The Shoreham Nuclear Plant and the LIRR

When Newsday reported that the East Side Access project for the Long Island Railroad, already years late and nearly double the original budget, would take yet another year and cost even more money to complete, what did that make me think of? Unfortunately, and I hope it’s not the same thing, I thought of the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s, milked by Long Island’s grifter culture to the detriment of non-grifter residents of Nassau and Suffolk Counties and the entire state.

According to a 1985 report by 60 Minutes as cited by the Associated Press (I remember watching it and was able to Google it up), “unions controlled by organized crime helped stretch out construction time to 15 years and add to the $4 billion cost overruns of Long Island's Shoreham nuclear power plant.” Among the tactics – theft of materials and equipment, and destroying completed work so it would have to be done again. A whistleblower “said he witnessed sabotage and saw workers perform the same task four or five times, just to stretch out work.” He later left the job after he was nearly killed twice. The utility, the Long Island Lighting Company, didn’t care because it had been guaranteed “cost-plus” rate increases by the State of New York at the time the plant was approved, and because the money was all borrowed. It’s nearly 30 years later, and Nassau and Suffolk County residents and businesses are still paying for that particular crime.

The Shoreham scam was a particular financial hit to an acquaintance of my father-in-law in Levittown, according to a story he told me. The acquaintance got a job at the worksite, and since this was the 1970s gasoline crisis he thought he’d add a sideline as a mass transit provider. He bought a used school bus to transport other workers out to eastern Suffolk County. After a while, however, very few workers were going out to the plant on a normal workday. On paydays, however, the bus was full, and those were the only days he made money. The timesheets were falsified. Nobody cared, because the right people were benefitting and the sacrifices were deferred to the future.

Most probably remember the shutdown and decommissioning of the Shoreham Nuclear Plant to be the result of fears of nuclear power. There were fights over the proposed evacuation plan in case of an accident, for example. There was, however, another underlying issue. Once the plant started operating, LILCO would gain the right to raise rates to cover its costs, so even Long Islanders with no objections to nuclear power decided to fight against turning it on. In the hope that they would never have to pay.

That, of course, was never going to happen. Years later the problem landed in the lap of Governor Mario Cuomo. His solution was to create a state utility to buy out LILCO, and have the new Long Island Power Authority borrow massively to settle LILCO’s debts with tax-free bonds.

This would shift some of the cost of the debacle to other taxpayers around the state and the nation, and put the entire state on the hook for what had gone on. The cost of servicing those bonds, however, has been paid by Long Island Power Authority ratepayers. The anti-nuke folks succeeded in keeping nuclear plants off Long Island, but those who live or operate businesses there were stuck with most of the cost of the mass heist.

We can’t just blame Shoreham, because Con Edison’s rates are even higher, but nearly 30 years after the 60 Minutes report aired the Long Island Power Authority has among the highest electric rates in the U.S. And we can’t just blame electrical costs because there are a host of other factors including the consolidation of the defense sector after the Cold War ended, but in the years since Nassau and Suffolk ratepayers started paying for Shoreham most of Long Island’s independent economic base (separate from jobs created by consumer spending by commuters to New York City and a long-booming local government sector) has mostly disappeared.

Now, a few years after the Long Island Railroad disability pension scam was uncovered, we have yet another gravy train on Long Island. The latest postponement for completion – to 25 years or so after planning to restart the late-1960s project started in earnest – “would be the latest setback of a project the MTA once expected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion.” The latest estimate is $8.3 million with completion in 2020. East Side Access was one of the promises made in 1968, when the MTA was formed, and the most expensive part of it – the tunnel under the East River – was completed soon after. A full-length Second Avenue Subway, provided to New York City in exchange for giving up the revenues from Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority crossings, was another promise.

“East Side Access has faced multiple obstacles, including unexpected engineering challenges and underperforming contractors” according to Newsday. According to one MTA official “this project has gotten very large… well beyond what the preliminary scope and scale anticipated.” In part because the project will dig out a whole new separate section of Grand Central, because MetroNorth didn’t want to give up surplus platforms there even though it will be able to shift some trains to Penn Station when East Side Access was finished. Any number of observers fairly screamed that the project should just hook into eight tracks in the existing station, which has a total of 67 for passengers. According to another official “the MTA has hired an outside consultant with ‘expertise that we don't necessarily have’ to find ways to expedite the project and reduce its cost. It also has recently gotten some favorable bids from contractors for future phases of the job.”

Let’s just hope these are the only factors leading to the delay. Rather than intentional delay to milk the project until retirement to Florida. As in the case of the Second Avenue Subway, the new technology of tunnel boring machines seems to have slashed the cost of building the tunnels as promised, but other aspects of the job just sucked up more money.

There is one key difference between Shoreham and East Side Access. Ultimately Long Island did not need Shoreham. Projections of future electricity demand proved to be wildly excessive, and decades later the rapidly falling price of natural gas, solar panels, and wind turbines is providing a host of alternatives.

But Long Island desperately needs East Side Access. And every year it doesn’t have it matters. As New York City fills with the young and talented, and the overflow spreads primarily to New Jersey and the Lower Hudson Valley, Nassau and Suffolk Counties continue to devolve into a combined retirement home and plantation run for the benefit of the grifter class. We knew we didn’t want to live there. My wife’s extended family, save one cousin and a second cousin or two, has moved away to New Jersey, the Lower Hudson Valley, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania and beyond -- and have nothing good to say about the place.

Not only would East Side Access make life better for those who commute to Manhattan and Long Island City today, but the possibility of doing so might also attract some people to live out there when today’s residents or their heirs seek to sell their homes. Since there must be some overlap between the grifters and Long Island’s political class – how else could they get away with it? – perhaps the best the non-grifters of Nassau and Suffolk can hope for is more non-grifters to move in and share the pain. Or perhaps buy them out so they too could leave. But it isn’t just people on Long Island who need to care about what is going on there. If the grifters finally do as much damage to Nassau and Suffolk what their predecessors did to New York City in the 1950s and 1960s (before they moved out to the suburbs), the pain will be felt by the entire state.