It sure does take a while to turn transit dreams into reality in New York City. Take this website’s namesake subway line. What started as a line on paper in 1929 became reality in part only 87 years later. Penn Station Access — a plan to bring Metro-North trains to Penn Station via four new stops in the Bronx — won’t have such a tortuous long history, but this idea, born in 1973, will turn 50 before the trains finally run.
Yet the trains will run. Twenty years after planning began in earnest and scoping documents were released to the public, Amtrak and Metro-North reached an agreement on a long-simmering dispute so that Metro-North can build its four in-fill stations and operate along Amtrak right-of-way, delivering New Haven Line and Bronx commuter rail passengers to Manhattan’s West Side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, again in charge of the MTA, announced yesterday.
“Too many residents of the Bronx have been without reliable transit, which is why I proposed these new stations,” Governor Cuomo said, of a project the MTA scoped in 2000 when Cuomo, then 43, was the HUD Secretary in the Clinton Administration. “With a reconstructed Moynihan Station currently underway, these four stations not only will connect the east Bronx to Manhattan’s West Side, but also build upon our ongoing efforts to fully transform our state’s transportation infrastructure.”
In addition to providing New Haven Line riders with direct access to the West Side, the plan includes four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx at Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester/Van Nest and Hunts Point. The MTA has currently allocated around $700 million to the project though the total budget is estimated to exceed $1 billion, an astronomical price tag for four in-fill stations along a preexisting rail right-of-way. Cuomo’s Tuesday announcement included details of the first contract as HNTB New York Engineering and Architecture will get $35 million for engineering and design work.
While the Metro-North stations in the Bronx can help speed travel times to Manhattan for far-flung corners of that borough, I believe the reverse-commute patterns will be more important for Bronx residents who work in Westchester. Still, the MTA should use Penn Station Access as an opportunity to rationalize the fares for commuter rail trips within the five boroughs (a topic I last explored in 2015).
“Bringing Metro-North service to the east Bronx is a game changer for the borough, and we have all been eager to get started,” Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer said in a statement. “This project will significantly reduce travel times for east Bronx residents and help area businesses and institutions attract employees.”
Metro-North and Amtrak had been at odds over the project, which involves MTA use of Amtrak’s Hell Gate Bridge, for some time, and it seemed as though the project’s future was in jeopardy. So what did Metro-North and New York State give Amtrak? Cuomo’s press release puts a New York-friendly spin on the deal, noting that Amtrak and the MTA will “jointly study the feasibility of Amtrak running several trains daily from Long Island to Penn Station and continuing either north to Boston or south to Washington.” The MTA will also foot the bill for signal, power, communications and track upgrades along the route.
Two articles provide more detail on the deal that our governor reportedly brokered. WNYC’s Stephen Nessen reports on a trade-off involving the Pelham Bay Bridge:
The stalemate hinged on two demands from Amtrak. One was that the MTA pay to replace the century-old Pelham Bay Bridge, which would get more traffic with the expansion. As far back as 2010 Amtrak had labeled the bridge “beyond a state-of-good-repair” and in need of more than $500 million to build a replacement. Under the agreement brokered by Cuomo, the Pelham Bay Bridge replacement would be postponed for 10-20 years. The other sticking point was that Amtrak wanted to charge the MTA access fees for using its tracks.
Amtrak gave up the demand for fees in exchange for the Long Island feasibility study I mentioned above, and Thomas Zambito had a bit more on the horse-trading in The Journal-News:
Under the agreement announced today, the MTA will pay for the cost of improvements along the Hell Gate as well as the design of the Bronx commuter stations, according to an outline of the agreement obtained by The Journal News/lohud.com.
The two railroads will share costs for use of the Hell Gate and the replacement of the Pelham Bay Bridge based on usage, the outline adds. And, Metro-North will coordinate the project around Amtrak’s plans to increase service levels on its Acela Express between New York and Boston in 2021.
So for Metro-North and Gov. Cuomo, all’s well that end’s well yet again. The MTA is shouldering a lot of costs for railroad updates, and the agency gets its rail link from Westchester to Penn Station. The service is expected to begin a year or two after East Side Access opens or right around the 50th anniversary of the first calls to bring trains through the Bronx to Penn Station. All it takes is far too much time.