One of the world’s most expensive mass transit projects has finally opened to the public after years of delays and soaring costs, promising to save passengers as much as 40 minutes of commuting time between Long Island and the East Side of Manhattan.
The Long Island Rail Road project, also known by the shorthand East Side Access, will link the L.I.R.R. to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. But for at least three weeks, starting Wednesday, it will run with limited service, with riders transferring at the Jamaica stop in Queens. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs New York City’s subways, buses and two commuter rail lines, said full service into Grand Central would follow with new schedules available for its various branches in the coming weeks.
The authority estimates that about 45 percent of L.I.R.R. commuters will go to Grand Central, relieving crowding at Pennsylvania Station on the West Side, which had been the rail line’s only stop in Manhattan.
But some advocates for New York City transit have criticized the merits of the project as an attempt to appease Long Island voters, who for decades have been a swing vote in elections for governor.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, which represents passengers’ interests, said the project “exemplifies the worst of transit inequity in New York.”
Transportation in New York City
- Ride-Hail App Drivers: Drivers in the city say they are struggling, faced with inflation, hefty fees and Uber’s efforts to block the taxi commission from raising their pay.
- Holland Tunnel: New Jersey-bound traffic through the tunnel will be barred for several hours six nights a week while crews repair damage from Hurricane Sandy.
- M.T.A. Fares: The state-run agency that operates the transit system is planning to raise subway and bus fares twice by 2025 as a way of heading off a budget disaster.
- New Jersey Turnpike: The cost of a contentious project to expand and repair 8.1 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike has leaped to a breathtaking height of more than $1 billion a mile.
Mr. Pearlstein noted that subways and buses moved 24 times as many riders each day — roughly five million people on a recent weekday — as the Long Island Rail Road.
“After lavishing new service on exclusive suburban towns, Gov. Kathy Hochul owes millions of city riders much more frequent buses and subways in her executive budget next week,” Mr. Pearlstein said in a prepared statement.
The authority said that the new service would boost train capacity to and from Manhattan by 50 percent, and that more than 160,000 passengers per day could save as much as 40 minutes on their trips. Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, said that having more service inside the city would benefit not only Long Islanders but also people who live in Queens, which has less subway service relative to its size and population than the city’s other boroughs.
“People who live in Queens will now have so much more service and so much more capacity,” Mr. Lieber said, noting that a boost in white-collar workers in Manhattan would benefit blue-collar workers who work there as well. “This is an equity project, even though it is frequently styled as a project for suburbanites.”
On Twitter, Governor Hochul praised the long-awaited project, which she had promised would open in December 2022 before postponing it to this year.
“Just a 22 minute ride from Jamaica to the East Side of Manhattan!” Ms. Hochul tweeted. “Improving commutes and quality of life for New Yorkers — and with more service starting soon.”
A New York Times investigation revealed in 2017 that the estimated cost of the East Side Access project ballooned by three times to $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track — seven times the average elsewhere in the world. Construction began in 2001. The M.T.A. has since said that the price tag reached only $11.1 billion.
Mr. Lieber said that when he took over the project in 2017 as the M.T.A.’s chief of construction, he streamlined it to rein in costs and boost efficiencies, and that is why it is finally being finished.
“I’m actually kind of proud that we said, we’re not moving the schedule,” he said. “We got it done. We worked right through Covid when every other mega project in America had some scheduled impacts.”
East Side Access is the authority’s largest project — one of several ongoing expansion efforts contributing to high construction costs even as the M.T.A. is facing a budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025 caused, in part, by slumping farebox revenue. To offset the loss of riders, the authority is considering increasing the current $2.75 base fare to $2.90 thisyear and to $3.02 in 2025, although any fare changes would be preceded by public hearings and a board vote.
A fare increase would not erase its debt burden, only lessen it to $600 million, and transit leaders want the city, state or federal government to make up that deficit. Their request has received a lukewarm response from Ms. Hochul, who effectively controls the M.T.A.
The new service to Grand Central will increase peak hour capacity at a time when many commuters with white-collar jobs work from home at least part of the week. Weekday subway ridership hovers at about 65 percent of prepandemic levels, and forecasters predict they will reach only 80 percent of prepandemic levels by 2026.
Those altered commuting patterns have presented a crisis for transit systems around the world. Transit officials and advocates fear that shrinking ridership and fare revenue could lead to cuts in service, making transit less convenient for the public and, in turn, prompting further drops in ridership.
Although slumping ridership has contributed to the authority’s fiscal crisis, it was already heavy in debt before the pandemic. The system was saved from decay in the early 1980s when lawmakers allowed it to issue bonds. The authority’s debt load, however, ballooned.
Expenses have outpaced income, and the authority has borrowed heavily to keep up. The amount of outstanding long-term debt issued by the authority rose by 55 percent between 2010 and 2021, up to $40.1 billion from $25.8 billion.