A look at how commuters feel about Grand Central Madison one year in. Newsday transportation reporter Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Ed Quinn; MTA; File Footage

In October 2022, Jesse Pardo told Newsday that he hoped Grand Central Madison would be “life-changing” for the tens of thousands of Long Islanders, like him, working on Manhattan’s East Side.

To Pardo, Grand Central Madison, part of the MTA's $11 billion East Side Access megaproject, has “been wonderful” — worth the money and the yearslong wait. His commute previously required a trip into Penn Station and transfers to two different subway lines. Now, he arrives at a spacious new terminal, a short walk from his office on 46th Street and Third Avenue.

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In October 2022, Jesse Pardo told Newsday that he hoped Grand Central Madison would be “life-changing” for the tens of thousands of Long Islanders, like him, working on Manhattan’s East Side.

To Pardo, Grand Central Madison, part of the MTA's $11 billion East Side Access megaproject, has “been wonderful” — worth the money and the yearslong wait. His commute previously required a trip into Penn Station and transfers to two different subway lines. Now, he arrives at a spacious new terminal, a short walk from his office on 46th Street and Third Avenue.

“Sometimes you want to pinch yourself,” said Pardo, of East Rockaway. “It’s like, ‘Is this real?’ ”

But reviews from some of the Long Island Rail Road's other 230,000 daily commuters remain mixed a year after the station opened. Many of the nearly 80,000 daily Grand Central Madison users praise the station for providing a modern alternative to Penn Station, while others still lament the loss of the commute they had known for decades.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A year after the Long Island Rail Road began running full service to Grand Central Madison, reviews remain mixed.
  • Some riders are thrilled about a modern, spacious alternative to Penn Station, while others are frustrated with the difficulty navigating the sprawling terminal and the lack of dining options.
  • Grand Central Madison is being used by nearly 80,000 riders each day, accounting for about 40% of all Manhattan LIRR trips, according to the MTA.

“We’re still not overly happy about the fact that moving around a lot of the trains … left a few holes in the schedule,” said Alan Kleinberger, of East Meadow, upon arriving at Grand Central Madison during a recent trip with his wife. “We understand why it was necessary, but we have mixed feelings about that.”

Mixed feelings would still be an improvement over where rider sentiment was in the weeks after Grand Central Madison launched. The service that came with the opening was widely panned by riders for crowding, delays and complicated transfers. In the first rider survey after the opening, overall LIRR customer satisfaction — among all riders — plummeted 13 percentage points, from 81% to 68%. As the LIRR has made revisions to its service plan, it since has rebounded slightly to 70%.

“It’s nice, but I don’t think it’s all that,” said Mineola commuter Andrew McKenna, 38, who works in downtown Manhattan and still prefers Penn Station and its proximity to connecting subway lines over the cavernous Grand Central Madison. “I think it’s great having an additional option, but I don’t feel it was a transformative experience.”

Grand Central Madison in January accounted for about 40% of LIRR trips made to and from Manhattan. Credit: Ed Quinn

Even among those regularly using the new terminal, there are some lingering complaints, as evidenced by a drop in satisfaction among regular Grand Central commuters compared with when it first opened, according to the LIRR's most recent rider survey. Among the criticisms: that Grand Central Madison is too difficult to navigate, it's barren of dining options and that the LIRR still hasn't figured out the right amount of trains to run to and from the station.

Still, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have portrayed Grand Central Madison as a success. The 700,000-square-foot station already has been used by about 17 million people — more than most major commuter railroads in the United States, according to the MTA.

MTA: Demand has grown

Although LIRR ridership has returned to nearly 75% of pre-COVID levels, Grand Central Madison is carrying less than half of the 162,000 daily passengers projected by the MTA in 2018. 

Even then, the project, which once was pegged for completion in 2009, was running nearly a decade behind schedule. MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber took over the project in 2017 with a goal of streamlining management decisions, avoiding further budget overruns and finishing it by the end of 2022.

Since opening in early 2023, MTA officials said, demand for the station has steadily grown. For the first time since it opened, Grand Central Madison in January accounted for about 40% of LIRR trips made to and from Manhattan. That’s still shy of the 45% the MTA originally projected but above the 30% the station saw in its first several weeks.

There have been other encouraging metrics. The Grand Central Partnership — a group comprising commercial and residential owners in the Midtown East district — said the number of people with Long Island ZIP codes spending money in and around the station has climbed 60% since it opened. And the 41% increase in LIRR service made possible by the addition of Grand Central Madison — and the 2022 completion of the Third Track in Nassau County — have allowed the railroad to operate 56% more “reverse peak” trains, bringing commuters to and from jobs on Long Island.

“For the first time, we have enough capacity to send trains out to Long Island in the morning. And that means that Long Island businesses can recruit from the entire region,” Lieber said at a Jan. 23 ceremony marking a year since Grand Central Madison opened with a month of shuttle service to and from Jamaica Station. “That’s transformative for Long Island’s economy.”

The 700,000-square-foot station already has been used by about 17 million people, more than most major commuter railroads in the United States, according to the MTA. Credit: Ed Quinn

Grand Central Madison has, at times, also delivered on the promises of improved redundancy in and out of Manhattan. When an Amtrak train became disabled inside one of the East River Tunnels linking to Penn on the morning of Aug. 13 — a situation that previously could have crippled the morning rush hour — the LIRR minimized the impact of the problem by directing commuters to use Grand Central, and its separate set of tunnels, instead.

But even those who acknowledge the benefits of Grand Central Madison question whether the MTA, and its customers, are getting their money’s worth, given the project’s price tag, which more than doubled from its original $4.3 billion budget.

“Eleven billion dollars is a tremendous amount of money for a project that is not transformative in the way other projects we could have spent $11 billion on might have been,” said Michael Smart, associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Smart said subway extension projects, including on the Second Avenue line, would have given transit riders “more bang for the buck.”

“I think it’s a good project,” Smart said about East Side Access. “The fact that it exists today makes New York City a better place than if we didn’t have it. The benefits, however, really accrue to a relatively small number of people. For each person, the benefit is moderate.”

Metro-North president Catherine Rinaldi, who headed the LIRR as its interim president when Grand Central Madison opened, said East Side Access was “absolutely” worth the time and expense.

“You have to think big, plan big to meet the needs of your customers,” said Rinaldi, who believes New Yorkers are still discovering the benefits of having a second Manhattan terminal, including the direct connection to Metro-North.

“It created a connection and a connectivity that didn’t exist before,” Rinaldi said.

The expense of the megaproject was due, in part, to the decision to build the LIRR its own complex below existing Grand Central Terminal, rather than have Metro-North share track space with its sister railroad.

Layout can be confusing

Grand Central Madison’s 15-story depth has contributed to one of the most persistent complaints about the new station — how long it takes to get out of it. Although the MTA promised that the station would cut East Side commuters’ trips by 20 minutes each way, fully half that time can be lost getting to and from track level. And the unfamiliar layout can further delay commuters' journeys.

“It could use more signage, actually,” said Auburndale station commuter Michael Pancheri upon ascending Grand Central Madison’s notoriously long escalators, which can take nearly two minutes to traverse. “When you come out of certain areas that you haven’t come out before, sometimes it could be, ‘Am I going left or right or up or down?' ”

Grand Central Madison’s 15-story depth has contributed to one of the most persistent complaints about the new station. Credit: Ed Quinn

Also frustrating commuters: the lack of shopping and dining options at Grand Central Madison. The MTA still has not put out a contract to bid for a “master tenant” that would lease out and manage the station’s retail space. A 2021 procurement was stymied by pandemic-related uncertainty among retail operators.

And filling vacant storefronts isn’t the only work left to be done at the new station. A year after Gov. Kathy Hochul helped cut the ribbon on Grand Central Madison, the project remains, officially, incomplete. Among the remaining “punch-list items” — as MTA officials have called them — are the completion of a freight elevator, floor and ceiling finishes, and the installation of a glass doorway near the escalators connecting to the upstairs dining concourse.

Asked about the unfinished work at the Jan. 23 anniversary ceremony, Lieber said the MTA will “get to it,” and noted that Grand Central Madison is a “fully operational facility.” About $800 million of the project's $11.1 billion budget is yet to be spent, MTA officials said. 

Still, some commuters want more. After scoring an 80% rating among Grand Central commuters in the spring of 2023, weeks after the station opened, customer satisfaction fell sharply in the LIRR's most recent rider survey, taken in the fall and released last month.

At 68%, Grand Central commuters were less satisfied than those using Penn Station, which got a boost from its recent renovation. Customer satisfaction among commuters using Penn, Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica all increased from the previous survey.

LIRR has made adjustments

MTA officials have posited that the rise in rider dissatisfaction is due to the LIRR having gradually reduced the number of trains it operates at Grand Central Madison, particularly on the Port Washington line. The LIRR made some changes to address those criticisms right after the fall survey was taken. 

That frustration stands in contrast to a more common complaint among riders during the station’s nascent days — that there were too many trains running to Grand Central and not enough to Penn Station.

Among remaining “punch-list items” are the completion of a freight elevator, the installation of a glass doorway near the escalators, and floor and ceiling finishes. Credit: Ed Quinn

Assemb. Gina Sillitti (D-Port Washington) acknowledged that, after scorning the overhaul of the LIRR’s operating plan a year ago, some of her constituents “have made the transition over to Grand Central,” and like it.

The LIRR has made several schedule adjustments aimed at responding to customer feedback, and has another round of changes coming in March that will result in the loss of another Grand Central departure, due to “low ridership.”

Silitti said, in an attempt to address customer complaints, the LIRR has done “such a hard pivot the other way” that many riders still aren't happy.

Despite her continued misgivings over the LIRR’s evolving schedule, Sillitti said she believes East Side Access was “very well done.” But she was reluctant to answer whether it was money well spent.

“I wish it was less money. In the end, there are still so many outstanding issues,” Sillitti said. “Maybe ask me that same question in a year.”

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

Updated now A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.