East Side Access-Subway Air Shaft

Now, an Eyesore and Wasted Chances, Then: Painful Legacy of East Side Access


The East Side Access Project, now with a finish line in sight, is a monumental boondoggle. But for Roosevelt Island, it’s more. Not just an eyesore but a missed opportunity for relieving transit woes.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

The Painful Legacy of East Side Access

Originally an air shaft for the 63rd Street tunnel, it’s been a Roosevelt Island eyesore for over a decade. First thing visitors see when arriving by subway.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo declared December 2022, the finish line for the seemingly eternal East Side Access Project, calling it a great success, he was lying. Again.

See Also: Is the East Side Access Ugly Finally Over

The project is a colossal boondoggle, the most expensive of its kind in the world, riven with corruption, exploded from $3.1 million to at least $11 million, and over ten years late.

For example, over 750,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal every day. And it’s the endpoint for East Side Access. The project, the MTA says, may add “as many as 162,000” more on a weekday. That’s about 20%, but it has more elevators and escalators than the rest of the terminal combined.

And as the New York Times reported in 2017, with an estimated cost of $12 billion, or approximately $3.5 billion per mile ($2.2 billion per kilometer) of new tunnel, the East Side Access tunnels were seven times as expensive as comparable railroad tunnels in other countries.

Read about the whole sordid mess, the corruption, the political payoffs here. But for our purposes, we’ll stick with the Roosevelt Island angle.

The tip of the iceberg is free parking space MTA workers claim for themselves, wearing a grassy area down to the dirt. The area does not belong to the MTA, but RIOC, which also has a thing about free parking entitlement, does nothing about it.

Squatters and an eyesore

MTA pathway filled with litter.

What’s behind the fence? To find out, you can follow the trail as I did. So can anyone else, young or old. Nothing stops you. Or kids. Or the homeless. Or those in need of a toilet.

In one amusing RIOC committee meeting, years ago, board members chuckled over a letter from the MTA. As they neared completion on the East Side Access Project, they asked what color RIOC preferred for protective fencing. It was funny because their sister agency ignored numerous earlier entreaties.

But now, they were nearly done.

Help me, Rhonda.

Behind the East Side Access Fence That Doesn’t Really Keep Anyone Out

You really have to see it to believe it.

At first, it just looks sloppy, but then, in an area prone to rat infestations for years…

Next to one of four portable toilets…

More casually dumped trash and a private dining area with a magnificent view of the skyline.

Nothing prevents anyone from entering this otherworldly area, and unlike most of Roosevelt Island, there are plenty of public toilets.

But now, here’s the upshot. Construction on the tunnel beneath this area finished years ago. There has not been any reason for this mess’s existence in a long time. Except, maybe, for the free parking.

An opportunity squandered…

When the 63rd Street Tunnel arrived, it came by sea, already built. It was laid intact into a trench, avoiding the costs of boring under the river.

And there was something special about it.

It was a double tunnel, but for fifty years, only the upper level was in use, carrying subway passengers between Manhattan and Queens.

In recent years, as the East Side Access Project moved along, waiting on platforms in the Roosevelt Island Station, you could hear trains rumbling below. These mostly carried debris and construction materials.

But inside those rumbles lies a huge disappointment, an opportunity missed for needy subway riders.

Out of the $11 billion-plus plowed into the project, why couldn’t the MTA have found a few million for connecting upper and lower levels at Roosevelt Island and 21st Street? After all, as noted above, they went elevator and escalator crazy with them in Grand Central.

The MTA could easily have given cramped Roosevelt Islanders access to LIRR trains running to and from Manhattan. Or they could have run an extra F Train or two down that line. Easy peasy, as the kids say, but too much imagination is needed for the MTA brain trust.

And when we needed advocacy, where was RIOC, the MTA’s sister agency with responsibility for developing Roosevelt Island and collecting over $20 million from residents every year…?

And what about those elected officials who passionately promised to fight for us…?

You know the tune, the same old story. Roosevelt Island was born with great promise, huge hopes, but the state’s squandered more than we care to count.


  1. I’m confused. They gave us an unsightly airshaft with no plans of providing Roosevelt Island residents with *access* to the East Side Access LIRR line? You’d think they would at least try to assuage protest with a little transit, as a treat.

    • Planning goes back to the 50s, before Welfare Island became Roosevelt, and went through a lot of iterations, mostly based on costs, which makes the shameless waste of the current version a little more sickening. Of course, when the community developed and the transit issues became obvious, they could’ve adapted. But that requires effective, active governance, which we don’t have. RIOC’s never connected with the city or MTA, and they exercise virtually no clout with anyone. What we have now is the result of politics disconnected from the community they are supposed to serve and from whom they collect millions every month.

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