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MTA hardly 'home free' on LIRR East Side project

Workers enter Tunnel B/C at the Queens work

Workers enter Tunnel B/C at the Queens work area where machines have been digging for the LIRR East Side Access project, which will eventually allow LIRR commuters to ride directly to Grand Central Terminal. (July 26, 2012) Credit: Craig Ruttle

The main tunnels for the MTA's East Side Access project are complete, but much complex, difficult work lies ahead if the agency is to hit the 2019 target date for bringing Long Island Rail Road riders to Grand Central Terminal.

Work crews using 200-ton tunnel-boring machines last Monday concluded their work on the last of the four main tunnels in Queens that will bring LIRR trains into Grand Central.

While the tunnel completion represents a significant milestone, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction president Michael Horodniceanu said construction for East Side Access -- the nation's largest ongoing public works project -- is still only half done.

"By no stretch of the imagination are we now home free," Horodniceanu said. "What we've done here is completed a very important part of the infrastructure by creating the tunnels . . . A lot of work needs to be done."

That includes filling the newly bored tunnels and spacious caverns beneath Grand Central with everything needed to serve about 160,000 daily LIRR commuters, including escalators and elevators, smoke-ventilation systems, plumbing and communications systems. The MTA also has to build a 350,000-square-foot LIRR customer concourse that will span 10 blocks.

Despite all the work left to be done on the Manhattan side, Horodniceanu said the busy Harold Interlocking junction in the Long Island City section of Queens remains the most-challenging location for the construction still ahead.

That's because, unlike in Manhattan, crews have to do their work around the operations of four railroads using the Harold site: the LIRR, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and freight carrier New York and Atlantic.

While the big tunnels are finished, contractors still have to create several smaller tunnels in Queens, mostly using a "cut-and-cover" system of digging from above ground.

The last major engineering challenge of the megaproject is also in Queens: Digging a 120-foot tunnel that will go underneath a subway tunnel, Northern Boulevard and an elevated subway line.

The "delicate, risky, and very complex" job requires freezing the ground and removing it in sections, and is costing the MTA about $900,000 a foot, Horodniceanu said. The work should be finished by May.

The entire East Side Access project is scheduled to be completed by 2019 at a cost of no more than $8.24 billion, according to the MTA. Horodniceanu said about $5 billion of that, or about 60 percent, has already been committed in contracts.

The project, which is being paid for through the MTA's capital plan and federal aid, is about 95 percent funded, with the remaining money expected to be provided in the agency's next capital plan, which begins in 2016.

MTA officials have said access to Grand Central will save commuters bound for the East Side of Manhattan about 40 minutes a day compared with current options, such as taking the subway from Penn Station, and raise commercial and residential property values throughout Long Island.

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said riders are being patient and cooperative, even as some of the construction work has resulted in recent train delays and cancellations. Epstein said it's imperative that the MTA, which has pushed back the completion date repeatedly since the late 1990s, now stick to its construction schedule.

"We've done our part," Epstein said. "As long as they're now on target for the 2019 completion date, then at this point we can't ask for more."

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