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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 2000)


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

The 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 GCT. ESA will provide the LIRR with additional tunnel capacity across the East River. Increased capacity and headways would be introduced at most LIRR stations. For example, additional 24 peak hour trains would operate through the existing 63rd Street Tunnel to GCT. Ten new tracks and five platforms would 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 estimated at approximately $4.34 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.

LIRR East Side Access Summary Description

Proposed Project Commuter Rail Extension
4 miles, 2 stations
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $4,344.00 million
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) $2,172.00 million
Annual Operating Cost ($YOE) $147.40 million
Ridership Forecast (2020) 351,000 average weekday boardings
FY 2002 Financial Rating: Medium
FY 2002 Project Justification Rating: Medium
FY 2002 Overall Project Rating: Recommended

The Recommended rating is based primarily on the strong 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 the non-New Starts share 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 2000. 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. A DEIS for the LIRR ESA was completed in May 2000. MTA completed the Final EIS in March 2001. A Record of Decision is anticipated in mid 2001.

TEA-21 Section 3030(a)(54) authorizes the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access for final design and construction. Through FY 2001, Congress has appropriated $53.63 million in Section 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. N/A indicates that information is not available for specified measures. FTA has evaluated this project as being in preliminary engineering. The project will be re-evaluated when it is ready to advance to 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 occur on the 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. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours) 7.40 million hours 5.70 million hours

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 GCT.

Environmental Benefits

Rating: High

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designates the New York City area as “severe” non-attainment for ozone and “moderate” non-attainment for carbon monoxide. New York County is designated as a “moderate” non-attainment area 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. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Carbon Monoxide (CO) decrease of 576 annual tons decrease of 433 annual tons
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) decrease of 119 annual tons decrease of 161 annual tons
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) increase of 164 annual tons decrease of 120 annual tons
Particulate Matter (PM10) decrease of 68 annual tons decrease of 49 annual tons
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) increase of 80,261 annual tons increase of 97,356 annual tons

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

Annual Energy Savings New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
BTU (millions) increase of 1,305,826 million annual BTU increase of 1,531,344 million annual BTU

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Low-Medium

NY MTA provided the following information on operating efficiencies:

Operating Efficiencies No-Build TSM New Start
System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile $0.23 $0.23 $0.25

Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Low

NY MTA provided the following information on cost effectiveness:

Cost Effectiveness New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger $31.50 $39.50

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 Central Business District (CBD) is approximately 261.1 employees per acre. The proposed station at the Sunnyside railroad yard 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. While existing land use at the site of the proposed Sunnyside Station cannot be characterized as pedestrian-friendly, the Queens Plaza transportation hub, located directly north of the railroad yard, serves three subway lines and generates substantial pedestrian activity. City policies support the continued vitality of the GCT area as an economic center and residential neighborhood. 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. Development throughout the Special Midtown District is required to include design features supporting pedestrian activity and circulation, as well as subway improvements.

While limited 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 the station area. 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. In the year 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 in a large area located next to the station to create the new Long Island City CBD. A zoning subdistrict would be created within this area to help to reinforce the historic mixed residential and industrial character and allow mixed-use and CBD-type commercial development. Additional changes in development anticipated 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 proposes $2,172 million (50 percent) in Section 5309 New Starts funds and $2,172 million (50 percent) in State and local funds.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Medium

The Medium rating reflects the soundness of the MTA’s financial condition and the adequacy of the agency’s dedicated revenue sources (debt financing, bonding capacity, etc). The rating also acknowledges that, at this time, approximately $750 million (35 percent) of the total proposed non-Section 5309 New Starts share of capital costs associated with the LIRR ESA are reasonably committed.

Agency Capital Financing Condition: NY MTA is in sound financial condition. The average age of the MTA’s bus fleet is 5.37 years. In addition, the agency’s current bond ratings (transit and commuter revenue bonds, dedicated tax fund bonds, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority bonds) collectively average in the medium grade range and serve as an indicator for the MTA’s financial condition. The New York legislature approved the MTA’s FY2000-FY2004 capital program, 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 program. Historically, these projections are consistent with the agency’s reliance on Federal funds.

Capital Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Based upon FTA’s review, current capital cost estimates for the LIRR ESA appear reasonable at this stage of development. FTA is currently reviewing the cost estimation methodology to ensure its reliability. This review is scheduled for completion during the second quarter of FY 2001. 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.

Existing and Committed Funding: At this time, 35 percent ($750 million) of the total non-Section 5309 New Starts share has been committed to the project in MTA’s FY00-FY04 capital program. The remaining $1,422 million will need to be committed – in future MTA capital programs – to cover the entire construction phase of the LIRR ESA project. It should also be noted that, given New York residents rejection of a $3.8 billion bond referendum in November 2000, which would have provided additional capital funds for the LIRR ESA, the MTA will need to re-evaluate the funding strategy for the project to ensure the availability of the remaining 65 percent of the total non-Section 5309 New Starts share for the project.

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

Stability and Reliability of Operating Financing Plan

Rating: Medium

The Medium rating acknowledges NY MTA’s healthy operating condition. Revenues to operate the proposed LIRR ESA project are considered adequate. The rating also reflects the lack of a detailed systemwide operating plan, including forecasts for proposed operating revenue sources or a project-specific plan to cover operating subsidy requirements.

Agency Operating Condition: The operating condition of the MTA is considered sound. MTA’s audited financial statements indicate that the agency is operating within a sound financial framework. Within the last decade, the agency has achieved a farebox recovery rate between 44 percent and 54 percent, indicating stability in the agency’s operating revenues and expenses. MTA’s 20-year cash flow projections anticipate that the agency will break even for each year of operations after covering the agency’s capital, operating and debt service requirements.

Operating Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Annual operating and maintenance costs for the LIRR ESA are estimated at $147.4 million (escalated dollars). This estimate is projected to increase approximately three percent (annually) according to the agency’s 20-year cash flow analysis. FTA’s review of the MTA’s financial framework revealed that the agency identifies its revenue requirements for operations and capital, then based on these projections, draws from its reserves or obtains additional financing as warranted. While MTA identifies its revenue sources, the agency does not match these sources to specific needs, such as the operations associated with the proposed LIRR ESA.

Existing and Committed Funding: All proposed operating funds exist. Annual operating and maintenance costs are estimated at $147.4 million (escalated dollars). Since the MTA did not provide a detailed systemwide operating plan outlining forecasted revenue sources and specifically matching them (as warranted) to the LIRR ESA, FTA cannot adequately gauge the degree of commitment of these sources to the project at this time.

New and Proposed Sources: No new sources of operating revenue are proposed.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Starts $2,172.00 $53.63 million appropriated through FY 2001
State and Local: $2,172.00


Total: $4,344.00

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

East Side Access Map of 4,600-foot tunnel from the LIRR Main Line in Sunnyside, Queens to the existing tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street.

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