The problem-plagued East Side Access megaproject to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal will be even further delayed without better cooperation from Amtrak, which has been busy with construction work of its own, MTA officials said.
Critical construction work planned at the busy Harold Interlocking in Queens has fallen months behind schedule because Amtrak, which shares use of the rail junction, has not provided the necessary workers or track time, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said at a recent meeting of their capital program oversight committee.
Harold is a key site for the already much delayed East Side Access construction work because the new tunnels to Manhattan begin near there.
Since June, progress at Harold has fallen three months behind schedule. And, if not addressed, the Amtrak problems "have the potential to delay" East Side Access' projected December 2022 completion date, according to the MTA.
"Certainly, the one dogged problem we've had over the last 18 months is the Amtrak resources issue," MTA chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said during a discussion of delays on the $10.2 billion East Side Access project. "It's time for another meeting on the mound. We're just getting further and further delayed."
Amtrak has big project, too
Some of the problems have arisen from what Prendergast called "competing priorities" between the two railroads. Amtrak's own major construction project at the Harold site -- the ongoing rehabilitation of the East River tunnels into and out of Penn Station -- has sapped the resources also needed for the East Side Access project.
"Amtrak continues to work closely with the MTA to advance the complicated work at Harold Interlocking -- one of the busiest and most heavily used railroad locations in the world," Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said in a statement.
"Every day, our engineering forces balance the maintenance needs of aging infrastructure against near-constant operation of commuter and intercity trains and demand for support of outside projects including East Side Access," Schulz added. "We look forward to continued cooperation with all our valued partners as we work to satisfy all these important needs."
As one example of the delays, East Side Access project executive Bill Goodrich said that on 14 out of 19 weekends since April, one MTA-hired contractor has been unable to do any scheduled work on building a new "bypass" tunnel at Harold Interlocking. That work is now 11 months behind schedule.
Aims to speed commuting
The Amtrak-related delays are the latest setback for the so-called "megaproject," which the MTA once expected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion, according to the office of the New York State comptroller.
The effort -- often called the biggest public works project underway in the United States -- aims to connect the Long Island Rail Road to a new, 350,000-square-foot customer concourse at Grand Central Terminal, saving 160,000 riders up to 40 minutes a day in commuting time and raising the property values of some 400,000 Long Island homes.
But progress at the Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside, Queens, relies heavily on cooperation from Amtrak, both in the form of available workers from its electric traction department and track outages.
Goodrich said of nearly 500 scheduled activities along the project's "critical path" between June and August, fully a quarter had to be canceled or delayed. In more than half of those cases, lack of "Amtrak resources" was the cause.
"We've seen no improvement," Goodrich said of Amtrak's recent level of cooperation. "Scheduled critical work is not getting completed."
The latest dust-up between the MTA and the Amtrak follows years of infighting over each agencies' responsibilities. The LIRR has said delays caused by Amtrak, which owns and maintains the East River Tunnels, were up 35 percent in 2014.
Meanwhile, Amtrak has been busy with its own construction efforts, including repairing the East River Tunnels severely damaged by superstorm Sandy, and the Moynihan Station plan to convert the James Farley Post Office building next to Penn Station into a new Amtrak hub.
Those projects could cause some inconvenience for LIRR riders, including restricted access to parts of Penn and a reduced train schedule while the tunnels are being fixed.
Push for Hudson rail tunnel
Amtrak has also been lobbying for a new Hudson River rail tunnel -- an effort that would benefit from the MTA's support.
"I'm more than happy to help them in New Jersey once they start helping us in Queens," said MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook -- a frequent Amtrak critic who said the agency "doesn't care" about the impacts caused to the MTA by more East Side Access delays.
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg in a statement downplayed any perceived hostility between the two agencies, and said they both "want to advance these projects, and . . . are committed to working together to deliver them as quickly as possible."
"We understand Amtrak is in a complicated situation trying to support a major construction project at Harold amid its other critical needs," Lisberg said. "At the same time, East Side Access is a vital project for the MTA, and Amtrak understands that delays in providing support services can hurt the project's progress."
The Amtrak issues aren't the only ones threatening to push back East Side Access' completion date. If the state does not soon approve the authority's proposed five-year, $27 billion capital program, MTA officials have said they will have to delay awarding key construction contracts.
Prendergast said a delay of even a month in awarding those contracts could push back the overall project by as much as six months.