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New York, New York/Long Island Rail Road Access to Manhattan's East Side (East Side Access)

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Long Island Rail Road Access to Manhattan's East Side
(East Side Access)

New York, New York

(November 1998)


The proposed Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) East Side Access would provide increased capacity for the commuter rail lines of the Long Island Rail Road and direct access between suburban Long Island and Queens and a new passenger terminal in Grand Central Terminal in east Midtown Manhattan. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is the lead agency for this project.

At this time, the overall rating for this project is "not recommended," based primarily on the "low" rating for the Capital Financing Plan. The "low" financial rating is due in turn to the fact that a final capital plan has not yet been developed by the MTA (see below). In addition, FTA’s measures for the statutory project justification criteria may not fully reflect the benefits of a project such as this, which provides an improved level of service for existing transit users. MTA is continuing project development activities to better define the benefits and costs of the project and to complete the development of the capital plan.

The East Side Access (ESA) connection would be achieved by constructing a 4,600-foot tunnel from the LIRR Main Line in Sunnyside, Queens to the existing tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street. LIRR trains would use the lower level of this bi-level structure. A second 5,000-foot tunnel would carry LIRR trains from the 63rd Street Tunnel under Park Avenue and into a new LIRR terminal in the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. As part of this project, a passenger station would be constructed at Sunnyside Yard to provide access to the growing Long Island City business district; this station would not provide a direct connection to Grand Central Terminal.

Overall, more than 178,000 daily customers would benefit directly from the LIRR ESA project by the year 2020. There would be 172,000 daily trips to and from the new LIRR Grand Central Terminal; 6,000 daily trips to the proposed Sunnyside Yard Station; and 56,200 trips by Penn Station-bound LIRR passengers who will no longer have to travel in overcrowded train conditions during the morning and evening peak hours.

Total capital costs are projected to be approximately $4.3 billion (escalated dollars). This sum includes $2.7 billion for construction and right-of-way and $0.8 billion for rolling stock (1997 dollars). Construction is scheduled to begin in 2000 and to be completed in 2010.

LIRR East Side Access Summary Description

Proposed Project Commuter Rail Extension
4 miles, 2 stations
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $4,289.40 million
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) To Be Determined (TBD)
Annual Operating Cost ($1997) $98.50 million (East Side Access)
Ridership Forecast (2020) 178,000 average weekday boardings
26,000 daily new riders
FY 2000 Financial Rating: Low-Medium
FY 2000 Project Justification Rating: Medium
FY 2000 Overall Project Rating: Not Recommended

The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1998. Project evaluation is an ongoing process. As new starts projects proceed through development, the estimates of costs, benefits, and impacts are refined. The FTA ratings and recommendations will be updated annually to reflect new information, changing conditions, and refined financing plans.


A Major Investment Study (MIS) on the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access was completed in March 1998. In June 1998, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC), the Metropolitan Planning Organization, passed a resolution endorsing the recommended extension of the LIRR into Grand Central Station. In September 1998, FTA approved preliminary engineering and preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement EIS for the project. MTA has designated $42 million for the LIRR ESA preliminary engineering and Draft EIS.

TEA-21 Section 3030(a)(54) authorizes the Long Island Railroad East Side Access for final design and construction. Through FY 1999, Congress has appropriated $43.94 million in §5309 new starts funds for this project.


TEA-21 Section 3030(c)(3) exempts the East Side Access project from the New Starts criteria; however, MTA provided FTA considerable data on the project. MTA estimated the following criteria in conformance with FTA’s Technical Guidance on Section 5309 New Starts Criteria. The following information reflects a consolidation of materials MTA submitted for the FY 1999 and FY 2000 New Starts Reports. The land use assessment is based primarily on land use around Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and the new Sunnyside Station in Queens. MTA did not provide specific information about land use at existing station areas served by the Long Island Railroad. N/A indicates that information is not available for specified measures.


Mobility Improvements

Rating: Low-Medium

MTA provided the following information on annual travel time savings. See Other Factors below for additional discussion on mobility improvements.

Mobility Improvements New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours) 5.30 million hours 3.90 million hours

Based on 1990 census data, there are an estimated 3,700 low-income households within a ½ mile radius of Grand Central Terminal, approximately 15 percent of the total households within ½ mile of the Terminal. MTA estimates that there are 74,000 low-income households within a ½ mile radius of the existing LIRR stations.

Environmental Benefits

Rating: Medium

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designates the New York City area as "severe" nonattainment for ozone and "moderate" nonattainment for carbon monoxide. New York County is designated as "moderate" nonattainment for Particulate Matter-10. The Emissions Model for the NYMTC region is undergoing an update. The results below are based on the interim model which has been accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

MTA provided the following information on emissions reduction savings. There is a projected increase in volatile organic compounds for the New Start vs. the No-Build.

Criteria Pollutant New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Carbon Monoxide (CO) decrease of 633 annual tons decrease of 495 annual tons
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) decrease of 61 annual tons decrease of 81 annual tons
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) increase of 254 annual tons decrease of 110 annual tons
Particulate Matter (PM10) decrease of 4.30 annual tons decrease of 11 annual tons
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) decrease of 80,927 annual tons decrease of 92,663 annual tons

MTA estimates that the LIRR ESA would result in the following increases in regional energy consumption (measured in British Thermal Units—BTU). MTA notes that the increase stems from the fact that the LIRR ESA is primarily aimed at providing needed capacity for existing and future transit riders, not removing existing auto riders from the highways.

Annual Energy Savings New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
BTU (millions) increase of 1,320,000 million annual BTU increase of 1,470,000 million annual BTU

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Not Rated

MTA did not provide information on operating efficiencies.

Operating Efficiencies No-Build TSM New Start
System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile N/A N/A N/A

Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Low

MTA provided the following information on cost effectiveness. See Other Factors below for additional discussion of the cost effectiveness data.

Cost Effectiveness New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger $47.10 $44.80

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: High

The High land use rating reflects the exceptionally high density and mixed land use in Manhattan and the strong transit-orientation of the more outlying areas served by LIRR. Grand Central Terminal is in Midtown Manhattan, the nation’s largest central business district (CBD). There are over 220 million square feet of office space and over one million jobs within a one-mile radius of Grand Central Terminal. The Queens end of the project is developed at lower densities, but is still transit-oriented. Suburban Long Island’s older economic centers have developed around MTA LIRR stations. In 1993, the New York City Planning Commission prepared a report which outlined a vision for Long Island City to become an additional component of New York City’s CBD network.

Zoning regulations in Manhattan are generally supportive of transit, usually with no parking requirements. The Midtown area has high floor area ratio allowances and special purpose district overlays to encourage urban design features that promote transit use. Developers are working closely with MTA to promote accessibility between their properties and the proposed new LIRR passenger terminal in Grand Central Terminal. Zoning around the Queens end of the project allows medium density development with some parking requirements. The Long Island City CBD area has high density zoning to encourage commercial and residential development.

Other Factors

Cost Effectiveness/Mobility Improvements: MTA commented that FTA’s measures for cost effectiveness (incremental cost per incremental passenger) and mobility improvements (travel time savings) do not adequately reflect the purpose or capture the benefits of the East Side Access project. The East Side Access project is intended to improve service for a large base of current transit riders; traditional new starts attract new transit ridership by opening new corridors or extending existing systems. The East Side Access project would relieve transit overcrowding in a heavily transit-dependent corridor where alternative mobility options are virtually impossible. MTA suggested an alternative cost effectiveness measure for this project, incremental cost per benefiting passenger, reporting a cost of $5.20 per benefiting passenger compared to the no-build alternative and $4.50 compared to the TSM.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: N/A

MTA did not provide a breakdown of funding sources for the East Side Access. MTA will be submitting its new five-year Capital Program to the State review board by October 1, 1999. This plan will cover the years 2000 through 2004 and will detail capital financing for the East Side Access in the five-year-period.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Low

As explained above, FTA is unable to assess the stability and reliability of the LIRR ESA Capital Financing Plan until MTA develops such a plan as part of the agency’s Capital Program. This Program will be ready in Fall 1999, when it will be submitted to the State legislature for approval. MTA has demonstrated its ability to fund significant percentages of major capital projects over the last twenty years from non-Federal sources by providing 68 percent of its capital budgets from State, local and MTA sources. The Federal share of the area’s previous New Starts Investment, the 63rd Street Connector, was 55 percent. In MTA’s 1995-96 Capital program, the agency funded 72 percent of its $12 billion budget through a combination of State, local and MTA resources. MTA was able to self-generate 60 percent of the funding for the 1995-1999 Capital Program. MTA also used pay-as-you-go capital, developer contributions and asset sales and leases to help fund its share of the Capital Program. MTA has allocated $49.00 million in local funds to the East Side Access for planning and preliminary engineering funds to date, which overmatches the $44.00 million in Federal funds allocated for these purposes. The Low rating for this criteria reflects the absence of a capital plan for the project.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Financing Plan

Rating: Medium-High

The Medium-High operating plan rating reflects MTA’s strong overall financial operating condition, but acknowledges lack of information about MTA’s contingency plans. The 1997 MTA Annual Report shows that fares and operating revenues covered 52 percent of agency operations. Bridge and tunnel tolls covered an additional 15 percent. The agency has undertaken cost-cutting measures and, with the adoption of its 1998 operating budget, had achieved all but $66 million of its goal to reduce expenses by $3.3 billion. For year 2020, the increase in operating and maintenance costs for the East Side Access project, compared to the no-build alternative, is only 2 percent of the total projected MTA operating budget.

MTA’s potential sources of operating funds (passenger revenues and bridge and tunnel surpluses) are reliable. MTA also receives dedicated tax funding for operations from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance. This includes a ¼ percent sales and use tax, a legislatively allocated portion of the business privilege tax imposed on New York State petroleum businesses and a portion of the taxes levied on certain transportation and transportation and transmission companies. MTA did not submit a 20-year cash flow summary, nor identify how the agency would cover unanticipated cost overruns, ridership decreases or unavailability of proposed funding sources.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Starts N/A $43.94 million appropriated through FY 1999
State: N/A


Local: N/A


Total: $4,289.40

Note: Funding proposal reflects assumptions made by project sponsors, and are not DOT or FTA assumptions. Totals may not add due to rounding. Dollars escalated by FTA.

[Long Island East Side Access Map (PDF)]

Commitment to Accessibility: DOT is committed to ensuring that information is available in appropriate alternative formats to meet the requirements of persons who have a disability. If you require an alternative version of files provided on this page, please contact