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.