year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.

Well, heads up fellow commuters and taxpayers! The MTA has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central. Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central.

The plan would see use of the lower level of the 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue. Trains would terminate fourteen stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, with an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets.

Estimated cost for the project… $8 billion… about the same as rebuilding the entire World Trade Center complex. Actual cost, factoring in inevitable delays, cost over-runs and typical under-estimation by politically sensitive designers… who knows, maybe double that? And for what gain?

The only reason for the East Side Access project is to give LIRR riders better access to midtown. Is the subway ride from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad? Imagine what we could do with $8 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.

What would an almost doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters? Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!

The currently under-utilized GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of service to Connecticut a real problem.

True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT might free-up “slots” in Penn Station for Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more trains in Penn Station.
And speaking of NJ Transit, their plans for a new tunnel under the Hudson River also dream of extending trackage from Penn Station north to Grand Central as well, adding to the fray. But that’s another story.

If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2012.
What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. The MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, we still have no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA Board.

For more info on the East Side Access project, see http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/capconstr/esas/index.html

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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