Readers Write: ‘On time’ train arrivals don’t correspond to ‘on time’ MTA track improvements

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The answers to “LIRR officials questioned on performance” (Janelle Clausen; March 8) sounded like revisionist transit historians.  Here is what they neglected to mention. 

Claiming that on time performance is improving was misleading.  Any train arriving within 100 feet of a Penn Station platform within five minutes and 59 seconds is considered “on time.” 

For many LIRR commuters who have to arrive on time, their bosses would not be happy. The LIRR definition of “on time” is like a teacher giving students a passing grade by rigging the results.

Ongoing cancellation and combining of trains due to problems in the East River tunnels and other portions of the LIRR system will continue for years to come. Amtrak will not initiate decades overdue major repairs of the East River tunnels until 2025 (two years after East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal begins). 

This work may not be completed until 2032.  Until this work is over, it will be impossible to guarantee reliable uninterrupted service. 

The LIRR should not be proud of the Federal Rail Road Administration approval of the request for yet another two-year extension until Dec. 31, 2020 to finish Positive Train Control.  (They missed prior dates of 2015 and 2018.) 

Finishing by 2020 may not be possible given ongoing problems with the contractor. The LIRR has known since 2010 that this is needed. Complete means PTC is up and running 24/7 on all LIRR branches and service areas. 

Needing another two-year extension to 2020 is an admission of failure.  PTC should have been the number one priority for the LIRR over the past nine years, even if it meant diverting resources from other capital improvement projects.  Safety should be number one for commuters.

It is incorrect to claim that completion of the $387 million Ronkonkoma LIRR double tracking electrification project was finished 15 months ahead of schedule.  

Double tracking from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma was part of the original scope of work for electrification of the Ronkonkoma 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 was not completed 15 months early, but rather 31 years late.  As part of the project, there is also no reopened Republic Airport LIRR Station, which has been promised for decades

Estimates for construction of the Main Line Third Track have grown from $600 million (2005), $1.5 billion (2016), $2 billion (2017) and $2.6 billion (2018).  There is only $1.95 billion available under the MTA $32 billion 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Plan.  

What was the justification for the most recent $600 million project cost increase in less than one year? The additional $600 million will have to found in the next MTA 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan.

The final cost could be even higher when completed by the end of 2022. Who will pay for any potential construction contract change orders due to unforeseen site conditions, changes in scope or additional unforeseen expenses?

The total direct cost for MTA LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal has grown from $3.5 billion in 1999 over time to $4.3, $6.3, $8.4, $10.2 and today $11.2 billion (plus $600 million more in financing costs). 

I predict $12 to $13 billion in direct costs when completed.  This does not include $4 billion more for indirect costs known as “readiness projects” carried offline from the official project budget. 

This includes $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, $450 million Jamaica Capacity, $387 million Ronkonkoma Double Track, $120 million Ronkonkoma Yard Expansion and $44 million Great Neck Pocket Track. 

This is just a few projects needed to support direct implementation of East Side Access.  Based upon past history, the final cost could go up again over time by a $1 billion or more. 

The promised opening service date has slipped on numerous occasions from 2009 to December 2022.  Don’t be surprised if this ends up in 2023.  

A detailed project risk assessment by the Federal Transit Administration independent engineer as part of the FTA-MTA 2016 amended Full Funding Grant Agreement predicted a final cost of $12 billion.   

A cat has nine lives and several of these major LIRR projects have already used up all of them. When it comes to completion of East Side Access and other major capital improvements, the 1960s’ LIRR motto, “Line of the Dashing Dan,” should be changed to “Line of the Slow Moving Sloth.”  

Larry Penner

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 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 and LIRR.)

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