Understanding Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of his “historic $5.6 billion transformation of the Long Island Rail Road” to benefit riders is like peeling an onion to find the details.
Most of the projects he referenced have already been underway since the MTA’s original $29 billion 2015 – 2019 Five-Year Capital Plan was approved in May 2016. There is little new besides $1.95 billion for the Main Line third track.
What he didn’t say is important to riders and taxpayers who have to pick up the tab. No comment about the $5.8 billion he still owes toward fully funding the $32 billion MTA 2015 – 2019 Five-Year Capital Plan. Add an additional $1 billion he pledged in response to recent NYC subway and Penn Station problems.
Construction costs for the Gateway Tunnel total $29 billion. Gov. Cuomo committed to contributing 25 percent of the total cost, but he has yet to identify the source of his $7.25 billion.
The MTA $29 billion 2015 – 2019 Five-Year Capital Plan was increased by a $3 billion amendment to $32 billion. The Main Line third track is the beneficiary of $1.95 billion. This amendment added $1.6 billion in MTA long-term debt. If the construction bids come in above the engineers’ estimate, who will pay for the shortfall? MTA LIRR failed to follow federal NEPA environmental guidelines, forfeiting any opportunity for Federal Transit Administration funding. The original cost of this project grew from $600 million ten years ago, $1 billion two years ago, $1.5 billion last year, and today is $2 billion. Tomorrow, who knows? It’s anyone’s guess.
Completion of double tracking for the Ronkokoma branch will cost $387 million. Double tracking from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma was part of the original scope of work for electrification of the Ronkonkoma LIRR branch. It was completed in December 1987. To save the project due to insufficient funding, double tracking was dropped in favor of single track electrification and passing sidings. The project will not be completed 16 months early, as Cuomo boasts, but rather 31 years late! There will be no increase in rush-hour service. Without finishing the Main Line third track by 2021, along with East Side access to Grand Central Terminal by 2023, there is no Penn Station capacity for additional Ronkonkoma rush-hour service. Penn Station has been operating at 100 percent capacity for decades. Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Metro North also have long-term plans to increase Penn Station service.
Missing from the $300 million Penn Station West End Concourse’s June opening was a seating area and rest rooms. (Was someone afraid of the homeless invading this new facility?) There are only three new ticket vending machines, all of which do not accept cash.
Cuomo was silent about delays in spending $432 million available under a Federal Transit Administration Hurricane Sandy grant for repairs to Penn Station’s East River tunnels. Amtrak has said they will not be able to begin work until 2020! The MTA, on behalf of the LIRR, which was awarded the federal grant funding, has not committed to spending these dollars on this critical tunnel work.
When it comes to paying for all his promises, Cuomo reminds me of Wimpy, who famously said, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Stand by for higher fares and taxes in coming years to cover the costs.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 for U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.