The Long Island Railroad’s Version of the Big Dig

by John Delach

The Long Island Railroad’s (LIRR) “Big Dig” finally commenced operations this past January with a soft opening. The initial service was limited to shuttles running between Jamacia and the new station to discover hidden bugs and gremlins lurking in the new physical plant before subjecting it to the chaos of twice-a-day rush hours. Next, a modified schedule followed until it was finally time for  full-service to be introduced in March.

This seemingly endless project to bring LIRR service to the East Side of Manhattan was first proposed in 1963, but didn’t get legs until the creation of the new super commuter operating agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1967. This super authority  subsumed most existing transportation agencies including the NYC Transit Authority, the LIRR,  Metro North and those operations of the New Haven Railroad into Grand Central with the cooperation with the State of Connecticut. Other agencies were also included particularly the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority that built and operated all of the tunnels and toll bridges that cross the East River.

In 1968, New Yorkers approved a $2.5 billion MTA bond issue to fund its Program for Action that provided few details how the MTA would spend this money or the additional money they would also need.  Their top-priority project was a new four-track tunnel to cross from Queens to Manhattan along 63rd Street to carry a new subway line and give the LIRR access to the East side of Manhattan.

The planners decided to use a big chunk of the available funds to build the tubes under the East River. Rather than use traditional machines to dig out a path beneath the river, they contracted with Bethlehem Shipbuilding of Baltimore to construct four tubes in a dry dock like they were submarines. When each tube was completed, both ends were sealed, so that they could be floated out and towed to New York. The first tunnel segments were delivered in May of 1971, and by March of 1972, all four had been lowered into place. By that October, the two completed tubes and the middle land section on Roosevelt Island that included a subway station had been linked together.

Unfortunately, by the mid-1970’s New York City was essentially broke and when President Ford refused to bail-out the city: “Ford to NYC: ‘Drop Dead,” its ability to borrow money collapsed  All capitol construction came to a halt. NYC suffered through massive lay-offs. And massive default was staved off by a last-minute injection of cash from the Teachers Retirement Fund. Other forces finally convinced the Feds to intervene.

Still a period of hard times would freeze projects for the foreseeable future. Despite Mayor Abraham Beam’s public announcement that all work had ceased, Richard Ravitch, the MTA Chairman said the work on fitting out the tubes had to continue or they would deteriorate to the point of being unusable. Fortunately, he preserved the core of the project.

Finally, in 1989, construction on connecting the subway line resumed with a new target date for its completion to a dead-end station in Long Island City set for October. (This new subway “to nowhere” would remain unfinished until 2011 when new tunnels connected it to the main subway lines under Queens Boulevard.)

By 1999, conditions at Penn Station had grown chaotic thanks in part to the initiation by NJ Transit of their Mid-town Direct connection that allowed trains from their northern routes direct access into Penn Station rather than terminating in Hoboken.

In 2002, Congress passed a bill that allocated $132 million for infrastructure projects in New York State that included enough seed money to resurrect the East Side Access project.

Construction began when two tunnel boring machines began the one mile journey from the East River ends of the tubes west to Park Avenue and then south digging out two new tunnels to two new terminal caverns each 100 feet beneath the original Grand Central Terminal. Each cavern would accommodate two platforms servicing four tracks stacked on top of each other and separated by mezzanines. Theses mezzanines 0would house elevators and four stacks of escalators to take passengers 70 feet to a new LIRR Passageway 30 feet under the existing station. Those banks of escalators provided new exits at 45th , 47th and 48th Street. Additional exits connected to GCT, the subway at 42nd Street and the brand new skyscraper, One Vanderbilt Avenue.

Finally, East Side Access became a reality. All it took was 60 years and $12 billion to build this dream. Frankly, the only reason it was actually finished was it became too big and too expensive  to fail.

But be careful about your dreams. It seems we became so used to not having a choice where to get on and off the train in Manhattan. We now have to choose where to go and when. Schedules had to be split between Penn and GCT. The same train no longer went to the same place. Commuters are confused and annoyed.

The railroad also had to decide on how to divide service between these two terminals with their analysis fogged by the new work-from-home movement developed during the COVID 19 quarantine. Good grief, does this mean we didn’t need this new terminal after all?

And don’t even let me get started about what the LIRR did to their service to Brooklyn, the LIRR’s bastard son.

At least the railroad is reacting to the debacle they created and is working on changes to routes, stations, length of trains and timing. But this remains a moving target and they have a long way to go before Grand Central Madison can be declared a success.

On “The Outside Looking In” will not publish on March 22 and will return on March 29th