Archive for Penn Station Access

After nearly a year of negotiations, the MTA and Amtrak reached an agreement so the Penn Station Access project can move forward.

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/

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.

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Gov. Cuomo has found $250 million in his budget for Penn Station Access. (Image via @NYGovCuomo)

Last week, I bemoaned the near-total lack of capital funding for the MTA in the New York State budget, but one element of the budget that did include the bare minimum of a fiscal contribution to transit merits a closer look. The grant doesn’t help the MTA close its $15 billion funding gap, but it is earmarked for a specific project — and that is how these projects get built. Gov. Cuomo, you see, has guaranteed $250 million for Penn Station Access, the Metro-North project that will bring trains into Penn Station and four new stations to the Bronx.

In a sense, it’s strange to see Cuomo pushing this project and funding for it now. Metro-North trains won’t operate into Penn Station until some Long Island Rail Road trains are arriving at Grand Central, and as we know, East Side Access isn’t schedule to wrap until 2020 at the earliest and perhaps later. It’s hardly a pressing priority.

According to Cuomo’s budget release, the $250 million will cover a quarter of the project’s estimated $1 billion price tag, and New York expects the feds to pick up the remaining $750 million. Maybe Cuomo’s team feels this money won’t be available down the road; maybe the Governor just wants to cement the status of this plan or encourage the MTA start some work on the Bronx stations now even if the Penn Station Access piece won’t start until next decade.

As we know, the plan includes stations along the New Haven Line at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point and will involve some negotiation over the right-of-way with Amtrak south of New Rochelle. For its part, the MTA has called Penn Station Access “a lot of bang for not a lot of bucks.” But I’m still worried about the fare structure.

The MTA has struggled to attract riders to its commuter rail stations within New York City because the fare structure is not aligned with the subway. The City Ticket provides some measure of relief on the weekends, but New Yorkers in solidly working class neighborhoods aren’t going to shell out $6 or $7 per ride. There is though an easy way to solve that problem, and for inspiration, the MTA could look to Paris.

The City of Lights is attempting an experiment in pricing by instituting a flat monthly, universal fare for travel within a region that would encompass much of the MTA’s network were it grafted onto New York. At $76 a card, the price is nice too. Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic penned a long post on this experiment, and he inexorably brings New York into the picture. “Imagine,” he writes, a single monthly fare card for all transit service” within the New York Metropolitan Area.

Freemark opines on the positives and negatives, and I excerpt at length to highlight some thought-provoking ideas:

It is an aggressively pro-transit policy that further reduces the cost of riding the train or bus compared to commuting by car; this effort corresponds directly to the [French] national and regional government’s massive investment in suburban tramway and BRT lines, plus a vast new network of automated metro lines. Perhaps its greatest benefit is that it encourages people to take the fastest services available on any trip, while current fare policies give people discounts for taking slower local services…

Most importantly, the decision to spend hundreds of millions of euros on reduced fares could mean hundreds of millions of euros not being spent on better transit service every year—and some would argue that the best way to improve transportation is to expand service, not to lower fares…The cost tradeoff is certainly not one to scoff at. Last week, New York’s independent Citizens Budget Commission recommended capping the number of rides that can be taken with the (far more geographically constrained) unlimited fare card on New York City’s MTA Subway and bus system, in effect putting a limit on unlimited. Though the cap would affect relatively few people, it would be designed to raise revenues in a fiscally tight environment for an agency that is struggling with quickly growing ridership.

On the other hand, were New York to change its fare policies to allow current monthly pass holders to ride the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad to far-off destinations deep in Upstate New York, Connecticut, or Long Island—in other words, do what Paris is going to allow this fall—the MTA would be left with fewer revenues. But customers would benefit. They’d get faster service on commuter rail lines that many now avoid because of the higher price of travel (a trip from Jamaica in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, for example, costs $10 on the Long Island Rail Road for a 19-minute trip versus just $2.75 on the Subway for a 35-minute trip). People in neighborhoods currently only served by commuter rail, both in the city and in the suburbs, would suddenly have a reasonable-cost travel option equivalent to their peers with Subway access. People living in the city would suddenly have a much cheaper way to visit Long Island beaches on weekends, and people living on those beaches would suddenly have a much easier way of working downtown. These are not imaginary benefits.

Moreover, the cost tradeoff is not so simple as a conflict between lower universal fares and better service. Rather, the funding used to pay for the universal fare comes from a revenue source that may not have been politically feasible to raise unless it addressed the issue of equalizing transport access among different areas of the city. In other words, the hundreds of millions of euros being spent on this change may have only generated political support for the improvement of the transit system in the context of standardizing fares.

New York, of course, faces its own challenges as the money to subsidize fares would have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere — Albany — has been reluctant to touch any progressive ideas on transit funding or transit growth. Still, as the governor has clearly made Penn Station Access a priority, for the project to be a success, the governor and his appointees should consider the fare structure too. Even if New York isn’t prepared for a regional one-fare system, better aligning intra-NYC fares would be a step in the right direction. If anything, in Queens, it may be a way to spare the Queens Boulevard lines a capacity crunch, and in the Bronx, it could usher in a successful Penn Station Access project in eight or nine years.

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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.

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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.

Categories : Penn Station Access
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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?

Categories : Penn Station Access
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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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