BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT: NYC's new $12 billion commuter rail terminal is a fiasco, the product of crummy planning and a political system unwilling to oversee the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
New York City's shiny new commuter rail terminal, Grand Central Madison, is now open for business. Grand Central Madison is the culmination of a three-decade-long project to bring the Long Island Rail Road, one of New York's three commuter rail operators, to the East Side of Manhattan.
This is a good idea, but it was executed incredibly poorly. It illustrates all the ways that you can fuck up a project.
The backstory is straightforward. For over a century, NYC's commuter rail lines to the Long Island and New Jersey suburbs went to Penn Station on the West Side of Manhattan. The suburban lines from Westchester County (called Metro-North) went to Grand Central on the East Side. The two stations are about a mile apart, with no direct subway connection between the two. Penn is also in an inconvenient location, since it's at the edge of Midtown Manhattan, at 31st Street and 8th Ave. Getting to the East Side office core from Penn Station usually requires a subway transfer to the overcrowded E train. On top of this, Penn Station is the busiest transport facility in North America, and it's incredibly overcrowded. Grand Central, in contrast, *is* the center of Midtown, and it has a ton of extra passenger capacity.
So, there is a legitimate problem to be solved here.
It's not a new problem, either. Fifty years ago, NYC dug the 63rd Street Tunnel under the East River to bring the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Grand Central. But the city was broke in the '70s, so the tunnel was never connected to anything. Connecting the unused tunnel to the underused terminal is a no-brainer. It's about a mile from the end of the 63rd Street Tunnel to Grand Central.
The MTA did not do this.
Instead, the MTA decided to build a brand new station underneath Midtown Manhattan called Grand Central Madison, which is worse in every way. (For clarity, I'm going to call the new station GC Madison to distinguish it from the old station.)
WAIT, WHAT? WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT THE SHINY NEW STATION?
First, the new station is incredibly inconvenient for commuters. I can't imagine a more inconvenient way to build a station in Midtown Manhattan than GC Madison.
GC Madison is built between 48th and 45th Streets, a quarter-mile north of the existing station and ten stories below it. This makes it a gigantic pain to get out of the station. I tested this out a couple days ago inside the empty station, timing it with my watch. It's five minutes, 30 seconds to get from the GC Madison platforms to the Metro-North platforms at old Grand Central. It's six minutes, 45 seconds to get from the platforms to street level with no pedestrian congestion. It's a full 12 minutes on foot to get from the GC Madison platforms to the subway station. For comparison, old Grand Central's platforms are 2-3 minutes below street level; the subway is 3 minutes away. (Gothamist ran the same tests, and came up with similar numbers.)
Quite frankly, GC Madison is just too big. The station has four levels. Descending from old Grand Central, you start in a full-length mezzanine beneath the existing Grand Central platforms. From there you have to go down an escalator 182 feet long and nine stories deep. When I was riding it, the Very Long Escalator stopped abruptly and broke, and the thing is less than a week old. This brings you to a second full-length mezzanine deep beneath Park Avenue. The second mezzanine is built between the two levels of train platforms. I realize that this description is confusing, and quite frankly, it's because the layout is incredibly confusing. (The MTA's official diagram isn't much better.)
Second, it was totally unnecessary to spend all that money.
Grand Central is the largest train station in the world. It is far from the busiest. Pre-pandemic, Grand Central carried 67 million passengers a year; it has 67 tracks. For comparison, Penn Station across town had 107 million passengers on 21 tracks; Toronto Union Station, 72 million on 16 tracks; Madrid Puerta de Atocha, 117 million on 24 tracks. There was no need to add eight more tracks. Hell, even the MTA knew this when it was conducting environmental review in the early 2000s. The MTA originally planned to convert the 26-track lower deck of Grand Central to handle LIRR trains. Metro-North would have to make do with the 41-track upper level. The MTA called this "Option 1."
This original plan got scuttled, and instead the MTA built an 8-track station 17 stories below Manhattan.
WELL THAT'S DUMB. WHY'D THEY DO IT LIKE THAT?
Reason #1: Turf wars. Theoretically, Metro-North and the LIRR have been under one umbrella since 1968. In practice, they operate independently. They don't share tickets, they don't share management, and they each have their own union contracts. Until a couple years ago, they didn't even share a phone app. In the last few decades there have been multiple attempts to merge them together and to make them cooperate. Those proposals have gotten exactly nowhere.
Reason #2: The MTA is shortstaffed and incapable of managing its contractors. American infrastructure bureaucracy is pennywise and pound foolish to begin with, so things are unusually expensive by international standards. But the MTA is unusually bad, because there's no clear lines of accountability. The underpaid, overworked engineering staff doesn't have leeway to push back against contractors and consultants who want to throw the public's money down a hole. The MTA's work rules mean that contracts are required to be overstaffed compared to international standards. And because it's the governor in Albany that's in charge of the MTA, there's no way for city voters to actually make sure that the MTA uses the public's money well.
OKAY, SO HOW DO WE KEEP THIS FROM HAPPENING NEXT TIME?
The big thing is, the MTA desperately needs to be reformed. The big ones are boring reforms: proper staffing and wages for the MTA's engineers and planners, changes to the regulations so that the bureaucracy has power to dictate terms to spendthrift contractors and consultants, and reforms to the work rules so that contracts aren't heavily overstaffed. The first place to start is to learn from countries where urban rail projects are done quickly and cheaply. These are places like Spain and Italy. In the subway construction world, the Spanish and Italians are past masters of building mass transit projects cheaply and quickly. Milan and Barcelona can build a subway line for less than 20% of what it costs New York.
These things can be fixed - but you have to actually, you know, learn from your mistakes. Establishing this kind of institutional knowledge is how Istanbul has managed to build so much rail for so cheaply. Sadly, I do not see the MTA actually doing that.