Helena Williams and the politics behind Penn Station AccessBy
For reasons of politics, Penn Station Access — the plan to send Metro-North trains through four new stations in the Bronx and into Penn Station — has become Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit cause célèbre. The plan has support from Westchester and the Bronx, and Cuomo is angling to deliver something for the constituents of his most notable November challenger. Don’t get in his way.
According to one story out on Monday, Penn Station Access and her opposition to it may be why Helena Williams is no longer the president of the Long Island Rail Road. In an extensive piece on Newsday that is unfortunately behind their payroll, Alfonso Castillo has the story:
Ousted LIRR president Helena Williams’ criticism of a Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo-backed MTA plan to link Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station — potentially inconveniencing Nassau and Suffolk commuters — cemented her reputation as a fierce advocate for Long Island, but it also contributed to Williams losing her job, sources said.
Williams, 58, whose seven-year stint as Long Island Rail Road president ended Friday, clashed with Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast over the Penn Station Access project, which would bring Metro-North into the LIRR’s West Side Manhattan terminal using existing Amtrak tracks around the same time the LIRR would connect to Grand Central Terminal as part of East Side Access, sources said.
“There was definitely a rift over that,” said one MTA source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Tom seemed to be on the side of pushing this thing forward, and his agency president was not. She was sort of pulling in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that it helped her demise,” MTA board member Mitchell Pally said.
The article explores this divide with some MTA Board members claiming Williams’ opposition was “parochial” and that it led to her ouster while others called her a fierce advocate for Long Island whose stance on Penn Station Access was not a “significant factor” on her departure. Read into that what you will. I believe that any opposition to Penn Station Access at this point is mostly parochial and has no place in New York City 2014. Solving regional mobility issues will require joint cooperation from both LIRR and Metro-North, and it may involve some sacrifices on each side.
That said, Patrick at The LIRR Today has up an extensive gut-check on Penn Station Access. It’s well worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:
The problem with Penn Station Access is the fact that most people are going about looking at this the wrong way. They look at this as dots on the map. If the LIRR can add a dot onto their map it’s only fair that Metro-North get to add a dot onto theirs. But it’s tremendously more complex than that. Grand Central and Penn Station are far from similar — one is a station with more than forty platforms and more than 60 station tracks that is used exclusively by one and only one railroad, the other has just 11 platforms, 21 tracks, is shared by three different railroads that collectively operate close to 1,000 revenue trains on the average weekday in what could best be described as cramped quarters…
And to add to this, the LIRR’s East Side Access project is constructing an entirely new station at Grand Central deep below the existing one (like it or not, that’s what they’re going with). Therefore, bringing LIRR trains into Penn Station would result in no net loss of station tracks at Grand Central for Metro-North. Other than Madison Avenue Yard and the Lower Level Loop which was closed several years ago for ESA work, Metro-North has not been adversely affected by East Side Access.
Over at Penn Station, there is no plan to construct a new 8-track terminal below the exiting one (well, at least for Metro-North trains). The plan to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station would involve no addition of capacity into the current station. Since they have no intention of adding capacity at Penn Station to support Metro-North trains, those slots are going to have to come from someplace else. I don’t think Amtrak or NJTransit are going to volunteer some of their station slots for the sake of Metro-North commuters, so the last possible space to get slots is from the LIRR. And when East Side Access is completed, demand for the LIRR service to New York Penn will decrease slightly, and they will not need to run as many trains to Penn Station, so there will be some space opened up for Metro-North. But a massive unknown in this equation is just how much space the LIRR might free up in Penn Station.
It’s food for thought as these projects come up for debate in the coming months. It certainly seems that Cuomo, not one to embrace transit, has started to put some political pressure on multiple fronts on the MTA. Between the TWU contract, the constant theft of supposedly dedicated funds and seemingly spurious statements from MTA officials about the agency’s financial situation, whether all of this politicking is for the good remains to be seen.