Management & Operations

New York Mega-Rail Projects Update

Posted on April 28, 2008

The Big Apple’s rapid transit system not only thrives, but is again growing well into the future after decades of network investment and thanks to two major federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).

One might think that the world’s largest and nation’s oldest, most heavily used rapid transit network has been “built out.” Indeed, stations have been abandoned over the city’s history. Yet the system is undergoing its biggest expansion since the 1950s.

We will take a look at the two mega-projects of New York, the largest to receive federal funds in the history of federal transit assistance. We will also look at another huge project serving the region that is moving along as well. First, we will begin with the largest of these, an upgrade of the nation’s oldest and largest commuter rail system.

LIRR East Side Access

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), the nation’s largest (106,000 weekday passengers) and oldest (since 1834) commuter rail operator, is constructing a new 3.5-mile extension to relieve severe overcrowding and cut commute times from the Long Island suburbs into midtown Manhattan. The current highway and transit system and East River bridges and tunnels are at capacity. The LIRR is part of the strained system, with a peak service of 37 trains per hour and projected to be over 27 percent over capacity. Nearly one half of its existing daily riders also need to get to work or home on Manhattan’s East Side, spending an average extra 20 minutes on subways or buses. In addition, by rerouting LIRR service to Grand Central, the double-backing would be reduced and enable expansion for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit (NJT) service that share Penn Station.

The project will create a direct route from LIRR’s Main and Port Washington Branch lines in Long Island and Queens, to Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan’s east side. The project comprises new twin tunnels under the East River, beginning from beneath the agency’s Sunnyside Yard on the Long Island side of the East River, connecting to the currently unused lower level of the existing 63rd Street tunnel to Manhattan. The new line will then continue west under 63rd Street toward Park Avenue under the Lexington Avenue subway, turning south beneath the existing MTA-Metro North Railroad tracks under Park Avenue to a new LIRR passenger concourse in the lower level of Grand Central. That part of the project also includes new tracks, plus passenger platforms, entrances, waiting areas, ticket windows and space for other amenities.

The East Side Access is projected to cost a little under $7.4 billion. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued a full funding grant agreement for the project in 2006. It promised to pay a New Starts Program funding share of just over $2.6 billion, or 35 percent of the total cost, a relatively low share under the New Starts Program.

The MTA had already begun initial construction in late 2001. Because the project had received environmental clearance and produced sound financial and operating plans, the FTA granted a letter of no prejudice to New York to spend up to $1 billion, while maintaining eligibility for a larger commitment. The FTA approved the project into final design in February 2002.

The FTA issued a supplemental environmental Finding of No Significant Impact in July 2006, due to the redesign of a tunnel ventilation facility. Major tunneling construction is underway. Revenue service is expected to begin in December 2013.

Second Avenue Subway Phase I

Meanwhile, the LIRR’s sister agency in the MTA, New York City Transit (NYCT), has begun construction of the first phase of its Second Avenue Subway Project, a new 2.3 mile twin-tunnel subway line on Manhattan’s East Side. It will run under Second Avenue from 96th Street to 63rd Street, where it will connect with the existing Broadway line. The project also includes three new stations, and the expansion and modernization of the existing 63rd Street Station, as well as installation of related systems and the procurement of 68 new railcars. Under FTA rules, the first phase has been designated the first minimum operable segment (MOS) of a planned 8.5-mile line that will eventually extend to 125th Street in East Harlem in the north of Manhattan’s east side to Hanover Square to the south in Lower Manhattan’s financial district.

When open in mid-2014, the project is expected to relieve already severe overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line (LAL), the busiest public transportation line in North America. It represents the only real north-south rapid transit option for passengers commuting to and from Manhattan’s east side.

The total project cost is just under $4.9 billion. The New Starts Program share is $1.3 billion, or 27 percent of the total, even lower than the East Side Access Project.

The full 8.5-mile Second Avenue Subway line was selected as the locally preferred alternative in May 2001. The FTA approved it into preliminary engineering in December 2001.

However, as it proceeded through preliminary engineering, the NYCT recognized the financial challenges of undertaking the entire 8.5-mile line as a single project. The MTA and NYCT began considering breaking the line up into minimum operable segments. The final environmental documents covered the whole line, but they included an implementation strategy involving four phases/operable segments. The FTA included the first phase in the “other projects” category of its proposed FY 2007 budget and annual New Starts Program report to Congress. The FTA issued a Full Funding Grant Agreement in November 2007.

Access to the Region’s Core

New York’s transit agencies are not the only ones busy with better mobility connections in and out of Manhattan. New Jersey Transit (NJT) is proposing to construct a new 8.3-mile commuter rail line adjacent to the existing Northeast (Rail) Corridor (NEC) between Secaucus, N.J. and Manhattan. The Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel, also known as Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), includes the construction of two new tunnels under the Hudson River for new tracks between Secaucus Junction and New York Penn Station. The project would also include a new six-track station underneath 34th Street in midtown Manhattan with pedestrian linkages to Penn Station. A storage yard in Kearny, N.J., and purchase of dual-powered locomotives (electric and diesel) and bi-level commuter railcars are also included in the project.

The Northeast Corridor is currently the only Hudson River commuter rail crossing into midtown Manhattan. Already near capacity, it experiences a significant number of delays not only for NJT but also for Amtrak, as both share this facility. As passenger demand has increased in recent years and is expected to increase even more in the future, the congestion and service bottleneck are only expected to worsen.

In addition, many NJT passengers are forced to transfer at either Secaucus Junction or in Hoboken to reach New York City. The ARC would be providing more direct, one-seat service to midtown Manhattan, while doubling capacity between New Jersey and New York City. The project would serve more than 254,000 daily commutes in 2030, including 24,800 new weekday riders. While there has been a highly compelling case demonstrated for this project, the FTA is concerned about uncertainties in the cost estimates for another project of this magnitude ($7.3 billion, more than the East Side Access Project of the LIRR) and of such complexity.

However, NJT is proposing that the federal New Starts Program share would be 41 percent, or $3 billion, significantly more than either New York mega-project already granted FFGAs.

When the project opens for revenue service, which is expected in 2017, some 203,000 passengers are expected to use the new system each weekday.

The FTA approved the project into preliminary engineering in August 2006. A draft environmental impact statement was finished in February 2007. However, changes to the project alignment that address comments received during this initial stage of environmental assessment and preliminary engineering necessitated a supplemental document. For example, the alignment will now take advantage of Penn Station’s expansion on 34th Street, with direct passenger connections to the NYCT subway and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Trans-Hudson lines in Penn Station. Although this increased the total estimated cost of the project, NJT reduced its New Starts funding request to $3 billion; previously it was $3.6 billion. NJT also updated the travel forecasts and estimates of user benefits for the project to reflect new population and employment forecasts for the New Jersey portion of the region, special events and automobile operating costs to reflect current gasoline prices. The final environmental impact statement is expected to be finished sometime this spring.

Although the ARC project is complex, and has some uncertainties at this stage of project development, scope and cost are considered reasonable by the FTA. NJT has an optimistic and aggressive schedule for project implementation, but the schedule depends upon timely completion of other significant infrastructure improvements on the Northeast Corridor, including the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, as well as the introduction of dual-mode vehicle technology, which is untested in this country. Completion of agreements with Amtrak and local utilities are also potential sources of schedule slippage. Should these delays occur, they could increase the project’s overall cost as well.

Currently, the project has an overall FTA rating of Medium-High, based on the FTA’s Medium rating for cost effectiveness, project justification rating of Medium-High and its High rating for transit-supportive land use.

Back to the future?

Even before the ARC project is given an FFGA, the Big Apple’s mega-projects are partially responsible for the largest FTA commitment ever to a single city. Many in the region would say it is only right that the place that accounts for one third of all transit riders in the nation receive such investment. With the ARC and subsequent phases of the Second Avenue Subway, combined with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announced plans for congestion pricing to encourage further transportation use and plow revenues from these fees back into further rail and bus investments, the region could even further lead the nation “back to the future” of less motor vehicle use, greater transit ridership, and all the attendant environmental and economic benefits that would ensue from it.

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