New York’s Long-Delayed East Side Access Has Arrived

Originally slated for completion in 2009, on a $2.1 billion budget that has since swelled, the decades-long undertaking to expand the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal has finally arrived—and in many ways symbolizes the challenges gripping urban infrastructure projects in the United States.

Image courtesy of the MTA

Commuting from Long Island to New York City isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience. Arriving to the perennially gloomy and overcrowded Penn Station—Manhattan’s only Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) terminus—on the city’s west side, thousands of LIRR straphangers traveling to the east side are left with a hectic subway transfer that adds around 20 minutes each way to the commute. 

Nearly six decades after the initial proposals, East Side Access is complete. Last week, the first train pulled into the gleaming new terminal, christened “Grand Central Madison” after the Art Deco landmark it sits beneath and the nearby avenue. Clocking in at eight tracks across 700,000 square feet, the terminal’s design was first envisioned two decades ago by the project’s chief architect, Peter Hopkinson, who replicated Grand Central’s sweeping curved archways. Enlivening the glossy white stone walls are site-specific artworks by Yayoi Kusama and Kiki Smith paying homage to New York City.

Image courtesy of the MTA

While LIRR riders are surely rejoicing, East Side Access will go down as one of the country’s most notoriously inefficient transit undertakings. After years of preplanning and engineering finances, construction officially kicked off in 2001 with an estimated eight-year timeline and $2.1 billion budget. That deadline came and went and bureaucratic entanglements ended up tacking on an extra 14 years and an eye-watering $9 billion to the overall price tag—seven times the average for similar projects elsewhere in the world. 

What went wrong? Antiquated labor requirements, bloated work crews, and ballooning budgets caused by bureaucracy-saddled public officials, according to an investigation by the New York Times. Similar quagmires have also dogged ambitious public transit projects in San Francisco, Boston, and Honolulu. (On the other hand, Miami seems to be doing something right with its high-speed Brightline train.) When President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021, which earmarked $39 billion for urban transit, he lamented how the U.S. once sported the world’s best public transit but now ranks 13th globally.

Image courtesy of the MTA

Of course, the debut of East Side Access doesn’t mean that New York City’s transportation woes have been solved. The Riders Alliance, a nonprofit representing the interests of passengers, decried it as “exemplifying the worst of transit inequity in New York,” noting the subway’s cash shortfall, decrepit conditions, and overcrowding compared to LIRR. “I’ve always been a train buff,” Edward Hand, a transit enthusiast from Long Island, told the Times. “But as I’ve always said, [this] was proposed 50 years ago and it’s 50 years late.” 

In true MTA fashion, an oversight has already been identified—Georgia O’Keeffe’s name engraved on one of its walls is misspelled with one “f” instead of two. The agency is already on it: “We clearly F-ed this one up and it’s being fixed.”

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