LIRR East Side Access Delayed Again

One of the legacies of commuter access to Manhattan is that it was developed by a number of different railroads, each with their own terminal in Manhattan or on the west bank of the Hudson.  Many cities in the U.S. and abroad have managed to unite their legacy rail networks, affording direct access to multiple locations in the central city; but New York is still struggling to do so.  The three commuter railroads in the area, NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad, each have but one terminal in Manhattan: Penn Station on the West Side for NJ Transit and the LIRR, and Grand Central Terminal on the East Side for Metro-North.  All three would like to be able to deliver their riders to both sides of Midtown.

The most advanced project to achieve this is the $8-billion East Side Access project of the Long Island Rail Road, which plans to connect the LIRR in Queens to new platforms under Grand Central Terminal, building tracks in Queens and Manhattan and utilizing two tracks in the 63rd Street East River tunnel first built 4 years ago, but never used.  The East Side project was originally slated to be completed this year, but delays have pushed the projected completion out farther and farther; on May 8 Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Joseph Lhota confirmed a one-year slip, to 2019, for the current projected completion date.  On May 21, MTA officials confirmed that the new completion date is August 2019 and that the current cost estimate is $8.24 billion, up from an original (2006) estimate of $6.3 billion, according to reporting by Colin Moynihan in the New York Times (May 22).

The biggest technical challenge is at the Harold Interlocking junction in Sunnyside, Queens, where tracks from Penn Station divide into the lines of the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, and also lead to the Sunnyside Yard storage facility.  Changes to the complex junction while maintaining existing traffic has caused delays; also, the new tracks involve tunnels, but sandhogs have hit contaminated soil and underground springs that are stifling progress.  Once the East Side project is complete, some LIRR trains will terminate there rather than in Penn Station, freeing up space for possible West Side service to Penn Station from the New Haven and Hudson Lines of Metro-North.  Meanwhile, hopes of NJT commuters to reach the East Side directly seem far off; plans for such access would apparently require new tunnels under the Hudson, as well as extending trackage from the Penn Station area to the East Side, no mean feat given existing infrastructure—subways and water tunnels—which already occupy underground real estate in Midtown.

 The Lackawanna Coalition believes that East Side access for long-suffering NJ Transit commuters is essential and that all planning for infrastructure improvements in the Tri-State area need to be better coordinated among all railroad operators in the area: NJ Transit, Metro-North, Long Island Railr Road, and Amtrak.