MTA chair: East Side Access may be delayed

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Photo credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan | Joseph Lhota, Chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, addresses the Long Island Association in Melville. (May 8, 2012)

by ALFONSO A. CASTILLO, Newsday
May 8, 2012

Long Island Rail Road commuters may have to wait until 2019 for a one-seat ride to Grand Central Terminal, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Tuesday. At a Long Island Association meeting in Melville, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota told a room full of business, community and elected leaders that "the most recent analysis" of the agency's $7.3 billion East Side Access plan included an expected opening date of 2019 -- a year later than when the project was last analyzed. 

"It's my expectation -- 2019," Lhota said.

In an interview later, Lhota said he may have been "a little injudicious" in his statement to the audience. He revised his comments to say the MTA is still aiming to finish the so-called "megaproject" by 2018, but various complications could delay it until the following year.

"If everything bad happens, it might push it out a year," Lhota said in the interview. "Our date is still 2018 and I'm doing everything I can to keep it at 2018." Late last year, MTA officials said they were still working to hit the previous target completion date of 2016, and vowed that the project would not be completed any later than April 2018. The MTA previously had expected completion dates of 2013 and even 2011. 

LIRR Commuter Council Chairman Mark Epstein, who attended the LIA meeting, was unphased by the latest re-forecast. 

"I think [riders] have gotten so used to the date being pushed back," Epstein said. "The target for completion has probably moved faster than most Long Island Rail Road trains." 

Lhota said that "what's holding up the project" are complications in boring a tunnel underneath the busy Harold Interlocking in Long Island City, which is used by the LIRR, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and freight rail operation New York and Atlantic Railway. 

"It's the most complicated interlocking system anywhere in the United States and quite possibly the world, and we're tunneling underneath it," Lhota told the audience. "To tell you it's complicated is an understatement." 

Making the work even more difficult, Lhota said, is the soft ground under the rail -- portions of which the MTA has had to freeze in order to dig through. 

Lhota added that the LIRR needs the assistance of Amtrak workers to carry out the project, but said "the federal government" wants Amtrak to prioritize an unrelated project to build a train station at the James Farley Post Office building on Manhattan's West Side.

MTA officials previously said that they had to complete East Side Access by 2018 in order to keep $2.6 billion in federal funding. Lhota said Tuesday he was not certain if that was still the case. "We wouldn't go to 2019 if the feds said we can't do it. We'd just have to do something different," Lhota said.

The Federal Transit Administration has long raised concerns about the project falling behind schedule. In 2010, it called the situation "grim." Last June, it called the slow progress on some key contracts "unacceptable."

And in January, the FTA said that overall construction on the project was only 43 percent complete by December -- short of the goal of 62 percent.

Still, because of the project's benefits to Long Island, LIA President Kevin Law said the latest projection of delays "doesn't concern us."

"It's the biggest infrastructure project in the country. It's bound to have some delays because of all the complications," Law said. "They're doing everything they can to make it happen." Lhota called East Side Access the "largest public works project currently going on in the United States." He told the audience that he expected it to raise property values on Long Island by making Nassau and Suffolk viable places to live for professionals working on Manhattan's East Side.

Lhota said some 160,000 LIRR riders would save at least 40 minutes a day in their commute. 

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