Column: East River Tunnel Repair Delays Are Bad News For LIRR Riders

Amtraks plans to delay the decades overdue major repairs to the four East River tunnels until after the LIRR begins service into Grand Central Terminal in December 2022 is bad news for both riders and taxpayers.  
Delaying the start of work by six years from 2019 to 2024 will increase costs by 300 percent to $1 billion.  How will Amtrak and MTA come up with an almost $600 million shortfall?  Continued deterioration of the East River Tunnels over this time period could result in an increased scope of work. 
Combined with responses to the procurement process from contractors, this could then result in a final price tag of several hundred million more than the current engineers’ estimate. Remember only one of four East River Tunnels can be worked on at a time.  Two of four tunnels suffered significant damage from Super Storm Sandy in 2012. They may require one to two years for repair work. The remaining two tunnels will need one year each. As a result, this project may not be completed until 2030.
The Federal Transit Administration provided $432 billion in June 2016 to the MTA.  These funds were intended to be spent quickly for 2012 Super Storm Sandy-related work in the East River Tunnels to bring them up to a state of good repair.  Amtrak may not begin to use these funds for another 8 years, until 2024.  This does no one any good. 
Based upon the most recent project recovery schedule, who knows if the LIRR will begin service into Grand Central Terminal by December 2022.  A majority of the promised 24 trains a.m. and p.m. rush hour peak service will be either new trains or those which previously terminated at Atlantic Terminal Brooklyn. Few will be diverted from Penn Station. With only two tunnels serving Grand Central Terminal, there is little capacity to add additional diverted trains from Penn Station.  There is no equivalent West Side Storage Yard to store trains between rush hours at Grand Central Terminal. 
Initiation of LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal means the end of direct service to the Atlantic Terminal.  This will be replaced by a scoot service to Jamaica.  Amtrak’s excuse to wait for LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal before starting work on the East River Tunnels is disappointing. 
Another reason may be a shortage of Amtrak Force Account employees.  Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR may have insufficient certified signal and other specialized craft employees to manage their respective complex state of good repair and new system expansion projects.  Amtrak force account employees are committed to other projects on the Northeast Corridor.  This includes supporting MTA LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, Portal Bridge, Gateway Tunnel, NJ Transit (Northeast Corridor), Moynihan Penn Station Train Hall and Metro North NY to Connecticut New Haven line.  How can Amtrak provide sufficient numbers of employees to work on these key states of good repair and system expansion projects while support work on the East River Tunnels all at the same time?
It is doubtful that the LIRR will give up any current 42 peak service train slots at Penn Station even when expanding operations into Grand Central Terminal.  There will continue to be a three-way competition between Amtrak, LIRR and NJ Transit for Penn Station access,  Metro North will also look for rush hour access to Penn Station resulting in a four-way competition. Don’t be surprised if there are no changes to the level of Penn Station rush-hour service in the foreseeable future.
Larry Penner
Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, LIRR, Metro North, NYC Transit, NYC DOT, New Jersey Transit, NICE bus and 30 other NY and NJ transit operators. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

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