Two projects, one deadline: New York State gave itself until the end of 2022 to complete a pair of big tasks. The first , in the works for two and a half years, was to open a legal marijuana dispensary in the city; the second, in the works for two decades, was to open a marquee train terminal for the Long Island Rail Road. Can you guess which of these things state government accomplished—and which it let slide?
There was something pitiful about how proud New York was of itself last Thursday, when Housing Works, a charity supposedly in the business of helping the poor, opened the city’s first state-regulated marijuana emporium in Lower Manhattan. Though Governor Kathy Hochul, still dealing with her administration’s botched response to the deadly Buffalo snowstorm, didn’t show up herself, the state’s marijuana director, Chris Alexander, put on quite a show. After metaphorically cutting the ribbon on the Housing Works store by way of buying psychoactive candy gummies for his own consumption, he enthused, as the Daily News reported, that “we’re creating opportunity.” The line snaked around the block, with one customer telling the News that “I must give it up to the governor for keeping her promise to open . . . before the end of 2022. Even if it was down to the wire, she did it. I’ll give her props.”
“Props” for what, exactly? The state and city, under Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, are now openly pushing marijuana as a growth business, rather than arguing, as earlier legalization proponents did, that allowing legal sales would keep existing users out of the criminal-justice system and create a safer product, too. This new growth industry, by contrast, depends on luring untold new customers, even as evidence mounts that heavy marijuana use can cause serious mental illness. Less critical but still important: how does encouraging people to smoke or ingest marijuana make them more productive citizens?
And setting aside the merits of legal retail marijuana sales, Hochul and Adams can hardly cite the first legal shop as an accomplishment. It opens in competition with hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal storefronts, operating in plain sight. A brand-new, illegal marijuana store greets theatergoers right next door to the Winter Garden, host to The Music Man, in the heart of Times Square.
Meantime, how about that other grand public work, promised by the state to open before the ball dropped Saturday night? East Side Access, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $11.6 billion railroad terminal beneath Grand Central, was absolutely, certainly going to open by the end of this year, after years of delays and cost overruns; East Side Access, after all, was originally supposed to cost $3 billion, and open in . . . 2010. “I look forward to the East Side Access concourse and route fully opening in December 2022,” Hochul said in October 2021. “The project is on track to open by the end of 2022,” the MTA affirmed in October, ironically in response to an article about delays and cost overruns. The MTA even renamed the project this year, calling it Grand Central Madison, in anticipation of the morale-boosting reveal.
The big debut would affirm that the state, under its new governor, could deliver projects on time and on budget, just as the opening of the first three stops of the Second Avenue Subway in December 2016 gave New Yorkers a new feeling of pride in their infrastructure.
Yet 2023 is here, and still no Grand Central Madison. “We’ve identified some additional work that will take more than a few days to complete,” the Long Island Rail Road said Thursday. The nominal reason is ventilation equipment that isn’t working quite right. But to spring this delay on the public 55 hours before opening day, after years of repeated promises, shows that the state’s vast mismanagement of its mass-transit megaprojects continues.
It also shows something else: Hochul doesn’t much care. The only reason that the MTA opened the Second Avenue Subway on time six years ago is that then-governor Andrew Cuomo made the agency do it, showing up to supervise construction work in person as the MTA threatened to delay. Cuomo was so focused on the Second Avenue Subway’s on-time opening, in fact, that the MTA skimped elsewhere, and the maintenance that it deferred on the rest of the system later contributed to the subway’s “summer of hell” problems in 2017. Still, New Yorkers got their first major new subway extension in decades that New Year’s Eve. The Second Avenue Subway, after nearly a century of promises and delays, didn’t become, once again, a laughingstock.
Does it matter if Grand Central Madison opens in January 2023—if it does—instead of December 2022? Not really, just as it didn’t matter that the Second Avenue Subway opened in December 2016 instead of January 2017. What matters is what the timeline says about Hochul’s hands-on engagement with mass transit, at a time when mass transit needs a strong governor. Transit ridership still hovers below two-thirds of pre-Covid normal, and the MTA faces multibillion-dollar deficits. Yet the governor didn’t make sure that the public authority delivered this project on time, or, failing that, tell the public much earlier that it wouldn’t.
Yes, the LIRR’s commuter rail to the eastern suburbs, with fewer than 200,000 daily trips compared with the subway’s sometimes 3.5 million rides (both post-Covid), commands just a fraction of the public attention that the subway gets. But unlike a marijuana dispensary, Grand Central Madison will deliver real public benefits. It will shorten commutes for tens of thousands of Long Islanders by bringing them directly to Manhattan’s East Midtown, rather than forcing them to transfer from the West Side’s Penn Station. And two decades of delay and mismanagement aside, a new rail station blasted directly below historic Grand Central Terminal—one that many people never even knew about—truly is a design and engineering wonder. Finally, unlike encouraging New Yorkers to take up pot-smoking, urging them to ride to their new rail terminal will make the state and city more productive, by (ideally) getting more suburbanites to resume commuting into Manhattan for work or pleasure.
Wouldn’t it have been better if, when he spoke to the News of an opening ceremony that heralded “a beautiful thing for the city,” Bronx resident Kay Davis was marveling at Grand Central Madison, rather than at how “We don’t have to duck and dodge when we’re getting high”? That Hochul made pot a higher priority than transit bodes poorly for 2023.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images