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.