Happening Now

What Grand Central Madison Says About the State of U.S. Transit

January 26, 2023

Fifty years after it was started, East Side Access is open to passengers. What did it cost us?

The long-delayed Grand Central Madison finally opened yesterday, finally providing Long Island Railroad (LIRR) trains access to the east side of New York City, providing connections to the MTA’s subway service and Metro-North trains.

The plan to bring LIRR trains to the East Side dates to the late 1960s, but work was halted during the city’s 1975 financial crisis. Planning was restarted in the 1990s, and federal funding secured in 2006, with a targeted opening of 2011.

These 10-plus years of delay were costly. A 2004 plan estimated the cost at $4.4 billion, but the final price for Grand Central Madison is just over $11 billion. The dollar figures don't even account for the millions of hours of time with family and friends that were taken from New York commuters by this delayed grand opening.

“It’s a useful project. But for $11 billion, it would be better not to have built it,” said Alon Levy, a transportation fellow at New York University’s Marron Institute who has been an influential voice in helping policymakers understand why U.S. rail construction costs are significantly higher than U.S.

To be clear: Rail Passengers’ believes Grand Central Madison is worth it. It accomplishes an important transportation goal and will improve the lives of millions of people. What’s more, the same problems that plague transit construction in the U.S. tend to be found in highway and bridge projects. There’s no point in only halting transit projects while continuing to add highway lanes and freeway interchanges.

However, the tens of billions of dollars for passenger rail and transit funding contained in last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for passengers. There is both more rail funding than we've seen in half a century, and not enough to fund the many projects states are working to advance. So it’s worth looking at some of the things that Grand Central Madison got wrong to help us avoid repeating these mistakes and invest this money wisely.

Speed up the review process. The U.S. has the most rigorous environmental and community impact review process in the world. We also have some of the lengthiest delays and highest cost overruns. These problems are linked.

We need to find a better way to manage planning and oversight for projects funded by the BIL. Doing this will require empowering administrators to actually build the projects that are be better than the status quo, and focusing on the equity of outcomes rather than process.

Coordinate regional planning. As Benjamin Kabak pointed out over at 2nd Avenue Sagas, Grand Central Madison is primarily a commuter rail project, designed to bring people in and out of the city without providing much in the way of benefits for intra-NYC travelers. Frankly, it didn’t make sense to spend $11-plus billion on a commuter-centric project in 2006, and it certainly doesn’t in an age of remote work.

The commuter rail operating model—designed to bring commuters from suburbs to cities in the morning, then get them home in the evening—is unique to the U.S. and of limited utility. We should learn from the successes of international regional rail systems that cater to more than just peak-hour commutes, by providing frequent and reliable service from early morning til late at night. This would require running trains with short headways throughout the day and on weekends; denser station placement; through-running (rather than terminating at city center); establishing a regional network manager to coordinate schedules and operations across carriers; coordinating equipment purchases and signaling systems; and rationalizing fare structures.

Instead of a strong regional rail system, the New York Metropolitan area is served by three separate commuter railroads, each with their own fiefdoms and sacred cows, and many of Grand Central Madison’s failings can be attributed to this fact. What’s more, there are few leaders who are interested in changing that face, and it appears many of these failings will be repeated at Penn Station!

It’s not too late, though. There are better plans. And, if the optimal plan is truly a political nonstarter, we can at least build 'Plan B' quickly and cheaply!

But there will have to be a concerted effort to change the way our country manages and plans rail and transit projects. Otherwise, the $66 billion in guaranteed passenger rail funds included in the BIL is going to be far too little to meet the needs of America's passengers.