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Morning Spew

14 Years Late, East Side Access Is Finally Set to Open

A project that has outlasted its reasoning and its proponents will finally see the light of day—can it be salvaged?

10:04 AM EST on January 24, 2023

General views of Grand Central Madison on Thursday, Dec 29, 2022.
(Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

Even when East Side Access, now dubbed "Grand Central Madison," was first proposed in the late 1990s, it wasn't a necessity—a tunnel and 40 miles of total new tracks connecting Long Island Rail Road's Sunnyside Yards to Manhattan's east side would, conceivably, save some Long Island commuters the indecency of having to then transfer to the subway to backtrack from Penn Station. It would also, theoretically, allow the world's busiest commuter railroad to run more trains from Long Island, alleviating crowding on trains and subways. But mostly it was done because Long Island Republicans wanted it, and then-Governor Pataki was happy to oblige. 

In the fashion of large infrastructure projects in New York City, compromises and half-measures pretty much short-circuited the speedy completion project from the start. Because Metro-North (which is controlled by the very same authority building East Side Access) was unwilling to share Grand Central tracks with the Long Island Rail Road, the LIRR had to build a massive new station beneath Grand Central, setting the project back years. In addition, gone was the idea of all that much added capacity; because the new station is a terminal, trains have nowhere to go once they arrive at rush hour, and have to go back out the same way they came in—you physically can't run that many trains. Early timetables released by the MTA show just a few more trains running per hour

Pre-pandemic, the importance of the project—on which billions and billions have been poured—was minimal in comparison to other, much more pressing issues in the city's transportation system. Updating the subway's century-old signal system and expanding subway service would do far more to move people around the city itself, alleviate congestion issues on surface streets (making *gasp* buses faster), and serve the people who live and work in the city (and not just work in it). 

Still, the project is now finally complete after what seems like an eternity, and barring some further ventilation issues, will open to the public on Wednesday—but only as a shuttle back and forth from Jamaica. 

Now comes the hard part. With ridership on the city's two commuter rails way down from pre-pandemic highs, the City and state will need to reconsider just how these systems will be used (as explored previously for Hell Gate by John Surico). Already, Governor Hochul has echoed the demand from transit advocates that fares be lowered for intercity travel, and her first tweets about the opening don't emphasize commutes from the suburbs, but rather, a speedier trip from a budding outer borough downtown to Manhattan's east side:

(She could also be highlighting this because it's the only service currently running into Grand Central Madison, until the MTA is ready to flip the switch on a schedule makeover for the entire LIRR in a few weeks.) 

While a 22-minute ride isn't too much of an improvement from existing options (the E train), it would shave off some time from people's commutes. Other projects, like the Hell Gate Line (our favorite) on Metro-North, will offer options to neighborhoods that are currently cut off from train options. This will radically change how commuter rail infrastructure is used in the city, but what about their original aims—to connect the suburbs?

That's going to be tricky, because Nassau County officials seem determined to not build housing, bucking Hochul's call for counties like Nassau to build way more of it. Without a firm hand, progress will be slow and incremental. For now, the trains running into the gleaming new terminal deep beneath Grand Central will be not only more than a decade late, but also half-empty.

Some links on this fine Tuesday: 

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