People rush to catch the first train to officially leave...

People rush to catch the first train to officially leave Grand Central Madison Jan. 25. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Right now, it's an $11.1 billion tourist attraction.

Some are there just to look around. Others take photos of every display and sign. Even Long Island commuters stop and gape before rushing to work.

But Grand Central Madison — the magnificent Long Island Rail Road terminal that just opened last week — is much more than a shiny new novelty for people to photograph.

"It's confusing, it's massive, but it's awesome," said Deer Park resident Gia Sanfilippo, who works at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue, right near the new station. "And now, it'll be my everyday commute."

It may not seem like it now, but the opening of the project long known as East Side Access is an economic watershed moment. 

It's easy for Long Islanders to see it as a joke's lousy punchline, especially given its decadeslong history. The idea of an East Side terminal dates back to the 1960s. Decades later, when the work finally got going, it still never really got going. At one point, it was supposed to be finished by 2009, and cost $4.3 billion. But the goalposts kept shifting. It's appropriate that the railroad even missed its final deadline — the end of 2022.

On top of that, Grand Central Madison is opening under very different circumstances than when it was first conceived, or even when the bulk of construction was ongoing. The commute has dramatically changed, even three years after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. And the precarious financial picture of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority makes the enormous price tag that much harder to swallow.

So, it's no wonder that the new terminal seemed to open with more whimper than bang. On a recent weekday morning, there were more MTA workers and police officers than riders except for short bursts each hour when, with apologies to Stephen Sondheim, another hundred people would get off of the train. This week, the terminal was overshadowed by the Hudson River's Gateway tunnel as President Joe Biden touted infrastructure dollars for that New York-New Jersey connection during his visit Tuesday to the region.

But the quiet and emptiness won't last. When full schedules take effect, crowds will increase. As jobs and workplaces evolve, New York City residents may choose to work on the Island because, combined with Third Track, it'll be much easier to get there. And the terminal will ripple further, getting travelers out of their cars and onto the trains when heading to the Hudson Valley and Connecticut and back again, or to and from Manhattan for weekend entertainment, holiday visits, and more.

Then there are impacts we can't foresee. MTA chairman Janno Lieber calls the project "prescient," noting the redundancy another tunnel and terminal provide, especially in the event of another Sandy-like storm, or other catastrophe.

The reverberations may happen differently — and more slowly — than MTA officials hoped. The decades of delay may have kept East Side Access from having the initial enormous benefit so many predicted. But that will come. As working and living patterns evolve, the terminal will be there, an economic ribbon that tightens the knot between the Island and New York City and the north. Even with the current uncertainty, it's not hyperbolic to say that this project will change the region for generations. That how we live and work, how we do business, how the transit system operates, and how our economy evolves in the decades to come will be tied, in part, to that enormous cavern 15 stories below ground. 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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