November 15, 2009

The MTA's Really 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! New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, (parent of Metro-North) 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 use the lower level of the already built 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 14 stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains arriving per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day (compared with the 115,000 who arrive and depart from Connecticut)… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, into 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 (they’re already a year behind schedule), 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 connection 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.

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 2015.

What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. New York’s MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, our state still has no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA or Metro-North Boards. Governor Rell said she’d change that, but never did.

Connecticut commuters pay the bills and New York’s MTA calls the tune, building a really “big dig” that benefits Long Island but penalizes us. What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s Note: For more info on the East Side Access project, see


Anonymous said...

Jim -
Let's put the shoe on the other foot and ask how difficult is it for Metro North riders to get to the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden area since they have to take the same two subways (in the opposite direction) that LIRR passengers would have to?

East Side Access would ease subway congestion since LIRR customers who now use subways to reach East Side locations could walk from GCT. It would also provide capacity for direct service via Hell Gate bridge to Penn Station for Metro North New Haven line trains, so it would make accessing the West Side easier for folks from places like Darien. Finally, it would serve people commuting between Long Island and Westchester or Connecticut who want an alternative to driving.

neroden@gmail said...

1 - East Side Access is digging a new waiting area, new tracks, new platforms, and even new entrances, so GCT won't be more crowded than it was before. This is extremely expensive, but benefits Metro-North riders.
2 - CDOT funds are ring-fenced last I checked, so Connecticut taxpayers are not really paying for ESA at all.
3 - Metro-North wants to 'get theirs', so Penn Station Access is a very high priority, and I believe LIRR has promised to give up Penn Station slots as part of the deal. NJT can't take those slots because they're limited by the tunnel capacity under the Hudson. Amtrak doesn't want to run trains from Boston which reverse in NYC, as it has higher demand south of NYC, so it also is limited by the tunnel capacity under the Hudson. This means Metro-North is almost certain to get those slots.

That's not to say ESA is a good idea -- it may cost more than it's worth -- but just to say that some of your arguments against it are no good.


Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...