After decades of planning and dreaming by officials, two major expansions of the city’s mass transit system took important steps forward yesterday, with the federal government promising to pay billions of dollars for a Long Island Rail Road connection to Grand Central Terminal and for a Second Avenue subway.
Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said final approval had been granted to allow $2.6 billion in federal funds to be spent on construction of the Long Island Rail Road link, which will give commuters on the railroad a direct ride to the east side of Manhattan. Speaking at a news conference in the main hall of Grand Central, she said it was the most money the federal government had ever committed to a mass transit project.
She said her department had also approved $693 million for the new subway on Second Avenue. In both cases, the federal money is only a portion of the total costs.
Work in Queens on the Long Island Rail Road project has already begun, and the Second Avenue work is to begin next year. Both projects are to be finished in 2013, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.
The Long Island Rail Road project, known as East Side Access, will create a new spur from the railroad’s main line at Sunnyside that will terminate at Grand Central. In the future passengers will be able to choose between trains that go either to Grand Central or to Pennsylvania Station.
The project involves digging new tunnels in Manhattan and Queens that would connect to an existing rail tunnel under the East River, at 63rd Street. In Queens the tunnels would link up with the Long Island Rail Road tracks. Beneath Manhattan, the tunnels would head across town, turn south at Park Avenue and end about 150 feet below Grand Central, at a vast new underground concourse carved out of the rock.
Currently, the only Manhattan stop for the Long Island Rail Road is at Pennsylvania Station, on the West Side, though the railroad estimates that about half the 106,000 riders who arrive at Penn Station each morning are actually headed to the East Side. The new terminal would cut those riders’ daily commute by a total of about 40 minutes, officials said.
Officials say the East Side Access will also increase service and ease crowding on the Long Island Rail Road. By lowering the railroad’s use of tracks at Pennsylvania Station, it would reduce backups for other Long Island riders and also for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit commuters who use the station.
Planning for an East Side stop dates back at least to the mid-1960s. The 63rd Street tunnel under the East River was completed in the mid-1970s, but by then the city’s fiscal crisis had interrupted expansion plans. The double-decker tunnel has an upper set of tracks for subway trains — the F train currently uses them. A lower set of tracks in the tunnel were intended for the Long Island Rail Road but have never been used.
Plans for a subway line on Second Avenue go back even further. The transportation authority plans to build the subway in stages, with the first section running from 96th Street to 63rd Street, where it will connect with the existing tracks for the N, R and W lines.
Gaining federal funding of this magnitude is a lengthy process, often accompanied at incremental stages by announcements by eager public officials. But in the case of the Long Island rail project, yesterday’s event, at which Ms. Peters and Gov. George E. Pataki signed a ceremonial letter of agreement, was the final approval.
Known as a full funding grant agreement, it reflects a commitment by the federal government to pay a specific amount, in installments, over the life of the project.
In contrast, the Second Avenue subway project is said to be some months short of such a binding commitment. In saying that her department had approved $693 million for the subway, Ms. Peters meant that she would ask Congress to appropriate that amount as a kind of down payment, so that work can begin.
Ultimately, the federal government expects to invest a total of $1.3 billion in the subway project. James S. Simpson, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said his agency was confident that final approval for the full amount would come through.
The Long Island rail connector has a total budget of $6.3 billion. A majority of the $3.7 billion not supplied by the federal government will be raised through the sale of bonds by the authority and the state.
The Second Avenue project has an estimated cost of $3.8 billion. There, too, most of the $2.5 billion not covered by federal funds will be raised through borrowing.
Yesterday’s event drew a gaggle of politicians and transportation officials.
Peter S. Kalikow, the chairman of the transportation authority, called it “an event that started in 1968,” a reference to the early days of planning for the Long Island Rail Road connection.