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MTA: Delays threaten East Side Access, crash-prevention bid

Workers install a radio transponder for the positive

Workers install a radio transponder for the positive train control system on a Long Island Rail Rail Road track. The transponders on trains and tracks communicate with each other to automatically slow down or stop a train if it's going too fast, is about to hit another train, or violates a signal. Credit: MTA

The MTA’s beleaguered East Side Access megaproject is in danger of falling another year behind schedule and could also force the agency to miss a federal deadline to install crash-prevention technology on the LIRR by 2018, according to a new report.

The report released Monday by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Capital Program Oversight Committee attributes to Amtrak the serious delays threatening the $10.2 billion project, which aims to link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal by 2022.

Much of the construction taking place at the Harold Interlocking — a busy rail junction in Sunnyside, Queens — relies on Amtrak taking some tracks out of service at specified times and lending some workers to the effort.

Despite Amtrak agreeing on specific levels of cooperation, East Side Access Project Executive Bill Goodrich said at an MTA meeting Monday that the agency’s cooperation remains “predictable, but less than we need.” As a result, work that was supposed to be finished by this year will last at least until next year.

“If that gets delayed, because of a lack of [Amtrak] resources or a reallocation of resources, then chances are that the work will get bumped to the summer of 2019, which is almost a year delay,” said Goodrich, adding that preventing the delay is “absolutely critical to the MTA.”

Although the project would fall a year behind schedule, MTA officials said it could still be completed by its targeted 2022 completion date because project officials have built in a 22-month “contingency” cushion into the schedule. But several other smaller issues in the project’s construction, including repairing a leak from Metro-North’s concourse in Grand Central down onto the LIRR’s new space beneath it and a recent design change to add Wi-Fi connectivity to the LIRR’s Grand Central concourse, could eat away at that cushion. The Amtrak delays would consume more than half of it.

In addition, if the East Side Access work at Harold is not completed by the middle of next year, it could also jeopardize the LIRR’s plan to have positive train control, or PTC, technology installed throughout its system by the end of 2018 — as required by federal law at the risk of heavy fines.

Operating PTC in Harold requires that new signal control huts be in place there. The installation of those huts is among the delayed East Side Access work.

Since 2015, MTA officials have complained about the lack of cooperation from Amtrak, which has said its resources have been stretched thin by other projects in the area, including repairs inside the Sandy-damaged East River Tunnels.

Amtrak did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods earlier this month addressed the concerns over Amtrak impeding East Side Access’ progress, saying, “the work to repair or renew these assets and improve reliability often competes with the needs of the MTA’s ESA and other projects for resources and work windows.”

East Side Access, considered the largest public works project underway in the United States, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns since it was proposed in the 1990s with a budget of $4.3 billion and a targeted completion date of 2009. The MTA last “re-baselined” the project in 2014 — adding about $2 billion to its budget and pushing it back three years.

At a Wednesday meeting of the MTA Board interim chairman Fernando Ferrer acknowledged the “high level of frustration among board members” over Amtrak’s insufficient cooperation.

“My preference and hope is not to have to see during my tenure on this board yet another re-baselining of this,” Ferrer said. “And that’s going to require everybody to have to step up their game, including Amtrak.”

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