It looks like a million bucks! But it cost 11,000 times more.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled its sprawling new $11 billion Grand Central Madison terminal that finally links the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan’s east side on Wednesday — one of the world’s most expensive and delayed transit projects.
“It was quite a journey to get here,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul at the unveiling after riding the first train into the new hall.
The gleaming, white marble-lined commuter-subway hub beneath Grand Central is more than a decade late, and by some counts roughly $9 billion over budget. It also enters service in a world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, as many of the riders it was designed to serve are working from home several days a week.
“I’m literally talking about something that started under eight of my predecessor governors,” Hochul added. “People lived and died never seeing this come to fruition — until now, until this very moment.”
The initial service will run roughly every half-hour between the LIRR’s Jamaica hub in Queens and the new concourse, which is now officially known as Grand Central Madison.
Officials say the shuttle will run for at least three weeks before they roll out the new full schedule for service to Manhattan’s East Side.
“This project is about quality of life and giving something back to everyday New Yorkers,” said MTA chairman Janno Lieber. “We’re here, just a few weeks away from running full service, that is going to dramatically improve and change transportation in the region.”
He added: “This project brings Long Island closer to the heart of New York City.”
The station was initially supposed to open before the end of 2022, but the 14-year-late project was delayed again by a month thanks to a malfunctioning ventilation system required by a fire suppression system.
Way down in the hole
Grand Central Madison’s eight platforms sit 140 feet beneath the ground, excavated into a cave large enough to fit a crane.
It took a Post reporter more than seven minutes to make the journey from the new LIRR platforms all the way to the 4/5/6 trains — and that was at a brisk pace and climbing up the escalators instead of just riding them.
The platforms are so deep, riders can hear the incessant PA announcements — announcing the station’s opening, safety warnings about standing away from platform edges, subway transfers, the date and time — echoing through the deep wells that hold the 182-feet long escalators, which riders take up to the main level.
The ride takes an estimated 90 seconds, which Hochul jokingly suggested could be used for “meditation” when asked about it.
That concourse is so massive that it stretches further than the eye can see — stretching some six blocks, or roughly 1,600 feet, officials say.
It eventually connects to another set of stairs or elevators that take you to historic Grand Central’s dining hall on the lower level, on the opposite end of the main station and another set of escalators away from the Lexington Avenue subway station.
Rail winners — and losers
Those new schedules have turned into a point of contention. The MTA says some Long Island commuters heading to Manhattan will be able to knock as much as 40 minutes off their commutes.
“For our commuters, the people we represent and care the most about, we’re giving them something that’s precious — we’re giving them time back in their lives,” Hochul said. “Think about the people from Long Island and also in Queens — eastern Queens, vibrant communities — where you have to take a bus to a subway.”
And Hochul said that she was hopeful that a gleaming new terminal and shorter commutes would provide companies with an additional incentive to entice workers back to their desks in Midtown.
However, officials have acknowledged that some of those savings will be consumed by elongated transfer times because of the new station’s size.
Other LIRR riders commuting to Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan — the stated destination of almost a quarter of the rail road’s ridership in a MTA survey — may now be forced to make an additional transfer or double back from Midtown.
The LIRR’s proposed schedules would gut much of the current service to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal, which offers convenient subway connections to downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, and move the trains to Grand Central.
Officials propose to replace the service with a new shuttle between Atlantic and Jamaica, but it would mean another connection for many riders which has left them frustrated.
All in the name
The MTA said it chose the Grand Central Madison name to better link the new service geographically to the famed train hall above it — and, an apparent bid to use some Grand Central grandeur to buff away memories of just how terribly awry the project went.
Newspaper exposes and independent investigations have revealed the project was plagued by excessive design requirements, political meddling, mismanagement, battles with Amtrak and a cozy relationships between contractors and labor unions, both of whom are major players in Albany.
Pound-for-pound, it is the most expensive rail project in the world ever built.
A 2019 Post investigation found that East Side Access had consumed massive amounts of the MTA budget that could have funded now-underway overhauls of the subway system’s ancient signal system.
Officials repeatedly touted Wednesday how the project would boost capacity on the LIRR by an estimated 40 percent.
However, the MTA will struggle to take advantage of all the new and expensive infrastructure because of the extraordinary inefficiencies and wasteful labor agreements at the LIRR, a Post investigation published earlier this month determined.
A ‘Rocky’ Road
Governors and politicians from Long Island have dreamt of bringing the LIRR to the east side of Midtown for generations.
It was one of the signature proposals of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s ambitious transit dreams in the 1960s, which led in part to the creation of the MTA itself.
Construction started on the 63rd Street tunnel that links the new terminal to the Queens rail yards before the Big Apple’s mid-1970s financial collapse and it was eventually completed in the late 80s.
Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato picked up the baton and made East Side Access one of their biggest transit priorities in 1997 when its price tag was expected to be just $2.1 billion.
But the project turned into a white elephant amid rampant delays and soaring costs.
Just two years later, by 1999, the price tag had already doubled to $4.3 billion and the opening date was 2009. But construction didn’t start until 2006, shortly before Pataki left office.
By 2012, the price tag had soared again to more than $8 billion and the expected completion was now 2019 — a decade late.
In 2018, the MTA acknowledged the price tag would reach $11.2 billion and Lieber, who was then the newly-minted chief of the construction division, set a hard deadline of 2022 to get it done.
“The project was a hot mess,” he said. “But, you know what? We delivered.”