Tuesday, May 22, 2012

MTA East Side Access Schedule Delayed Again; Symptom of Larger Problems

While the MTA seems to be making incremental progress on carrying out routine maintenance using an expanded Fastrack program that shuts down entire segments of the subway system overnight during the week, its capital program remains in shambles.

In particular, the East Side Access program's cost has ballooned to $8.2 billion and the completion has been pushed back to 2019.
The LIRR extension to Grand Central Terminal may cost $920 million more than the MTA’s most recent estimate, officials said Monday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority also pushed back the East Side Access project’s expected completion date by three years to August 2019.

Officials cited the enormous complexity of a project that includes building new tunnels in Queens and Manhattan, and the reconfiguration of a massive juncture that’s being used by three different railroads.

But MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota also said authority staffers in the past had put forward unrealistic construction schedules and budgets.

“The era of underestimating the cost of big projects is over,” Lhota said after an MTA committee meeting. “We’re going to be realistic about the cost and we’re going to budget accordingly.”

That promise, however, may be of little comfort to Long Island commuters longing to take a train to Grand Central on the East Side of Manhattan rather than Penn Station.

“Frustration seems to be the commuters
’ daily lot,” said Mark Epstein, chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council. “Fares are going up, service is cut, the commuter tax benefit is cut, and now ESA completion date pushed back yet again.”
That's completely unacceptable and the additional costs are being borne by an agency ill equipped to deal with the debt.

It should not be taking decades for incremental improvements to the subway system and mass transit. The blame isn't solely on the MTA; it's also on the contractors who underbid and underestimate the costs of the projects and know that as their costs balloon, they'll get picked up by the MTA and taxpayers.

There's no reason that construction costs for mass transit projects in New York City and the US in general should exceed those in Europe or Asia. We aren't getting the kind of value for the money spent. It means that projects take far longer to be completed, far fewer projects get undertaken, and the economy suffers.

Infrastructure is the backbone of the economy and failing to invest in the infrastructure has long term competitive costs. It means that other countries and cities around the world can gain a competitive advantage for everything from international shipping to affecting local businesses shipping cross-town. We need to radically rethink priorities on infrastructure and need a long term plan to reduce costs while expanding and improving existing infrastructure.

Congress, and particularly the GOP, in its myopic vision of trying to reduce debts without consideration of tax increases, is underfunding infrastructure projects across the nation and it is already having significant effects on the economy.

It should not take three days for a freight train to transit through Chicago, but because of the bottlenecks and grade-level crossings, that's precisely what's happening. It's quicker to walk across Chicago than for a freight train to make the trip.

Various ports around the nation are losing business to Canadian ports because they've undertaken dredging to deepen the ports or don't have structural impediments to bigger ships entering the ports. In the New York Metro area, the Port Authority is trying to fast track the Bayonne Bridge rehabilitation project that would increase the height of the bridge to allow post-Panamax ships to access the region's key ports in time to maintain or gain business when the new Panama Canal channel opens in 2014.

Other countries are racing ahead with new and improved infrastructure projects at a time when our nation is barely funding maintenance and rehabilitation of existing bridges, tunnels, rails, and even water/sewer projects.

That has to change.

As for the East Side Access, it should be noted that the delays and costs as noted by the MTA are now in line with the federal estimates given several years ago. How is it that the federal government had a better grasp of the costs than the MTA on its own project?

It should be a reminder too that when NJ Transit claimed that it could keep the costs for its ARC Tunnel project to under $10 billion, that it wasn't supported by the federal estimates, which ran as high as $12.8 billion - or $4 billion more than the $8.7 billion accepted cost for the project when Gov. Christie killed the project due to leaving New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for all the overruns.

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