Readers Write: Phil Eng has tough to follow at LIRR

The Island Now

There is more to the fifth anniversary this past Dec. 25th of the passing of former MTA LIRR President Charles Hoppe. He inherited construction of the ongoing Jamaica Hillside Yard and Shop project from his predecessor Bruce C. McIver who served as LIRR President from 1985 to 1989.

This maintenance facility was designed to support LIRR’s electric fleet of 1,000 cars. It was being built at the old Gimbels Department Store Jamaica warehouse. Construction of the Hillside Maintenance facility was several years behind schedule.

Work began in January 1985 with an estimated cost of $215 million. By May 1989, the project was $140 million over budget with significant change orders. The final project cost was anticipated to be $397 million with completion three years late.

Due to ongoing problems with this project, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (today known as the Federal Transit Administration) made a determination that the LIRR lacked the technical capacity for management of this and other major construction projects.

In March 1989, UMTA suspended the LIRR’s eligibility to receive new federal funding. Hoppe restored UMTA’s confidence in rebuilding the LIRR’s technical capacity by successfully completing the Hillside Maintenance facility and managing the $100 million Harold Interlocking project (using 100% local MTA funding).

Under Hoppe’s watch, UMTA once again became confident in the LIRR and two years later restored its eligibility for receipt of federal funding. UMTA went on to provide $200 million for the original Penn Station Improvements project versus today’s version sponsored by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Both the Harold Interlocking and Penn Station improvement projects were successfully completed on time, within budget and without significant change orders to the construction contracts.

One significant failure under Hoppe was a future fatal flaw in the purchase of both duel mode locomotives and double-decker passenger cars.

Those responsible for the design, engineering and bid specifications to support the procurement of dual-mode locomotives and double-decker passenger cars failed to take into consideration height clearances for the 63rd Street tunnel between Manhattan and Queens. (Construction on this tunnel began in 1969 designed to be used at a future date to provide the LIRR with a direct connection to Grand Central Terminal).

As a result, the LIRR fleet of 23 diesel-electric and 23 dual-mode locomotives along with 134 double-decker passenger cars will not be able to utilize East Side Access for future service to Grand Central Terminal.

The anticipated revenue service date has slipped on numerous occasions from originally 2011. (Some elected officials with no background in what it actually takes to construct a major transportation project promised 2009).

The MTA “corporate party line” claim (based upon the most recent project recovery schedule which has also changed numerous times during the life of the project) calls for a December 2022 opening day passenger service.

Based upon previous history of delays, changes in procurement strategy, re-advertising of contracts, change orders to contracts, re-sequencing of work, recovery schedules, cost overruns, budget issues and coordination issues with Amtrak including providing construction contractors with insufficient track outage time necessary to perform work, don’t be surprised if first day of passenger service occurs in 2023 or later.

Thousands of daily LIRR riders from diesel territory branches (including those commuting from stations east of Huntington to Port Jefferson, east of Mineola to Oyster Bay, east of Babylon to Speonk or Montauk and east of Ronkonkoma to Greenport) will still have to change at Jamaica for the future Grand Central Terminal or Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn. When the Oyster Bay branch is converted to a permanent scoot shuttle service, those riders will also have to switch at Mineola.

Hoppe served as LIRR President from 1990 to 1994. In the eyes of many transportation experts including myself, he moved the LIRR capital program from the dog house to the penthouse.

Under his watch, it was expected that capital projects would be completed on time, within budget, without significant numbers of change orders to construction contracts and minimal inconveniences to riders during construction. When was the last time you heard that!

Current LIRR President Philip Eng with his own $2.6 billion mega Main Line Third Track and ongoing East River Tunnel problems continues to have a tough act to follow.

Larry Penner
Great Neck

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office)

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