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MIDTOWN, Manhattan — It’s a big dig, New York-style, that has now reached a major milestone. 

The East Side Access — the rail project first conceived some nine decades ago that can bring Long Island Railroad tracks to Manhattan’s East Side — is complete, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
However, there’s still construction underway. 

The governor explained the difference during a news conference and tour on Thursday, but during his presentation, he made one comment that put all of Tuesday’s event under scrutiny. 

“When you go into the subways with politicians,” he said, “it’s for photo ops. I go in in the middle of the night.”

He was referring to a train tunnel tour he’d done in the past.  On Thursday, he was doing another tour of a train facility, albeit not a tunnel, but he was doing it in the middle of the day.

Cuomo insisted that it wasn’t a photo op. Instead, he said, “I want New Yorkers to see the progress, to see the future.”

He also made a declaration about the East Side Access facility. 

“Today, we’re announcing that all the major construction is complete.”

It’s true that much of the infrastructure of the facility, including the track beds, and a mezzanine connecting them, as well as a system of deep escalators and elevators designed to lift commuters up into Grand Central Terminal, are mostly completed.

What’s also finished is $1 billion worth of track and tunnel improvements between the Harold Interlocking rail facility in the Sunnyside, Queens railyard, and the East Side Access below Grand Central. Still, some infrastructure details are in their finishing stages, and electronics of the project have yet to be fully installed and activated.  

Once that’s done, the governor said, there’s still much more work to be completed before passengers can take trains into the new East Side station.  

“We have to hire new operators,” the governor said, next to the newly-laid tracks during his tour, “to run on new tracks, with new systems, and new controls, that require months, literally.”

The concept of a new East Side destination for the LIRR has been on the books in New York State since at least 1968, with an initial cost projected at about $3.5 billion. 

At this point, the East Side Access project costs anywhere from $11.1 billion to $12 billion dollars, according to some estimates.

Justifying that expense for a project intended to make it easier for people to commute may be challenging, especially when fewer people may commute into the city as the pandemic winds down.  

“I don’t accept that premise,” the governor said. “I don’t believe it. I don’t accept it.”

Janno Lieber, the MTA chief development officer selected by Cuomo, said that the pricetag will pay off, and that his boss did not drive up the cost.

“Those decisions that drove up the cost were made long ago,” Lieber told PIX11 News. “What I took on was the responsibility to get it done. The money was already in it. Long Islanders and New Yorkers just wanted to know when is this going to be finished?”

It was a question that PIX11 News put to the governor.

“It will open next year,” he said. “That is a guarantee.”