New York City Completes Construction on Latest American Transit Disaster

East Side Access is 60 years in the making, 14 years late, $7.5 billion over budget, and a curse on the agency that built it.
East Side Access tunnels
Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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On Wednesday, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will begin running service on the Long Island Rail Road to a new train station underneath Grand Central, dubbed Grand Central Madison. The project is being celebrated as a landmark event for the New York region, albeit an expensive one, a project some 60 years in the making that will accomplish a long-needed transportation goal for the region.


East Side Access, as the decades-long push to bring LIRR trains to Grand Central is called, was supposed to open in 2009 for a cost of $3.4 billion. Even at that cost it was of questionable value. East Side Access did not cost $3.4 billion. It is opening in 2023 for a cost of more than $11 billion, plus another $1.5 billion or so in borrowing costs to pay for the project. 

East Side Access does offer some transportation benefits to the region. It is difficult to throw $11 billion at a transit-dense region and not accomplish something at least by accident. But those benefits are outweighed by its astronomical cost and other ways to accomplish those same goals. It is impossible to regard East Side Access as anything other than a transit disaster.

New Yorkers, and American transit riders in general, have been accustomed to celebrating any morsels of improvement we receive as our governments at every level prioritize roads and cars. It is largely considered uncouth to dismiss a new $12 billion train project in a transit-heavy city as a failure, lest we discourage politicians from investing in transit in the future. But East Side Access is just that, a top-to-bottom failure of American transit planning and construction.

East Side Access does accomplish one important goal, providing redundancy and some reliability improvements for the LIRR into Manhattan. Before ESA, the LIRR only had one track pairing and terminus in Manhattan at Penn Station. Those tunnels still haven’t been fully repaired from Hurricane Sandy damage because it would have been too disruptive to LIRR service. Redundancy and operational flexibility are important for a railroad that moves hundreds of thousands of people per weekday, especially as we look to a future of more frequent and severe storms due to climate change. 


But there are ways to accomplish operational flexibility without spending $3 billion, as East Side Access was initially slated to cost, much less the $11 billion-plus it eventually did. It is the subject of much debate in the transit nerd world, but LIRR has options. Some argue LIRR already has plenty of operational flexibility built into the system for emergency repairs given trains connect to almost every subway line in Brooklyn or Queens and an underutilized terminal at Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn provides subway connections to Manhattan in less than 15 minutes. Plus, a stop in Jamaica Queens many LIRR trains make provide a one-seat subway connection to Midtown in less than half an hour.

Regardless, no self-respecting transit agency spends $11 billion to improve operational flexibility. They do it to save riders time and attract new ones who will help pay for the cost of the project. People want faster, better journeys. The problem is East Side Access doesn’t do that.

Governor Kathy Hochul—who inherited East Sides Access from a litany of predecessors dating back to the 1990s—is putting on a good show, claiming it will bring “just a 22 minute ride from Jamaica to the East Side of Manhattan!”  But that is barely faster than what LIRR riders already have. The E train goes from Jamaica to Lexington and 53rd Street in 25 minutes and has more frequent service. 


A key problem with East Side Access is Grand Central Madison, the train station underneath the existing Grand Central station. Specifically, it is really deep underground. 175 feet, to be exact. This is the equivalent, from a rider’s perspective, of putting a train station on the 16th story of a building. It takes time to get thousands of people that far underground or back to the surface (it is also, apparently, difficult to find, as transit reporter Stephen Nessen found). The MTA estimates it will take between four and eight minutes to get to street level and 10-12 minutes to the Lexington Avenue subway lines. In other words, it will take half as long to get from the deep caverns of Grand Central Madison to the 4/5/6 trains as it would to get to Midtown from Jamaica on the E train!

The mere fact that the potential time savings for LIRR riders can be measured in single-digit minutes, and that the entire time savings may be undone by how deep the station is, speaks to what a terrible project East Side Access was in the first place. When other, transit-sensible countries spend billions of dollars, they build train lines to neighborhoods or regions they don’t currently go, attracting hundreds of thousands of new riders and saving people time measured in dozens of minutes per trip. East Side Access’s travel time improvements, if they exist at all, will be measured in less than 10 minutes, the amount of time it takes to walk from Penn Station to Grand Central minus the five to 10 minutes it takes to get 16 stories underground.


Why did the MTA build a train station at the midway point between the Earth’s core and 42nd Street? Bureaucratic infighting. The LIRR and Metro North, which until today ran all trains to and from Grand Central, are both within the MTA. In theory, they should cooperate as part of the same organization. But, functionally, they remain as separate as they did when they were different entities before the 1960s. They have different CEOs, different unions, different contracts, buy everything from trains to tracks separately, and even had different apps for looking up service and buying tickets until last year. When the MTA was created, its framers promised a streamlined, more efficient service. East Side Access makes a mockery of that promise. 

Grand Central station, the one we all know and love, has 43 passenger tracks on two levels and is one of the biggest train stations in the world in terms of track capacity. But Metro North is also very defensive of its turf. As a result, Metro North long claimed it could not spare any trackage and consistently opposed giving any of it to LIRR. The solution, then, became building a brand new station underneath the existing one by dynamiting huge caverns in underground rocks.

Proponents of ESA also argue the project will provide much-needed relief to overcrowded Penn Station. This argument fails on multiple fronts. First, Penn Station is slated for a massive multi-billion redevelopment of its own (of questionable merit for separate design reasons) that ought to, among other things, improve capacity and passenger flow. Second, a separate project called Penn Access will bring some Metro North trains to Penn Station for the first time while adding four new stations in the Bronx. Penn Access is a good project; it adds stations where there currently aren’t any, makes several Bronx neighborhoods much more accessible by transit, and improves travel times by much more than than anything ESA could dream of. But, by bringing more trains to Penn Station, it will be canceling out any reduced passenger numbers ESA results in. Which is why the Penn Station crowding argument misses the mark entirely. Transit agencies should be finding ways to bring more people to transit at more places, not shuffling existing riders around for minimal benefit.


Why, then, did the MTA spend decades and $11 billion to build a new train station that doesn’t save anyone any time? Like most American transit projects, the answer lies in politics and bureaucratic inertia. The idea of an east side terminus for LIRR dates back to the 1950s but wasn’t seriously discussed until the 1960s. At the same time, the city was trying to also build the Second Avenue Subway along the entire island of Manhattan. The initial idea was the train station would be along this subway line, or at least much closer to it, and not underneath an existing train station. Residents of the Turtle Bay neighborhood strongly opposed the construction of a new train station between 47th and 50th Streets along Third Avenue, although it’s unlikely the city would have built it anyways given the fiscal crisis that laid ruin to the city’s transportation plans including the Second Avenue subway, which is now being constructed but only north of 60th Street.

The project got revived in the mid-1990s thanks to a surge of interest from Republicans on Long Island. It languished under a slew of half-interested governors in the decades since. It then got a kick in the teeth when former governor Andrew Cuomo, who fancied himself a descendant of famed builder Robert Moses, wanted to be The Guy Who Built Things. Cuomo, ever the politician, eagerly supported projects that would benefit Long Island swing districts while neglecting the transportation needs of solidly Democratic voters in the city as the subway deteriorated under his watch. LIRR received billions for other projects that improve reliability and capacity, a potential boon for commuters in cities that steadfastly refuse to build more housing next to their stations

Much of the criticism of East Side Access, to the extent that it receives any from the press and public, will be over the cost overruns and delays. Those criticisms are necessary. But East Side Access deserves additional scorn. It is not a good project that cost too much and took too long.

And it is a curse on the MTA that will haunt it for decades to come. In order to pay for this failure, the MTA had to take out billions of dollars in debt financing, which it must pay back with interest. This is a perfectly reasonable way to run a transit service, assuming the new project attracts many new riders and is built at a reasonable price. East Side Access fails both criteria. It is difficult to see how that will happen for a transit project that doesn’t save anyone time and doesn’t provide transit access to anyone who didn’t previously have it. 

The MTA consistently warns it is about to fall off a “fiscal cliff.” It is warning about that now, of course. The agency blames the pandemic, changing work patterns, and falling ridership. That is part of it. But the part the MTA never talks about is the 17 percent of its annual budget—almost one out of every five dollars, or $3.1 billion every year—that goes towards debt service, paying the interest on bad projects that don’t attract new riders. 

East Side Access is a big part of that debt service. It is the ultimate American failure of politics and planning, the perfect example of why even the most transit-dependent region in the country cannot build useful things. It is perhaps appropriate that Grand Central Madison is 16 stories underground, buried deep below the surface like the shameful family secret it ought to be regarded.