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Feds call East Side project over budget, behind schedule

Construction workers tow water lines in the westbound

Construction workers tow water lines in the westbound cavern of the East Side Access. (Jan. 28, 2010) Credit: CRAIG RUTTLE

Budget projections show the Long Island Rail Road's East Side Access project - widely considered the MTA's most ambitious transportation project in generations - is running $800 million over budget and more than 18 months behind schedule, according to federal officials.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials, while acknowledging there is a risk that the Federal Transit Administration's projections could be realized, maintain the project remains within budget and on time. MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the agency will redouble efforts to keep costs down.

The transit administration now is pegging the massive project's total cost at $8.1 billion. The MTA has budgeted $7.3 billion. The federal agency also disputes the MTA's completion date of September 2016, saying the project will not be finished until April 2018.

The federal projections present a dire outlook for a plan considered one of New York's "foundation" projects for the next 25 years by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. More than merely shortening ride times to Manhattan, planners say, East Side Access has the potential to change living patterns and increase property values on Long Island as every LIRR station becomes a more versatile portal to the city.

The MTA already has spent about $1.9 billion on the project and has committed another $3.9 billion. Groundbreaking was in 2001, and more than 22,000 feet of tunnel has been bored beneath Manhattan.

Patrick Foye, of Sands Point, the MTA's board member representing Nassau, expressed concern about the transit administration's projections.

"These are serious matters leading to additional delays in LIRR riders' access to the East Side of Manhattan and further pressure on LIRR fares and MTA costs," Foye said Friday. "The FTA's concerns are serious and demand expeditious action."

Last month, FTA administrator Peter Rogoff sent a letter to Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, describing the news regarding the project's cost and timetable as "grim."

Rogoff said while some of the projected cost overruns are caused by unavoidable economic factors, "there is no question that the MTA shares some significant responsibility." As reasons for the projected cost overruns, he pointed to delays in awarding contracts and months-long vacancies in management positions on the projects.

In addition, the FTA estimated the MTA's plan to create a Second Avenue subway line is about $500 million over budget and said it will be completed 14 months after the MTA's target date of December 2016.

The MTA's newly adopted 2010-2014 capital plan acknowledges there is a risk that the transit administration's projections could come true. Soffin said the MTA is "working to mitigate those risks before they become a problem." The MTA's budget and timeline for the projects remain unchanged, he said.

A spokesman for the office of MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger would not say whether he believes the transit administration's projections to be accurate, but said his office "is not surprised by those numbers."

The spokesman said Kluger's office is working on an extensive analysis of the systemic problems that cause delays and cost increases on capital projects and will issue a report later this year.

In his letter, Rogoff said the federal government would not contribute "a single penny" more toward the two so-called "mega-projects," which already have received nearly $4 billion in federal funding.

William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said that without more federal funding, the MTA may be forced to put off other important capital projects in order to see its two top priorities through to completion.

Henderson speculated that those could include the LIRR's eventual plans to add a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma and a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.

More action on the East Side

The East Side Access project will connect the Long Island Rail Road's Main Line and Port Washington Branch to a new station beneath Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street. The MTA estimates the East Side transit option would serve 160,000 riders a day.

$7.3 billion: MTA's total projected cost

$8.1 billion: Federal Transit Administration's total projected cost

September 2016: MTA's projected completion date

April 2018: Federal Transit Administration's total projected completion date

8: Number of tracks at new LIRR terminal at Grand Central Terminal

30-40 minutes: Average time saved to Manhattan's East Side

Source: MTA, Federal Transit Administration

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