Sinkholes surface as latest woe for troubled East Side Access

East Side Access Project progress as of Dec. East Side Access Project progress as of Dec. 3, 2013 along Sunnyside Yard and Harold Interlocking in Queens Photo Credit: MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew

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The MTA's East Side Access Project to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, already plagued by years of delays and billions in cost overruns, has encountered yet another setback: sinkholes.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials revealed at a Manhattan meeting Monday they are investigating the cause of five ground collapses -- one measuring 9 feet deep -- discovered this month in a key Queens train junction where much East Side Access work is taking place.

MTA officials also said they are looking into possible impacts on the project, the largest current public works undertaking in the United States. East Side Access is scheduled to be done in 2023 and expected to cost about $11 billion.

The discovery of the holes caused the MTA to temporarily suspend all work at the Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside, just east of the tunnels that bring the LIRR into and out of Penn Station. Some operations, deemed safe, have resumed, according to the agency.

The investigation is expected to be completed in about two weeks, an MTA spokesman said.

"Even given the huge undertaking of this project it seems like whatever could go wrong does go wrong," LIRR Commuter Council President Mark Epstein said. "Will we ever see East Side Access for commuters?"

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One 9-foot sinkhole was likely caused by workers not backfilling a void created when they removed a boulder while digging a hole for a utility pole in 2008, MTA Capital Construction president Michael Horodniceanu said. The agency did not adopt a policy to do as much until 2010, he added, referring to removal of boulders while digging for utility poles.

"That should have been actually filled with grout, and it was not," Horodniceanu said.

Other sinkholes have formed at the Harold Interlocking near smaller tunneling work for East Side Access, Horodniceanu said. The MTA is closely inspecting all so-called "micro-tunneling" work for evidence of other potential collapses.

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The MTA has also hired an independent geotechnical engineering firm to investigate subsurface conditions and "ensure total objectivity," Horodniceanu said.

The discovery of the holes marks the latest in several obstacles encountered by the MTA "megaproject," which was originally projected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion. The Federal Transit Administration now predicts the project won't get done until 2023 and will cost nearly $11 billion.

Other problems that have arisen during the construction work, which began in 2001, include: having to freeze a section of ground in Queens because it was too soft to tunnel through; not having enough access points to get work crews into and out of job sites without getting in the way of other contractors; and having to transport 1.5 million cubic yards of excavated muck about 3 miles out through Queens because of a lack of other options.

East Side Access, which the LIRR has called its "moon shot," aims to save 160,000 riders up to 40 minutes a day in their commute. MTA officials also expect the project to increase property values for thousands of homes on Long Island by expanding transportation options.

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