A rendering showing where LIRR riders will be able to...

A rendering showing where LIRR riders will be able to board trains from new platforms like this one, part of the railroad's East Side Access project to connect Long Island to Grand Central Terminal. Credit: MTA

First of two parts.

Standing amid the noise and grime of construction, deep below Park Avenue and Grand Central Terminal, one can almost see thousands of commuters heading down towering new escalators or glass elevators to board Long Island Rail Road trains.

Riding in a heavy-duty golf cart past stacks of concrete and steel, one can almost hear the trains rumbling through the new tunnels under Queens toward Manhattan’s East Side.

If the East Side Access project goes as planned — and that’s an enormous if — we’re four and a half years away from a new LIRR terminal 160 feet below Grand Central.

But it will be much more than a pretty terminal and new tracks and platforms.

East Side Access is one of the region’s most important undertakings. While long derided for its rising cost, now more than $11 billion, delays and seemingly endless stream of contracts and change orders, the project’s end is in sight. And it’s up to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak and state officials to work together and make sure it is finished without further delay, or greater cost overruns. MTA officials now say it’s expected to open by the end of 2022.

This is a project known for awful missteps. Early estimates, after all, put the cost at $4.3 billion, and the opening date at 2009.

What’s unknown about it is what’s unseen — what’s happening underground, beneath the elevated N subway train, far below the busy five-lane Northern Boulevard in Queens, and even the E train’s path below that. For years, hundreds of workers have constructed a tunnel there, freezing the ground around it to give it stability to handle the weight of trains, trucks and more trains above it.

Now, that tunnel is a hive of activity — the connection between the maze of tracks at the Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside and the new tracks and terminal being built under Grand Central. Small vehicles and trucks cart concrete and steel through the tunnels’ muddy, unfinished paths, under the East River and Roosevelt Island. Upon reaching Manhattan, they turn south under Park Avenue.

And then, the workers, equipment, supplies and visitors reach the cavernous end — a two-level, eight-track terminal. There, the train platforms, curved-beam ceilings and even some of the 17 escalators are in place. Above the tracks is the frame of a future concourse for the LIRR, a spot that could become just as important to Long Islanders as Penn Station.

But East Side Access’s impact goes far beyond the needs of LIRR riders. This project will help to modernize the region’s transit system, grow its economy and expand opportunities for the city and suburbs alike. It will fill the desperate need for redundancy, especially at a time when Amtrak’s East River tunnels are old and unreliable, a situation worsened by damage from superstorm Sandy. It will provide a boost to the East Side, which Long Islanders will look to as a new source of work and play. It will improve signals, safety and infrastructure in critical parts of our transit system. It will provide a direct and much faster link to JFK Airport’s AirTrain. And it will help the Island by giving residents an easier commute, making it more attractive to young people and families, and providing its businesses a new pool of workers when New York City residents will be able to commute east with regular, reliable train service.

The LIRR provides more than 300,000 rides on an average weekday. When East Side Access is done, and combined with the finished double-track and third-track projects on Long Island, the railroad’s capacity will increase by a staggering 45 percent.

Nonetheless, East Side Access is seen as the MTA’s ugliest monster, long criticized for its seemingly endless timetable and constantly growing budget, and for a multitude of valid and troubling concerns.

The MTA didn’t handle this project well from the beginning, from the original, unrealistic time and cost estimates to the dozens of contracts that required dozens of change orders, from the lack of coordination and oversight to the silly mistakes — most recently, the concourse steel beams that were the wrong size. And then there’s Amtrak, which was part of the project from the start because it owns the Harold Interlocking and Sunnyside Yards, but has been difficult to work with, and never has prioritized the effort the way it should.

Indeed, there will be a lot to learn from what was done badly.

On top of all of that, the MTA also hasn’t done a good job “selling” the project — explaining to anyone who doesn’t live in Nassau or Suffolk counties why they should care.

But they should care. And it’s time for everyone to get on board. The LIRR is about to become the proud owner of a new terminal, and it needs to devote the personnel and the time to be ready for that undertaking and to do it well. The MTA needs to get beyond the problems of years gone by and spend the next four years finishing East Side Access on its current timetable and at its current budget. The project now has the right leadership in MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber. Lieber came to the MTA one year ago, from managing the redevelopment of the World Trade Center complex. He knows how to get projects done, and is bringing the same expertise and urgency to East Side Access.

And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may have to work his magic, too. He did it in finally getting the Second Avenue subway open and getting the third track approved in 2017. A similar public push from Cuomo could be enough to make everyone pay attention and get the job done.

For two decades, East Side Access has been synonymous with the worst of the LIRR and the MTA. But with the right leadership, partnership, and urgency, it won’t be that way for long.

There’s a light at the end of the East Side Access tunnel — and it’s a game-changer for the region.

Monday: What Amtrak must do.


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