June 03, 2012

Mega Projects of a Lifetime

If you’re lucky, you get to see one mammoth construction project in your lifetime.  Like the building of Grand Central, the George Washington Bridge or LaGuardia Airport.
But our generation is lucky enough to see two such mega-works:  The Long Island Railroad’s East Side Access tunnel to Grand Central and the New Britain to Hartford busway, now dubbed CTFastrak.
Recently the CT Rail Commuter Council was given a tour of the East Side Access construction site, bored out of solid granite 180 feet below street level. The size and scale of the project are hard to comprehend, extending from 37th Street in Manhattan all the way north under Grand Central, the existing Park Avenue tunnel and turning east at 63rd Street to go under the East River to Queens where it meets the present LIRR tracks. (For hundreds of photos of the project, click here)

The main station at 42nd Street will feature two football-field length platforms, two tracks wide and two tracks high, feeding banks of escalators that will bring LIRR passengers to their own mini-GCT under Vanderbilt Avenue, just west of Grand Central.
None of this will affect our existing service to GCT (except for the added throngs of riders heading to the Lexington Avenue subway).  But the hidden benefit for Metro-North, especially New Haven line riders, may be direct service to Penn Station.  Only when the LIRR can divert some trains from Penn Station will there be room there for Metro-North.
Meantime, the project is behind schedule and 30% over budget, the biggest problem being the soil in Queens which is too soft for tunneling.  The $8 billion project should be finished in 2018.
Here in Connecticut, ground has finally been broken on the controversial New Britain to Hartford busway, now known as CTfastrak.
This 9.4 mile long bus-only highway will feature 11 stations, carry 16,000 daily passengers and kick-start TOD (transit oriented development) along its route while offering a much faster ride to downtown Hartford than can be found today.
I’ve written before about this project which has been widely criticized.  My rail-fan friends say it should be a light rail system.  But that would cost considerably more than the current $600 million price tag ($460 million of that coming from the Federal government).  The pro-auto lobby says it’s all a boondoggle and that nobody will ever take the buses.  We should all know the answer by 2014 or so when the road is finished and the service begins.  (I think it will prove to be a huge success).
Both projects are way over budget and behind their time line.  But so too were many other mega-projects which were similarly scorned.  Robert Moses was widely attacked for his highway projects in New York City in the middle of the last century.  But without him there would have been no Tri-Borough Bridge, United Nations, Jones Beach or parkways on Long Island.
Some of Moses’ greatest projects were built in economic hard times worse than today.  But generations later, we’re still relying on them to get around.  They may have seemed then like engineering folly, but they turned out to be a solid investment in the future we call “today”.
Big dreams like East Side Access and CTfastrak come with big price tags.  But if we didn’t think big, we’d still be in horse carts stuck in the muddy ruts of the Boston Post Road.  So tell your kids and your grandchildren that in your lifetime you saw not one, but two mega-projects turn from dreams into reality.

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