There is more to the recent approval of $1.8 billion contract awarded to the joint venture Third Track for construction of the Long Island Railroad main line third track. These funds were part of a $3 billion MTA 2015-19 Five Year Capital Program Amendment, which increased the total budget from $29 to $32 billion. It is paid for by adding $1.6 billion in MTA long term debt. Over the past 30 years, estimates for construction of the main line third track have grown from $600 million to $1.5 billion two years ago, $2 billion last year and now $2.6 billion today. There is only $1.95 billion available under the MTA $32 billion 2015-19 Five Year Capital Plan. What is the justification for this $600 million project cost increase in less than one year? Will these additional funds come from the next MTA 2020-24 Five Year Capital Plan? The final cost could be even higher when completed by the end of 2022 or later. Who will pay for any potential construction contract change orders and other additional unforeseen expenses?
What are the components which make up the $2.6 billion budget? When will we see a real detailed project budget that would include the estimated costs for each project component? This would include but not be limited to design and engineering, overall construction, private property easements, commuter parking, platform and station improvements, signal and power work, sound barriers, construction for each of seven grade crossing eliminations, budget, staff and work, LIRR force account, LIRR budget and financial staff, substitute bus service during frequent track outages, funding reserve to pay for change orders due to unforeseen site conditions or changes in scope requested by various LIRR user groups, local villages, community groups or other issues during construction and contingency for unforeseen costs. When will the MTA/LIRR share this information with commuters, residents, taxpayers, transit advocates, elected officials and the media to build credibility for this project?
Governor Cuomo admitted that by reducing the amount of private property acquisition, virtually all construction will take place along the existing right-of-way, resulting in increased construction costs. This has now proven to be true as the project cost continues to grow. When you combine this with elimination of seven grade crossing, clearly overall project costs are only going to increase even more. This is an incredibly complex project to perform 100 percent of the work within two active tracks. There are 194 weekday and 152 weekend trains serving riders on the Huntington/Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay, Ronkonkoma and Babylon to Speonk branches. This does not include additional LIRR work trains, freight trains and movements of non-revenue passenger trains not in service.
Besides relocating two existing tracks on portions of the main line to make room for constructing a new third track, you have to deal with noise abatement and sound barriers, new platforms, stations and commuter parking, along with additional safety improvements at grade crossings including elevating or sinking tracks. Don’t forget the LIRR force account support to provide flagging protection. This is necessary to afford contractors safe access within an active right of way corridor. Imagine how many times per hour they will have to stop work when a train passes by? Don’t be surprised when you learn that a significant portion of construction work ends up taking place evenings, overnight and on weekends when there is less activity on the main line. Each grade crossing elimination may require numerous weekend track outages resulting in full suspension of service. There may be a need for 24/7 shuttle bus service between Jamaica and Mineola or Hicksville. Costs for substitute bus service could easily run into the millions over the projected construction duration.
Based on past experiences and history with other major projects such as LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, don’t count on the main line third track being completed by December 2022. It may take several months to a year or two before riders can board and find out the final cost.
—Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked in 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.