East Side Access: Worth the Wait

The East Side Access project connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal will complete a vital and long overdue link in the New York region’s transportation network. Not only will it sharply reduce commuting times for hundreds of thousands of Long Island commuters and strengthen the East Midtown business district, but it will also relieve overcrowding at Penn Station, allow Metro North to run trains on the New Haven line directly into Penn Station, and creates the potential for expanded services in the future, such as those described in RPA’s Trans-Regional Express proposal. It will also make the LIRR network more resilient by creating alternative routes into Manhattan in the event of flooding, service breakdowns or other disruptions.

Continuing delays and escalating costs for the project, including yesterday’s announcement by the MTA that costs would exceed $11 billion, nearly a billion more than the 2014 estimate, highlight the needs for the MTA to bring costs under control, not just for East Side Access, but for all its capital projects. RPA’s report on how to reduce the costs of delivering MTA megaprojects, Building Rail Transit Projects Better for Less, recommended a number of actions, such as reforming procurement practices and eliminating the requirement to use operating agency workers for many capital construction tasks. The MTA’s leadership is committed to comprehensive reforms to improve efficiency and control costs and has already taken several actions that should reduce project delays and bring down costs.

While the rising price tag of East Side Access is hard to bear, its long-term benefits will far outweigh its costs. These benefits will accrue not just to the riders on the new service, but businesses and residents across the entire region. East Side Access will reduce traffic from Long Island into Midtown, helping reduce emissions, improving air quality and easing the effects of traffic congestion for everyone in Midtown. It will support job growth in both New York City and Long Island. It will increase home values for those living near LIRR stations. And now that the MTA is also proceeding with construction of a third track on LIRR’s mainline, the two projects combined provide Long Island with an opportunity to remake its economy by attracting and growing businesses in its downtowns.

While it is taking longer and costing more than it should, the substantial benefits of East Side Access will continue for many decades to come.

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