Contractors work on the East Side Access Project below midtown...

Contractors work on the East Side Access Project below midtown Manhattan on Jan. 29, 2013. Credit: Charles Eckert

The MTA's monumental East Side Access project to link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal could carry a price tag $2.6 billion over budget and not be completed until 2023, four years behind schedule, according to a new report.

The new projection is the latest in a series of delays over the past decade for the so-called "megaproject." The Metropolitan Transportation Authority originally expected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion, according to the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

MTA officials have attributed the revisions to several factors, including engineering challenges, delays in getting bids back and decisions to break some jobs into several smaller contracts to save money.

The report released Monday included a new range of completion dates and project costs, as compiled by the authority, outside consultants and the federal government.

In the report, the Federal Transit Administration was least optimistic about the future of the project, which the MTA said in 2012 would be finished in 2019 at a cost of $8.3 billion. The FTA predicted East Side Access wouldn't be a reality until September 2023 and at a cost of $10.8 billion.

The MTA's more optimistic outlook, also contained in the report, includes a $9.7 billion budget and a completion date of September 2021.

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast acknowledged that the agency "infamously" told the public in May 2012 that it was 80 percent confident it would meet its most recent estimates, then blew by them just six months later.

"One of the things we've struggled with is how do we set a revised schedule and budget and not change it as much as we've been changing it," Prendergast said of East Side Access, which aims to save 160,000 LIRR customers up to 40 minutes a day in their commute. "This is the largest program that we've ever delivered, and we need to do a better job of delivering it."

Prendergast said that to complete the project "as fast as we can and as cheap as we can," the MTA brought in outside consultant Rick Thorpe, of Los Angeles, to analyze the MTA's management of East Side Access, including how it packaged different phases of the work and how much time and money it had budgeted for them. "What we found, more than anything, is that we need to strengthen the management level of the organization," Thorpe said.

Thorpe's key recommendation was an overhaul of the project's management structure, including the formation of a new "executive steering committee" that would meet regularly to discuss issues facing the project. It would include high-level managers from the MTA, the MTA's Capital Construction team, the LIRR and Amtrak, which shares use of the complex Harold Interlocking in Long Island City where most of the East Side Access work is taking place.

Prendergast said that the group is being put together, and that he looks forward to some "healthy tension" between its members.

Thorpe noted that the aspects of the project that were most vulnerable to cost overruns and delays, including the excavation of seven new tunnels in Queens and Manhattan, are already complete.

But Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said he's heard it all before. He called the MTA's ever-changing timetable for East Side Access "about as reliable as weekend service on a weekday in a snowstorm."

"When it comes to the East Side Access project, the gap the MTA needs to worry about is the credibility gap," Epstein said. "We should all watch that gap."

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