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OpinionColumnistsRandi F. Marshall

Will the new MTA Capital Plan be the last to fund East Side Access?

Construction work takes places at the Long Island

Construction work takes places at the Long Island Rail Road's new eight-track terminal at Grand Central Station in Manhattan on April 11, 2018. Credit: Charles Eckert

If all goes well, and in the world of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that can be a big if,  the capital plan it unveiled Monday could be the last to include money for East Side Access, the effort to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

That in and of itself is a significant feat. 

But on top of finishing East Side Access, and completing the third track on the Main Line, the MTA’s new 2020-2024 capital plan highlights the agency rolled out Monday include additional investments for the LIRR, like adding 160 new cars, electrifying the Central Branch, which runs between the Ronkonkoma and Babylon branches of the railroad, adding accessibility to seven more unspecified stations, and making additional track and signal improvements.

All told, the LIRR is getting just over $5.7 billion — more than 10 percent of the total $51.47 billion capital plan, and at first glance that appears significantly more than the $2.9 billion the railroad received in the 2015 to 2019 plan. But that comes with an important apples-to-oranges caveat: The last capital plan separated large expansion projects like East Side Access and third track into a separate category, so when adding those in, the last plan surpassed this one. 

Now, those two big-ticket items are folded in the LIRR’s total. Finishing East Side Access will require $798 million in the next five-year plan, while third track needs another $539 million. MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber said the two projects together would increase peak capacity by 50 percent, and reverse commuting capacity by 60 percent. Both projects are expected to be up and running by 2022. Lieber said both remain on schedule — a big feat especially for East Side Access, which at one point was expected to be finished by 2009.

“That’s going to allow for significant growth in Long Island’s economy and allow Long Island’s businesses to attract from a larger, more diverse talent pool, which is great for the region,” Lieber said.

More than $40 billion of the capital plan will go to New York City Transit to fund key subway and bus projects — including modernizing subway signals, making 66 more stations accessible and building the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, extending it to 125th Street. 

In an interview Monday, LIRR chief Phil Eng said the work that’s being done and proposed is “truly transformational.” 

“Having the resources and support to do that is exciting,” he said.

While highlights were made public Monday, the details and full breakdown of the plan have yet to be released. The MTA board is scheduled to meet next week and vote on the plan, which will then be sent to the Capital Program Review Board by Oct. 1. 

Nonetheless, the plan still could change, and an ongoing forensic audit is complicating the situation a bit, as it could lead to changes. 

About half the total plan — $25 billion — will be paid for by the tolling of Manhattan’s central business district and other new revenue streams approved by the state. Federal dollars will account for more than $10 billion, MTA Chief Executive Pat Foye said, while the MTA is hoping $6 billion will come from an even split of new money from the state and New York City. Such new funding would need approval from the State Legislature and City Council, along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor BIll de Blasio.
But if the plan goes forward, and East Side Access and third track finally become reality — again with the big ifs — commuters could see a very different LIRR in the years ahead.