The MTA has long promised that its $11 billion East Side Access megaproject would be finished by the end of this year. And with December just around the corner, the clock is ticking, Newsday's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Newsday

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority still has work to do, including getting a waiver to a federal safety requirement, before achieving its goal of completing the $11.1 billion East Side Access megaproject by the end of this year, transit officials said.

With six weeks left to hit its target, the MTA has yet to announce when the LIRR will commence service to its new Manhattan home at Grand Central Terminal, frustrating riders who expected to have that information by now. But the LIRR's leader said an opening date hasn't been finalized, because there are still hurdles to clear.

Still, the head of the MTA — the LIRR's parent organization — is standing by his vow to finish the project this year. As recently as Thursday, the LIRR promoted the forthcoming service to its new station in a Facebook post that vowed “it all starts next month!”

The promise elicited a common response from dubious riders: “When?”

Cold Spring Harbor commuter Perry Pappas, who works in finance near Grand Central, long has dreamed of the day he could take an LIRR train directly to his job — shaving 40 minutes or more off his daily commute. He expected he’d have some word about the launch date for the new service by early November so he could start planning for his new commute.

“Ideally, we would have several weeks’ notice,” said Pappas, 52.

He dreads the thought of the project’s completion being pushed into 2023. “It would be a big disappointment on what’s already been a way-too-drawn-out release of this,” Pappas added.

Pressed on why riders don’t know when the LIRR will start running trains to Grand Central Madison, interim LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi acknowledged that railroad officials "don't have a date yet."

“There are expectations that we will have a date by the end of the year, but we do not have one that we have landed on to be able to share with the public," Rinaldi said at a Nov. 14 news conference at Grand Central Terminal, which houses the new 700,000-square-foot LIRR hub.

LIRR spokesman David Steckel on Friday said only, "We are on schedule to open Grand Central Madison by the end of the year."

Significant obstacles remain. Among them: receiving a temporary waiver from federal regulators for a required technology designed to prevent collisions inside the new tunnels leading to Grand Central.

In an October letter to the Federal Railroad Administration requesting the waiver, the LIRR said it already has “significant hazard detection and/or enforcement” technology to prevent such accidents. But the addition of required software into the LIRR's federally mandated "positive train control" system “will not be completed until after commencement” of the new service to Grand Central.

Federal rail officials have said they are expediting the application, and expect to issue a ruling before Thanksgiving.

Even if that issue is resolved, there is still work to be done to complete East Side Access, which broke ground 15 years ago.

While MTA officials announced in May 2021 that major construction on the project had been completed, Rinaldi last week said the railroad still needs to bring “various systems online.” That includes the completion of a fire alarm system in the new terminal that was delayed by several months, MTA officials have said.

“There’s a lot of testing that’s going on. Everybody’s working incredibly hard to get that testing done,” Rinaldi added.

Just last week, the LIRR conducted a “wayfinding exercise,” in which 200 volunteers navigated the new concourse at Grand Central Madison and shared notes with project officials “on travel paths throughout the terminal, signage, and general wayfinding elements,” according to the railroad.

The LIRR has said it expects 162,000 customers to travel to and from the new station each day, although those projections were made before the railroad’s ridership plummeted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, the LIRR is carrying fewer than 70% of the weekday riders it did in 2019.

Still, even those who don’t plan on riding to and from Grand Central Madison are likely to be affected by East Side Access. Accommodating a second Manhattan terminal has required overhauling all schedules, which will reduce the number of trains serving Penn Station and eliminate most direct routes between Long Island and Brooklyn.

With so much left to be accomplished, Huntington commuter Francesca Capasso said she’s skeptical it will get done this year.

If it was going to happen this year, she believes “we would at least get an alert in the app or something,” said Capasso, 26, while waiting for an afternoon train at Penn Station. “I mean, there’s nothing, even at Penn, that talks about dates and times or anything.”

After repeated delays and cost overruns for East Side Access, which was once pegged to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion, current MTA chairman Janno Lieber took over the project in 2017 as the authority’s chief development officer. Lieber added $1 billion to the project’s budget, streamlined dozens of separate contracts, and set a new goal of finishing the massive effort, which entailed digging more than 11 miles of new tunnels, by 2022.

Speaking to the Long Island Association in May of 2018, Lieber said the date was “absolutely written in stone.”

Lieber has doubled down on that promise, even as the project has stumbled in the home stretch. In a May report, an independent engineer hired by the MTA to review the project’s progress listed several “top risks” to its timeline. They included complying with federal safety requirements, delays in the submission of documents by contractors, completing various systems testing, and resolving unforeseen “fire life safety and code issues.”

The engineer opined that the December target was “achievable, contingent on increased productivity.”

When asked about the delivery date during an Oct. 26 meeting, Lieber insisted, “I’m not pushing it out.”

Larry Penner, a transportation advocate who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration, said the MTA is under considerable pressure to hit the December target, in part because Gov. Kathy Hochul campaigned on the promise of finishing the project this year, and because the transit agency, which received $2.6 billion in federal grants for East Side Access, is seeking federal funding for a host of other megaprojects, including the redevelopment of Penn Station.

“They will lose even more credibility, of the little credibility they have left,” said Penner, who predicted that the railroad could commence very limited service to Grand Central before year’s end just to “declare victory.”

Samuel Chu, the Suffolk County representative on the MTA Board and co-chair of its railroad committee, said he’s been briefed on the project’s status, and has no reason to believe the MTA will miss its December target. Chu said Lieber’s refusal to waver from his self-imposed deadline isn’t just about saving face, but also about putting necessary pressure on contractors to finish the job.

Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians, called the date a "moving target."

If the MTA does blow the deadline, Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said the blame should not be on the agency’s current leadership, which “inherited a mess” of a project that long carried an unrealistic budget and timeline.

“I don’t think anyone knew or anticipated how difficult it would be to build,” Moss said. “The precise date it’s done is less important than the fact that there is a commitment to getting it done.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority still has work to do, including getting a waiver to a federal safety requirement, before achieving its goal of completing the $11.1 billion East Side Access megaproject by the end of this year, transit officials said.

With six weeks left to hit its target, the MTA has yet to announce when the LIRR will commence service to its new Manhattan home at Grand Central Terminal, frustrating riders who expected to have that information by now. But the LIRR's leader said an opening date hasn't been finalized, because there are still hurdles to clear.

Still, the head of the MTA — the LIRR's parent organization — is standing by his vow to finish the project this year. As recently as Thursday, the LIRR promoted the forthcoming service to its new station in a Facebook post that vowed “it all starts next month!”

The promise elicited a common response from dubious riders: “When?”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • With six weeks left in the year, the LIRR still has not announced a start date for its new East Side Access service to Grand Central Madison. MTA officials long have promised the $11.1 megaproject would be completed by the end of 2022.
  • Although major construction was finished in May 2021, the project still has several hurdles to clear, including receiving a temporary waiver from federal regulators on required safety technology, completing testing, and finalizing a fire alarm system.
  • If the MTA misses its December target date, it will be the latest delay for a project once projected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion.

Cold Spring Harbor commuter Perry Pappas, who works in finance near Grand Central, long has dreamed of the day he could take an LIRR train directly to his job — shaving 40 minutes or more off his daily commute. He expected he’d have some word about the launch date for the new service by early November so he could start planning for his new commute.

“Ideally, we would have several weeks’ notice,” said Pappas, 52.

He dreads the thought of the project’s completion being pushed into 2023. “It would be a big disappointment on what’s already been a way-too-drawn-out release of this,” Pappas added.

Pressed on why riders don’t know when the LIRR will start running trains to Grand Central Madison, interim LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi acknowledged that railroad officials "don't have a date yet."

“There are expectations that we will have a date by the end of the year, but we do not have one that we have landed on to be able to share with the public," Rinaldi said at a Nov. 14 news conference at Grand Central Terminal, which houses the new 700,000-square-foot LIRR hub.

LIRR spokesman David Steckel on Friday said only, "We are on schedule to open Grand Central Madison by the end of the year."

Ruling coming before Thanksgiving?

Significant obstacles remain. Among them: receiving a temporary waiver from federal regulators for a required technology designed to prevent collisions inside the new tunnels leading to Grand Central.

In an October letter to the Federal Railroad Administration requesting the waiver, the LIRR said it already has “significant hazard detection and/or enforcement” technology to prevent such accidents. But the addition of required software into the LIRR's federally mandated "positive train control" system “will not be completed until after commencement” of the new service to Grand Central.

Federal rail officials have said they are expediting the application, and expect to issue a ruling before Thanksgiving.

Even if that issue is resolved, there is still work to be done to complete East Side Access, which broke ground 15 years ago.

While MTA officials announced in May 2021 that major construction on the project had been completed, Rinaldi last week said the railroad still needs to bring “various systems online.” That includes the completion of a fire alarm system in the new terminal that was delayed by several months, MTA officials have said.

“There’s a lot of testing that’s going on. Everybody’s working incredibly hard to get that testing done,” Rinaldi added.

Just last week, the LIRR conducted a “wayfinding exercise,” in which 200 volunteers navigated the new concourse at Grand Central Madison and shared notes with project officials “on travel paths throughout the terminal, signage, and general wayfinding elements,” according to the railroad.

The LIRR has said it expects 162,000 customers to travel to and from the new station each day, although those projections were made before the railroad’s ridership plummeted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, the LIRR is carrying fewer than 70% of the weekday riders it did in 2019.

Still, even those who don’t plan on riding to and from Grand Central Madison are likely to be affected by East Side Access. Accommodating a second Manhattan terminal has required overhauling all schedules, which will reduce the number of trains serving Penn Station and eliminate most direct routes between Long Island and Brooklyn.

With so much left to be accomplished, Huntington commuter Francesca Capasso said she’s skeptical it will get done this year.

If it was going to happen this year, she believes “we would at least get an alert in the app or something,” said Capasso, 26, while waiting for an afternoon train at Penn Station. “I mean, there’s nothing, even at Penn, that talks about dates and times or anything.”

After repeated delays and cost overruns for East Side Access, which was once pegged to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion, current MTA chairman Janno Lieber took over the project in 2017 as the authority’s chief development officer. Lieber added $1 billion to the project’s budget, streamlined dozens of separate contracts, and set a new goal of finishing the massive effort, which entailed digging more than 11 miles of new tunnels, by 2022.

Speaking to the Long Island Association in May of 2018, Lieber said the date was “absolutely written in stone.”

Lieber has doubled down on that promise, even as the project has stumbled in the home stretch. In a May report, an independent engineer hired by the MTA to review the project’s progress listed several “top risks” to its timeline. They included complying with federal safety requirements, delays in the submission of documents by contractors, completing various systems testing, and resolving unforeseen “fire life safety and code issues.”

The engineer opined that the December target was “achievable, contingent on increased productivity.”

When asked about the delivery date during an Oct. 26 meeting, Lieber insisted, “I’m not pushing it out.”

MTA under pressure to hit deadline

Larry Penner, a transportation advocate who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration, said the MTA is under considerable pressure to hit the December target, in part because Gov. Kathy Hochul campaigned on the promise of finishing the project this year, and because the transit agency, which received $2.6 billion in federal grants for East Side Access, is seeking federal funding for a host of other megaprojects, including the redevelopment of Penn Station.

“They will lose even more credibility, of the little credibility they have left,” said Penner, who predicted that the railroad could commence very limited service to Grand Central before year’s end just to “declare victory.”

Samuel Chu, the Suffolk County representative on the MTA Board and co-chair of its railroad committee, said he’s been briefed on the project’s status, and has no reason to believe the MTA will miss its December target. Chu said Lieber’s refusal to waver from his self-imposed deadline isn’t just about saving face, but also about putting necessary pressure on contractors to finish the job.

Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians, called the date a "moving target."

If the MTA does blow the deadline, Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said the blame should not be on the agency’s current leadership, which “inherited a mess” of a project that long carried an unrealistic budget and timeline.

“I don’t think anyone knew or anticipated how difficult it would be to build,” Moss said. “The precise date it’s done is less important than the fact that there is a commitment to getting it done.”

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