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 1999)

(click here for map)


The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is the lead agency for the proposed Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) East Side Access project. The project 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, in addition to the current connection to Penn Station in Manhattan.

The East Side Access (ESA) connection and increased LIRR capacity 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 (GCT). ESA will provide the LIRR will additional tunnel capacity across the East River. Increased capacity and headways would be introduced at most LIRR stations. For example, an additional 24 peak hour trains would operate through the existing 63rd Street Tunnel to GCT. Ten new tracks and five platforms will be constructed for LIRR trains at GCT. In addition, a new LIRR station would be constructed at Sunnyside Yard to provide access between Long Island City and Penn Station in Manhattan. The East River tunnels in Manhattan are at capacity. ESA is anticipated to improve LIRR tunnel capacity constraints and enable the growth of the overall system.

Total capital costs are approximately $4.35 billion (escalated dollars), including $3.56 billion for project management, design, construction and right-of-way, and $0.79 billion for rolling stock (over 225 new vehicles). Overall, more than 351,000 average weekday boardings to both Penn Station and GCT would benefit directly from the LIRR ESA project by the year 2020. These include approximately 162,000 daily boardings serving GCT, 161,000 daily boardings serving Penn Station and 5,500 daily boardings at the proposed Sunnyside Station.

Summary Description

Proposed Project:

Commuter Rail Extension

4 miles, 2 stations

Total Capital Cost ($YOE):

Section 5309 New Starts Share ($YOE):

$4,350 million

$2,175 million

Annual Operating Cost ($YOE):

$157.8 million

Ridership Forecast (2020):

351,000 avg. weekday boardings

FY 2001 Finance Rating:

FY 2001 Project Justification Rating:

FY 2001 Overall Project Rating:




The Recommended rating is based primarily on the strongly transit supportive environment along the corridor and throughout the metropolitan area, the healthy operating condition of the MTA, and the adequacy of the commitment of capital funds to the project at this stage of development. The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1999. 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 April 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. The DEIS is scheduled for completion in February 2000. MTA anticipates completing the Final EIS in June 2000, followed by a Record of Decision in August 2000.

TEA-21 Section 3030(a)(54) authorizes the Long Island Railroad East Side Access for final design and construction. Through FY 2000, Congress has appropriated $45.71 million in Section 5309 New Start 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. N/A indicates that information is not available for specified measures.

The project is rated as being in preliminary engineering. The project will be re-evaluated when it is ready to advance into final design and for next year’s Annual Report on New Starts.


The Medium project justification rating reflects the primary benefits of this project to relieve overcrowding and improve travel times and reliability of existing rail service. The project also demonstrates strong transit supportive land use.

Mobility Improvements

Rating: Medium

NY MTA estimates that 351,000 average weekday boardings will use the proposed LIRR ESA project in the year 2020. MTA provided the following information on annual travel time savings. See the Cost Effectiveness measure for additional discussion on mobility improvements.

Mobility Improvements

New Start vs.


New Start vs. TSM

Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours)

7.4 million

5.7 million

Based on 1990 census data, there are an estimated 3,681 low-income households within a ½ mile radius of Grand Central Terminal. This represents approximately 15 percent of the total households within ½ mile radius of the Terminal.

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. NY MTA provided the following information on changes in emissions.


Criteria Pollutant

New Start vs.


New Start vs. TSM

Carbon Monoxide (CO)



Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)



Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)



Particulate Matter (PM10)



Carbon Dioxide (CO2)



Values reflect annual tons of emissions reductions. Brackets [ ] indicate an increase in emissions.

NY MTA estimates the following increases in regional energy consumption (measured in British Thermal Units – BTUs):


Annual Energy Savings

New Start vs.


New Start vs. TSM

BTU (millions)



Values reflect annual BTU increases, as indicated by brackets [ ].

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Not Rated

NY MTA did not provide information on operating efficiencies.




New Start

System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile





Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Low

NY MTA provided the following information on cost effectiveness:



New Start vs.


New Start vs.


Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger



Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Note: FTA and the NY MTA are working on revised cost effectiveness indices that will be reflected in subsequent reports.

The higher cost per new transit trip, relative to other projects nationally, is a consequence of New York City’s high transit mode share. Any improvement to transit service in extraordinary high transit markets will result in high costs for incremental riders. The primary benefits of the LIRR ESA project are to relieve crowding of existing LIRR trains, provide more reliable service, improve travel times and provide additional transportation capacity for the Long Island/Queens transportation corridor to Manhattan.

Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: High

The High land use rating reflects the exceptionally strong transit-supportive development and high population densities that characterize the largest central business district of the nation, Midtown Manhattan. The rating also acknowledges the active and comprehensive planning effort being undertaken at the proposed Sunnyside station, located in Long Island City, Queens.

Existing Conditions: The Grand Central Terminal (GCT) is located in a uniquely high-intensity setting where transit and walking are the dominant modes of transportation. Nearly 500,000 employees work within a ½ mile of the proposed station at GCT, while over 68,000 people reside within the area. Employment density in the Manhattan CBD is approximately 261.1 employees per acre. The proposed station at Sunnyside in Long Island City would be located in an area that functions as an industrial center, surrounded by a variety of commercial,

institutional, and residential land uses. Approximately 39,000 employees currently work in the area, which has a residential population of 11,470. Zoning in the vicinity of the GCT is governed by the Special Midtown District, which was designed to strengthen Midtown’s function as a business core and to provide incentives for further growth in specified areas. The GCT Subdistrict provides for the transfer of unused development floor area from the terminal to a specified surrounding area. Zoning near the GCT allows for high-density development (up to 18.0 FAR) and usually does not require any parking. The Long Island City CBD area is also zoned for high density (15.0 FAR), to encourage high-intensity commercial and residential development.

While some off-street parking is available near GCT, high parking costs, resulting from both market forces and city policies, serve as a strong deterrent to parking in local station areas. New York City policies discourage parking in CBDs. The City levies a tax of over 18 percent on users of lots in Manhattan and existing zoning does not encourage the expansion of parking supplies. In addition, parking policies governing the Manhattan CBD could potentially be extended to the area surrounding the proposed station in Long Island City (Sunnyside) as anticipated growth of commercial and office development proceeds in the area.

Future Plans and Policies: Future land use in the Manhattan CBD will continue to be shaped by dense office development. By 2020, population in the GCT area is projected to increase approximately 4.4 percent, while employment is forecast to grow by 21.3 percent. New York City policies anticipate and emphasize the concentration of office-related uses in the city’s three existing CBDs (Midtown Manhattan, Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn) and a planned fourth CBD to be developed in Long Island City.

Accordingly, a trend toward more and upgraded office use is underway in Long Island City near the planned Sunnyside station. Zoning changes are pending that will allow four to five large office towers to be constructed in the area. Additional changes in development anticpated in the short term includes some residential infill, an expected upgrading of retail and office development, the introduction of new, larger institutional uses, and the possible opening of a department store, which would transform the visual character of the area. New York City grants zoning density bonuses for developer improvements of local transit, such as integrating station entrances into the proposed development.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 50%

The financial strategy for the proposed LIRR ESA project includes $2,175 million (50 percent) in Section 5309 New Starts funds and $2,175 million (50 percent) in State and local funds.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Medium

The Medium rating reflects the sound financial condition of MTA and the agency’s positive dedicated revenue sources. The rating also acknowledges that, at this time, approximately 39 percent ($845 million) of the total proposed non-Section 5309 New Starts share of project costs is reasonably committed.

Agency Capital Financing Condition: NY MTA is in strong financial condition. The MTA Board recently approved the agency’s FY2000-FY2004 capital plan, which includes a proposed $17.46 billion in Federal, State and local funds for the overall agency. Federal sources are projected to account for approximately 30 percent of the agency’s FY00-FY04 capital plan. Historically, these projections are consistent with the agency’s reliance on Federal funding sources in prior years. It is important to note, however, that the FY00-FY04 capital plan has not yet been approved by the NY legislature.

Capital Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Capital cost estimates increased approximately one percent ($61 million) over the last year as a result of cost escalation due to refined engineering studies. Contingencies on unit costs were added to reflect the early stage of design. Engineering and management costs were based on the actual value of contracts related to program management, environmental, tunnel engineering and systems engineering work. Real estate costs were based on current estimates of acquisitions, temporary and permanent easements, building surveys and other activities. These costs are considered reasonable given the scope and size of the project.

Existing and Committed Funding: At this time, 39 percent ($845 million) of the total non-Section 5309 New Starts share has been reasonably committed to the project, including $750 million via NY MTA’s proposed FY00-FY04 capital plan. It is important to note that this plan has been approved by the MTA Board but not yet approved by the NY legislature. MTA will need to continue to allocate sufficient funds – in future capital plans – to cover the entire construction phase of the LIRR ESA project

New and Proposed Sources: No new sources are proposed for the LIRR ESA project.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Financing Plan

Rating: Medium-High

The Medium-High rating reflects NY MTA’s (the largest transit authority in the country) healthy operating condition. Revenues to operate the proposed LIRR ESA project are considered strong.

Agency Operating Condition: The operating condition of the NY MTA is considered strong. The 1998 MTA Annual Report indicated that fares and operating revenues covered approximately 50 percent of the agency’s operations. Bridge and tunnel tolls covered an additional 15 percent. The remaining 35 percent were covered through normal Federal, State and local allocations.

Operating Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Annual operating costs for the proposed project are estimated at $157.8 million (escalated dollars). This estimate is considered reasonable. Theestimated cost to operate the entire MTA transit, bridge and tunnel system in the year 2012 is $14.37 billion (escalated dollars). Thus, the proposed LIRR ESA project represents only one percent of the agency’s overall operations. The FY00-FY04 system-wide capital plan identifies a $4.4 billion capital (expressed as debt service) and operating funding gap that is anticipated to be addressed via non-service related cost reductions, financing initiatives, and new government assistance and other resources. Based on past performance and planned resources, it is anticipated that funds will be secured to fill the projected gap.

Existing and Committed Funding: All of the proposed operating funds are existing and are considered stable and committed. The 20-year cash flow analysis provided by MTA forecasts that sufficient funds are available to build and operate the proposed ESA project. The MTA currently has a farebox recovery ratio of 60 percent before debt service and 50 percent after debt service. In addition, the agency has supported an average of 55 percent of its operations for the years 1983-1996 through passenger revenues and bridge and tunnel surpluses – the latter being a State mandate. The MTA also receives dedicated tax funding for operations from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance Account which includes a ¼ percent sales and use tax, a legislatively allocated portion of the business privilege tax imposed on NY petroleum businesses and a portion of the taxes levied on certain transportation and transmission companies.

New and Proposed Sources: All proposed operating revenue sources are existing.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)


Proposed Source of Funds

Total Funding ($million)


Appropriations to Date

  §5309 New Starts


($45.71 million appropriated through FY 2000)
State and Local:





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

LIRR East Side Access (map)