Archive for Penn Station Access

Penn Station Access may have to wait for East Side Access. (Image via @NYGovCuomo)

The news that East Side Access is yet again over budget and off schedule isn’t just an embarrassment for a project that’s been plagued with troubles. It has a cascade effect too on the entire region. The longer we wait for East Side Access, the longer we have to wait for Penn Station Access, and the longer we wait for Penn Station Access, the less likely its current champion will be in office. Meanwhile, the MTA is trying to incorporate commuter rail into the city’s transit fabric, but can it do so without rationalizing the fare?

In a sense, Penn Station Access is the dependent stepson of East Side Access. When ESA finally opens, a few trains will shift from the West Side to the East Side, and despite the selfish whining from Long Island politicians, the MTA will have space to send some Metro-North trains to the West Side. New Yorkers from both sides of New York City’s suburbs will be better distributed to the side of the city with their places of employ, and everyone wins. The planning for Penn Station Access can start now, and if the money is there, work can begin. But until East Side Access opens, Metro-North riders hoping to get to Penn will have to wait.

Furthermore, with Gov. Cuomo throwing his support behind the Penn Station plan, we may cast a wary eye at East Side Access delays. There’s a chance Cuomo could still be governor in 2020 when ESA opens, but he could move on to bigger and better things by then. If he’s not around, will Penn Station Access live to see the light of day (and the green of money)? It’s no sure thing, but the longer East Side Access takes, the more likely enthusiasm for Penn State Access will dim.

Finally, there is a question of fares. The MTA clearly views Penn Station Access as a way to better serve areas in the Bronx that seem — and are — remote. As The Times details today, Co-Op City would stand to benefit tremendously from a Metro-North stop promising access to both Midtown and Greenwich, CT, in 30 minutes. But some residents are skeptical, and the culprit lies in the fares.

As Stephen Smith detailed in a New York Magazine piece a few weeks ago, the MTA’s desire to get city residents on commuter rail clashes with fare policy and operations. He wrote:

The MTA treats Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road as a limited, luxury service for suburbanites commuting during peak hours, with city residents largely excluded from the lines that run through neighborhoods like Ozone Park and Jamaica in Queens and Tremont in the Bronx. But each of them could be transformed into super-express subways: The LIRR, for example, could easily handle trains every twenty minutes from Forest Hills into the city midday and late at night (to pay for it, retrain conductors as train drivers), compared with the hour-long waits between trains today—a welcome relief line for the overcrowded subway beneath Queens Boulevard. And with more frequent trains, railroad stations in Queens that were axed decades ago could be added back without slowing down existing commuters. Elmhurst could get its LIRR stops back, and the confluence of lines at Sunnyside Yards merits a major transit junction, with all of the development that would follow.

A one-way, peak-hour, off-board Metro-North from Fordham is $8.25 per ride and the monthly for MNR service only is nearly twice as much as a 30-day MetroCard. The costs are out of proportionate to the benefits and do little to encourage ridership. There is, after all, a reason why as of the mid-2000s fewer than 1000 people per day used some of the Bronx’s Metro-North stations.

So these are the challenges the MTA faces: Get East Side Access under control; continue the push for Penn Station Access; and figure out a way to better integrate intra-city travel into the Metro-North and LIRR fare structure. These aren’t insurmountable challenges, but the deck is ever so slightly more stacked against timely forward progress.

Gov. Cuomo proposed federal funding for Penn Station Access in his State of the State speech Wednesday. (Image via @NYGovCuomo)

So far, Gov. Andrew Cuomo — lover of muscle cars — has not been much of a transit booster. He’s allowed the MTA to do its own thing while maintaining a close relationship with the people he tasks with running the show, but while he’s been aggressive in sending out press releases touting big news, his three years in office have not involved any major transit pushes.

This approach changed considerably with Cuomo’s State of the State speech on Wednesday afternoon. During his presentation of the laundry list of accomplishments and initiatives he hopes to launch as he ramps up his reelection effort this year, he spoke about a transit project familiar to Second Ave. Sagas readers. That idea — already in the planning stages — is Penn Station Access, a plan that would add four Metro-North stops to Bronx and bring trains into Penn Station. It’s not without its controversies, but it’s something that could be implemented relatively quickly if someone in Albany is willing to fight for funding.

When Cuomo announced this news during his speech, I was a bit skeptical. Again, it seemed as though the Governor had simply decided to take something that had seen a scoping study issued in 2000 when Cuomo was with HUD and a project the MTA had already determined to see through and make it his. Curbed, in fact, called me out for that position, but as I’ve thought about it, we should embrace Cuomo’s acceptance of this plan. Even if he can convince the feds to fork over the dollars as part of general recovery and resilience efforts, he will have championed it through.

So what’s the plan? In a corresponding policy book, Cuomo delved into the Penn Station Access proposal:

The need for additional railroad network resiliency was made clear by Superstorm Sandy, when for the first time in their 100-year history, the Hudson River tunnels and two of the East River tunnels into Penn Station were flooded. These closures, along with those of subway and auto tunnels, cut Manhattan off from the region, impacting the regional and national economy. Without the Penn Access connection, Metro-North’s only Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Terminal, would effectively be cut off in the event of a Harlem River Lift Bridge failure, affecting more than 275,000 daily commuters.

Using existing tracks, the project would establish new links for the New Haven Line that by-pass both the Mott Haven Junction and the Harlem River Lift Bridge. In the event of a disaster that disabled these points of access, commuters and others would still be able to use Metro-North to enter or leave Manhattan. In addition, the project provides Metro-North with access to a second Manhattan terminal in the event of an emergency affecting Grand Central or its tunnel and viaduct approaches.

The Penn Station Access Project envisions the construction of four new stations in the Eastern Bronx and the purchase of new rail cars to support the new service. The project will for the first time connect these communities via commuter rail both to Manhattan’s West Side and to the I-95 corridor, providing historic benefits…These new stations are proposed for Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point, which are not currently served by commuter rail.

The benefits are obvious. The East Bronx will have 30-minute access to the West Side, and many Westchester and Connecticut travelers will have a one-seat ride to the area as well. If the MTA could figure out a way to rationalize the fare for intra-city travelers as well, so much the better.

But the problems are numerous. First off, as we saw last spring, Long Island politicians can’t see through the benefits of Penn Station Access and have been threatening to oppose any plan that takes space away from LIRR slots at Penn. Never mind that many LIRR commuters will embrace East Side Access when it opens; never mind that Metro-North riders are New Yorkers who should have West Side access as well. Long Island politicians are not known for practicality, and they are going to dig in hard.

Additionally, there is the matter of cost. While Cuomo didn’t discuss any figures, The Times quotes an “administration official” claiming that the project will cost in excess of $1 billion. Similarly, a 2008 state report estimated a $1.8 billion price tag for Penn Station Access. As Alon Levy skeptically tweeted, that’s what the cost for four new above-ground stations, some widening work done along a preexisting right of way, electrical work and rolling stock purchases would add up to be. There must be a way to build out Penn Station Access for cheaper.

But that’s part of the process, and the process starts with someone in power taking ownership of the proposal. Right now, Penn Station Access is in Cuomo’s lap. We’ll get to see if he can turn this into his own transit project. We sure could use it.

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A proposed build of the Penn Station Access plan.

Despite the fact that Long Island has thrived due to transit, LI residents and politicians have long fought against any sort of transit upgrades for the area. Nassau County’s NICE has not been a success while NIMBYism has killed a much-needed third track for the LIRR’s Main Line. Now, with East Side Access inching forward an the MTA’s Penn Station Access plan for Metro-North coming into view, Long Islanders are throwing a selfish fit over transit improvements that will benefit the region.

The latest salvo in the inexplicable war pitting Long Islanders against New Yorkers from points north of the city comes to us courtesy of Jack Martins, a State Senator from Nassau County. He’s not the first to object to Penn Station Access. In fact, we first heard word of Long Island insurgency in March when Charles Fuschillo raised some concerns. But Martins, in an Op-Ed he wrote for a local Hicksville newspaper, takes this opposition to an entirely new level.

Claiming his missive comes from the “Department of Bad Ideas,” Martins writes against Penn Station Access. With a misguided reference to the Payroll Tax as a selective tax targeting “only downstate businesses whether their employees used mass transit or not,” Martins rails against the future plans:

Lest these ideas feel lonely, they’re now trumpeting yet another that is so illogical that, if adopted, certainly belongs in their top goofs of all time: displacing LIRR trains at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. That would mean by 2016, four railroads – LIRR, NJ Transit, Amtrak and now Metro-North – would share the tracks and platforms with Metro-North adding an “estimated” ten trains per hour. I can just hear the collective sighs of those who regularly brave Penn as it is now and trust me, I sympathize with you. Why would the powers that be at the MTA want to make it worse?

But Thomas Prendergast, the newly-nominated Executive Director of the MTA has already gone on record as supporting the idea and essentially sticking it to us Islanders. He reminds the more than 300,000 daily LIRR commuters, that “…we are a regional agency and we need to make sure we’re doing everything across the region to provide benefits to the people.” (In case you don’t recognize canned statements prepared by out-of-touch PR bureaucrats – that was one.)

I see where this came from. Soon, the Long Island Railroad will have East Side Access into Grand Central station, so there should be room, right? Wrong. I’d love for someone involved – anyone really – to just try to remember why we’re spending billions of dollars to carve through millions of tons of bedrock under the East River. It was because Penn was overwhelmingly recognized as being much too crowded – and I might add – nobody could find any room on tracks leading into Grand Central for the LIRR. Are they now suggesting that taxpayers and commuters foot a bill that will eventually top out at $18 billion only to see the problem we attempted to alleviate made worse?

It’s nonsense. The whole point of the East Side Access Project was to create a terminal under Grand Central Station that would increase ridership on the LIRR, accessing central Manhattan without affecting Penn. In fact, Metro North went undisturbed by the LIRR move to Grand Central because the LIRR was forced to create its own space, literally carving out a cavern for its own terminal.

Where to even begin with Martins’ insanity? Perhaps the price tag would be a good start. East Side Access will clock far over budget and behind schedule, but Penn Station Access won’t cost an additional $9-$10 billion. It uses preexisting tracks and connections to deliver Metro-North trains to the West Side, a booming business center these trains currently do not access. These numbers are simply pulled out of thin air to further a poorly made point.

Second, relying upon the mistaken belief that Penn Station Access would be ready by 2016 when it wouldn’t be considered until after East Side Access is ready, Martins claims that Penn Station Access would make matters at Penn Station worse. It won’t at all because when East Side Access is ready, a lot of the train traffic and passenger traffic into Penn Station will shift to Grand Central. Despite Martins’ protestations concerning more studies, the MTA and regional transit advocates have recognized the impact ESA will have on alleviating some train traffic into Penn and know that Metro-North can slot in without major issues. Politicians, on the other hand, cannot see the forest for the trees.

Throughout the rest of the piece, Martins’ complaints about fare increases ring hollow, and his attempts to portray Long Islanders as victims of the MTA’s callousness seem petty at best and ignorant at worst. He’s distorting transit as a whole and making a mockery of a project that will vastly improve regional access to both sides of Manhattan. As long as we continue to elect these representatives, though, transit policy will remain forever locked in some soft of stasis chamber, not moving forward and nearly moving backward.

Ultimately, Penn Station Access is not nonsense, and it is part of a regional economy and a regional transit network that should deposit riders on both sides of Manhattan. Provincialism from Long Island politicians is nonsense, and I fear these voices will only grow louder as the project nears reality.

A proposed build of the Penn Station Access plan.

We don’t yet know what shape the MTA’s next five-year capital plan will take nor do we know who will see it through the prickly halls of Albany. It’s looking more and more likely though that Penn Station Access will be a significant part of that plan. I delved into the idea last week, but the short of it is that once East Side Access opens, the MTA can use some slots freed up by the LIRR’s move to Grand Central to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station.

Some Long Island politicians are not thrilled with the idea that their constituents won’t have as frequent service to the West Side, but those concerns should be obviated as Long Islanders head to the East Side instead. With that in mind, it’s hard to view this idea as anything other than a win-win for everyone involved. Recently, the MTA officials have spoken at length about their potential plans, and one report claims that the MTA hopes to send 10 Metro-North trains an hour into Penn Station.

Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo and Thomas Zambito have more:

As many as 10 Metro-North trains every hour could stream into Penn Station during the morning rush once the link to Manhattan’s West Side is opened up to Hudson Valley commuters in 2019, according to new MTA documents. Among them would be several New Haven Line trains that would arrive at Penn Station every 20-30 minutes, according to a presentation Metro-North’s parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, gave Connecticut officials earlier this month.

“It adds additional service to get more vehicles and cars off the road, to give people more transportation options not only to get to Manhattan but to get to more places in the region,” interim MTA chairman Fernando Ferrer said of the Penn Station project, which a 2008 state comptroller’s report estimated would cost $1.8 billion…

As part of the Penn Station Access project, Metro-North would run six to 10 trains an hour to Penn Station during the morning peak period, which lasts from 6 to 10 a.m. And four Metro-North trains an hour would run from Penn Station to Connecticut during the morning rush to accommodate reverse commuters. Two New Haven Line trains would run to and from Penn Station during off-peak periods and on weekends. No information was provided on how many trains Metro-North would operate at Penn Station during the 4-8 p.m. evening rush.

It’s important to realize that all of these numbers are very preliminary. The MTA is still studying the environmental impact of the Penn Station Access plan, and no funding requests have been submitted, let alone approved. Still, the MTA is trying to improve access to both halves of Manhattan as well as trying to improve transportation from the Bronx into Midtown.

As Newsday reports, however, this plan is not without its detractors. Charles Fuschillo, a Republican State Senator from Merrick, oversees the Senate Transportation Committee, and his group would have to approve the MTA’s next capital plan if he retains his position. He’s already voicing concerns. “I don’t support Connecticut trains coming at the expense of the Long Island Rail Road,” he said, further noting that Penn Station Access won’t have his vote unless “he is assured that the LIRR will not be harmed by the Penn Station plan.”

Now, in my view, that’s an absurdly siloed and selfish view. Long Island will reap the benefits of East Side Access, but its politicians don’t seem to recognize that it’s part of a larger region and bigger state that will benefit tremendously from Penn Station Access. As Long Island riders head to the East Side, capacity at Penn Station should easily enable Metro-North trains to come west.

Much of this talk is premature, but the battle lines have been drawn. The MTA wants Penn Station Access, and Westchester and the Bronx will as well. Long Island politicians are set to fight. Transit upgrades just never come easy, it seems.

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The MTA is currently analyzing the environmental impact of its Penn Station Access plans.

At some point in the future — hopefully soon — the MTA will again have a permanent chairman and CEO in charge of setting the direction for the agency’s future. The MetroCard replacement project can ramp back up, and, more importantly, such a person can begin to assemble the pieces for the MTA’s next five-year capital plan. In the meantime, we can glimpse the capital future from the bits and pieces that leak out to the public.

Already, we know the MTA will be focusing at least in part on an aggressive effort to modernize its subway signals. We don’t know what will happen with future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, but it would be foolish to build just Phase 1 while allowing plans for the full line to be discarded. Meanwhile, though, Penn Station and Metro-North are clearly in the the MTA’s and politicians’ sight lines.

When the East Side Access project wraps in 2018 or 2019 and the Long Island Rail Road deposits tens of thousands of riders into a deep cavern beneath Grand Central, Metro-North will have the ability to shift some rides to the West Side. We know that the MTA is moving forward with Penn Station Access studies, and now we learn that politicians are pushing the plan as well. Officials want Penn Station Access ready to go in 2019, and do that requires some aggressive planning and funding now.

DNA Info’s Patrick Wall has the story:

Their route set and destination in sight, Bronx and MTA officials are now pushing to secure funding and station space in order to send Metro-North trains rolling through the East Bronx by 2019.
To enact the plan to build four new East Bronx stations where residents could catch Metro-North trains to Connecticut or to Manhattan’s West Side, up to $800 million and train slots in Penn Station are needed. For its part, the MTA, which operates Metro-North, has co-sponsored a soon-to-be-completed study to analyze whether Metro-North trains could fit in Penn Station and has been searching for possible funding sources, including Connecticut’s Transportation Department.

Bronx elected officials, most notably Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., have been lobbying state lawmakers to fund the project in the MTA’s next capital budget and demanding that Long Island state senators share Penn Station space currently used by the Long Island Rail Road.

On Monday [the 11th], Diaz urged members of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce to wield their influence to win politicians’ backing for the project. “You let them know that if they want you to be supportive of them, they have to be supportive of The Bronx,” Diaz said at a public meeting hosted by the Chamber. “What better way than to have this legendary, transformative project come to fruition in our borough? You make that case to them.”

This project is a no-brainer in some ways. It requires no additional tunneling and opens up the West Side to transit riders from the Bronx and points north. On the other hand, the costs are tough to pin down at this early stage. Some initial estimates pegged the spend at around $400 million, but this recent report has the cost at twice that earlier figure. Costs will shift until — and probably after — a concrete plan is in place.

Additionally, Long Island politicians are playing both tough to get and selfish. They claim that the LIRR will still need the slots in Penn Station after East Side Access opens and won’t share with other New Yorkers who may want to access the West Side from points north. On the surface, it’s a silly argument that likely isn’t supported by ridership, but it’s one that will play out over the next few years.

Meanwhile, as DNA Info notes, for this West Side Access project to be included in the next five-year capital plan, the MTA will need to wrap up the environmental impact statement, identify operating partners and develop a space-sharing plan for Penn Station. These are obstacles but nothing that cannot be overcome. To improve mobility in the reason, Penn Station Access should see the light of day, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it over the next few years.

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The MTA is currently analyzing the environmental impact of its Penn Station Access plans.

When last we checked in with the MTA’s off-again, on-again plans to send Metro-North into Penn Station, it was under some disappointing circumstances. Short-sighted and territorial Long Island politicians had begun to protest Metro-North service into Penn Station (and, similarly, diverting some LIRR service into Grand Central) because it would rob constituents of their regular commutes. Their logic was tough to follow, and with East Side Access slowly on the way, completely inexplicable. Still, it was a disappointing development as the city tries to diversify transit options.

Still, the MTA is not deterred by this strange opposition. After performing the scoping studies in 1999 and 2000, the MTA has revived the Penn Station Access plan and is currently conducting environmental analysis studies that will be ready in 2013. Earlier this week, Authority officials were on hand to discuss their plans with the City Council, and Dana Rubinstein offered up a very thorough report from the hearing. She wrote of the far-off future:

After the completion of the East Side Access project, now due sometime in 2019, Long Island Railroad passengers will be able to disembark in Grand Central Terminal, rather than just Penn Station, which means there should be more space available on the west side for other railroad purposes.

One proposal that’s being considered is to run two new Metro-North trains out of Penn Station. One line would run north from Penn Station along the Amtrak line to Albany, connecting with the Hudson line in Spuyten Duyvil. The other line, which addresses that East Bronx issue, would run east from Penn Station along the Amtrak route to Boston, looping south of Grand Central, into western Queens and then north through the East Side of the Bronx, connecting with the New Haven line somewhere south of New Rochelle…

The proposal would not involve laying new track or building new rights-of-way, since the M.T.A. would presumably be able to use Amtrak’s. But it would involve the construction of six new stations, four in the east Bronx—near Co-op City, Morris Park-Bronx Medical Center, Parkchester and Hunts Point—and two on Manhattan’s west side, one at 125th Street, and the other possibly somewhere between West 54th and 57th streets and 10th and 11th avenues.

The MTA’s own study documents from nearly 15 years ago contain the outlines of the plans, and the authority will be updated these studies over the next few months. The key element, though, appears to be cost. For the four stops planned in the Bronx — Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point — the track already exists. The MTA would have to find funds to build only the stations.

According to City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, such a build could cost as little as $400 million — or $100 million per station. The MTA though hasn’t put a price tag on the project yet as it’s still in the planning stages. Still, advocates see this as a potentially affordable project for an agency that cannot control costs on its big-ticket investments. “I will say that it’s not a big capital investment item for the type of service that you’re talking about,” Chris Jones of the RPA said. “You’re not talking about billions of dollars for this.”

And so with vague indications of what the next capital campaign will contain, the MTA is moving forward on a project that can come online in tandem with East Side Access in 2019. It could improve access in the Bronx to both the East and West Sides and won’t come with sticker shock. Right now, it seems like a win-win. Will Long Island still object though?

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Penn Station access for Metro-North will not be a grievous insult to Long Islanders.

There must be something in the water out on Long Island that makes its politicians put forth some crazy ideas. A few days after one group of Long Island State Senators proposed a further repeal of the MTA payroll tax, another is protesting what is, in essence, better commuter rail service for New Yorkers from both the Island and Westchester.

The story goes a little something like this: On and off for the last decade or so, the MTA has toyed with a Penn Station Access Study that discusses how best to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station. In November, thanks to a push from Bronx politicians, the authority announced that it is engaged in a Federal Environmental Assessment that is exploring the impact such a routing would have. The assessment will be finished by the end of 2013, and at that point, the MTA will determine how best to proceed with this project.

Meanwhile, a group of Long Island Senators is having what can charitably be described as a freak-out. They are already calling upon the MTA to reject Metro-North service to Penn Station, and their complaints seem utterly short-sighted. “To make room for the new Metro-North Trains, the LIRR could be forced to cut the number of trains it runs into Penn Station,” Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Nassau County, said. “The LIRR is already sharing ingress into Penn Station, and any reduction of service could have a devastating impact on commuters and other travelers. With only seven of Penn Station’s existing 21 tracks being allotted to the LIRR, any reductions would seriously impair LIRR operations and affect all LIRR riders.”

The Senators, as Newsday reports, sent a letter to MTA Chairman Joe Lhota expressing their displeasure with the move. They don’t want to see a reduction in LIRR service to Penn Station, but they seem to be ignoring both common sense and commuting patterns.

Right now, as we know, the MTA is building out the East Side Access project that will, by 2016 or 2018 or some point this decade, bring LIRR service to Grand Central. The MTA studies show that tens of thousands of people from Long Island want and need direct service to the East Side. These folks currently travel via LIRR to Penn Station and then make their ways to the East Side. It’s circuitous and inconvenient.

Based on the current MTA funding proposals and the speed of construction, any Metro-North service into Penn Station is unlikely to see the light of day before the East Side Access project is completed. By then, the LIRR won’t need to run as many trains into Penn Station becomes some of its ridership will choose instead to go to the East Side. The Long Island Senators claim that, even after ESA is in service, LIRR must operate the same service into Penn Station. They want it all at the expense of better commutes for New Yorkers from Westchester. It simply defies transportation reason.

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