Home Capital Program 2015-2019 A look at the Capital Plan: Penn Station Access, 2nd Ave. Subway and more

A look at the Capital Plan: Penn Station Access, 2nd Ave. Subway and more

by Benjamin Kabak

With the celebration over, the hungover can settle in. Now I’m not talking about the Royals or the Blue Jays; those two teams are still celebrating their victories this week. Rather, I’m talking about the MTA and its capital plan. After relief over this past weekend’s surprise agreement on capital funding, we’ve had to face the reality of the MTA’s spending decisions this week. We know that everything costs too much, and no one wants to tackle cost reform. But what are we actually getting for our $28 billion?

To only kinda sorta answer my own question, we don’t know with 100% certainty what the capital plan will be. The MTA has trimmed a few billion dollars and still has to cut $700 million. There’s also a chance that Mayor Bill de Blasio will wake up tomorrow and suddenly care about transit projects in the city, thus requiring the MTA to adjust some plans for city-focused projects. That is, however, a remote likelihood, and we can lean on the previously-released proposal for a $32 billion plan for guidance.

The highlights are a bit underwhelming unfortunately. The big-ticket expansion plans involve Penn Station Access, a post-East Side Access plan being pushed by the Governor that will bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station. The proposal involves four stops in the Bronx that cost far too much, and no indication that the MTA will rationalize intra-city commuter rail fares to encourage ridership to and from the Bronx and Manhattan. It’s a fine proposal on its merits, but it needs some help.

The other big-ticket item is Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and I have to assume this is where the bulk of the city’s dollars will go. Unfortunately, though, this is a request for only some of the money the MTA needs for Phase 2, and the agency has been tight-lipped on how much the northern extension will cost. We likely won’t see Phase 2 open until some time in the mid-2020s, but at least the MTA is continuing with this work. Why it will take 2-3 years after Phase 1 opens to start the next segment is a question yet to be answered.

Beyond those two items, the capital money is going to bunch of technology upgrades that are long overdue. The MTA hopes to complete installation of the Help Point system, something that may or may not be a total waste of money (and I do hope to revisit that soon), and the badly-needed double-tracking project for the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma Branch will wrap. Positive Train Control will become a reality for Metro-North and the LIRR, and CBTC will become a reality for some New York City subway lines. Ideally, countdown clocks will expand to the B Division’s lettered subway lines, and as Cuomo noted this week, 1000 new subway cars — including new rolling stock for the C train — are on the way.

As far as the funding split goes, the mix tends to favor the commuter rail lines on a ridership basis, but you can make the argument that all MTA divisions need the dollars. New York City Transit will get $17 billion, the overwhelming majority of the money, but only 20 stations will be eligible for upgrades under this plan. The LIRR and Metro-North will split around $5.7 billion, but is this all even enough?

Some MTA sources I’ve spoken with wanted the agency to ask for $40 billion off the bat so the reductions would still lead to a high capital plan. Without spending reform though, money simply feeds the beast. Meanwhile, as we learned a year ago, not everyone is too enthusiastic about this plan. The CBC in particular levied harsh criticism toward the MTA for failing to provide adequate cost-benefit analyses or sufficiently prioritizing state of good repair work. Staten Islanders too don’t see much value in it.

Ultimately, the MTA has an overwhelming number of repairs to make, a finite amount of money, and systematic problems with cost control. It’s an imperfect solution, but it must go forward as the alternative is far far worse. Does it help the MTA adjust to a life where trains are crowded well out of normal peak hours and service can’t match demand? That’s hard to say, and if it doesn’t, we’re in trouble. As the money continues to flow, though, now is time for some reforms on costs. Will someone take up that mantle?

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eo October 15, 2015 - 10:03 am

“The proposal involves four stops in the Bronx that cost far too much, and no indication that the MTA will rationalize intra-city commuter rail fares to encourage ridership to and from the Bronx and Manhattan.”

This appears to be a tough nut to crack here in the US. The problem being that by lowering the intra-city fares or even making them comparable to the subway the ridership at inside NYC stations will grow enough to cause two problems:

1.Depending on the exact amounts of service and new ridership the trains might end up running half empty past the city border. That is a problem in terms of costs caused by non-revenue generating empty seats and is especially acute if the trains go beyond New Rochelle. End point of Stamford or New Heaven means that for 50% or 75% of the end to end journey the seats are empty.

2.If you cut the amount of service so that the trains are not, say more than 20-25% empty beyond New Rochelle, then you will end up forcing the suburban commuters to stand part of the way (on the journey out) and have a lot of standees in general up to New Rochelle. This is unlikely to go well with the suburban commuters who are used to always having a seat.

A somewhat similar situation which is not resolved exists within NJTransit between NYP and Secaucus. You either have a standing room only train between the two stations or you end up with a half empty train going to Montclair or even as far as Trenton.

The proper way to address this is to run local and express service. Local trains between New Rochelle and NYP for within NYC and express trains skipping all city stops to NYP. I do not know if that is what they plan to do. To the best of my knowledge the EIS is not even awarded yet. With local/express configuration you can make the intra-city fares lower than they would otherwise be. The problem with the local/express configuration is that it lends itself to budget cuts in difficult times making everything local and running into the two issues described above.

From capital perspective the local/express configuration has one drawback: you end up running more trains that you would otherwise do between New Rochelle and NYP. That means you need more track space and as a result at least one express track, but probably two. I do hope that whatever they decide to build they at least preserve space for 4 tracks even if they do not put the forth track in initially. Otherwise over time the pressure to serve the suburbia will cause the local service to suffer either by combining it with the express and increasing the costs of the intra-city trip, or by reducing local service to make space for the expresses.

This is what has happened to NJTransit. Operationally the best way to service Secaucus is to run local trains between Newark and NYP. Then you do not lug half empty trains out to Trenton or have standing room only leaving/entering NYP. However local service between Newark and NYP cannot be run because it willneed to take away slots from the existing trains going into NYP reducing the service between NYP and Trenton (or Montclair, etc.). The problem is that the “thin” portion of the line (2 tracks) is the one which should be the “thickest” with the largest number of tracks (at least 4). It should be noted that the old Pensy did not have this problem — they had many tracks to Jersey City, so the eastern portion of the line was indeed the “thickest” (times are different now though and Jersey City and the surrounding area are not the destination they used to be).

On the same note, I believe that the MTA should be doing the same express/local pattern on the Atlantic Branch, not the stupid shuttle from Jamaica that they are planning once ESA opens.

Larry Littlefield October 15, 2015 - 11:10 am

The four Bronx stops are not intended to bring Bronx residents to Manhattan. They are intended to take Bronx residents in the other direction, a type of ridership that is booming.


Fairfield County has a labor shortage as a result of zoning out the poor and working class, and I-95 is jammed. The business community there is seeking access to cheap Bronx workers, without paying the taxes needed to pay for their public services. And Bronx has the highest unemployment rate in the city.

The folks in the Northern Suburbs are, of course, progressive about these things compared with Long Island, were less well off people are also zoned out and there is even less multifamily housing. They complain about the traffic of people driving in from the city to work, run over immigrant bicyclists, and oppose a third mainline track to help reverse commuting. I think they’d like city residents to crawl out there to work in their low wage jobs, licking the road clean as they do so.

AG October 15, 2015 - 1:14 pm

Not everyone in the Bronx is “cheap and poor”. Actually my own father drives and takes the express bus from Co-op city into Midtown. He prefers being able to get a seat by paying extra money. The same with people in solidly middle class Morris Park. Parkchester and Hunts Point are close enough on the 6 train it doesn’t really make sense if you can afford it. That said – you are correct overall in that reverse commuting from the Bronx to the suburbs is actually big. Part of that has nothing to do with wages – but simply there are not enough workers in the suburbs.
Anyone who has seen the huge crowds at the new Bay Plaza Mall can only hope that the Co-Op City stop can relieve some of the traffic (the lines for the bus are ridiculous and cars are bumper bumper. In Morris Park there are more than ten thousand of workers in all the hospitals – the college – and hutch metro center. A good amount of technical and educated workers come from Westchester and Connecticut. It is expected quite a few will make the switch to the train. Especially as the metro center is going to double in size over the next few years – and the traffic already backs up.
There are another 10k workers in Hunts Point – but I don’t know enough about where the workers come from to imagine the usage. (Actually Morris Park and Hunts Point are major reasons as to why average wages at jobs in The Bronx are higher than every borough beside Manhattan).
The only real “problem” with Penn Station Access is that the original plans to include the Hudson line in it seem to be shelved due to the cost of replacing the Amtrak bridge between The Bronx and Manhattan. For true regional connectivity – we need all commuter lines to connect at both Penn and GCT. Ok well NJT to GC will prob never happen- but I have to think there is a way to get the Harlem line to Penn eventually as well.

Henry October 16, 2015 - 12:22 am

Hunts Point will be located right next to the subway station, which is a major transfer hub. I believe most of the patronage at that station is expected to come from reverse commuters who might take the bus to Hunts Point Av, similar to what happens today at Fordham Plaza.

AG October 16, 2015 - 11:14 am

You are correct (and it should take some of the burden off of the Fordham station). I was more wondering about how many workers who work at Hunts Point who might use it. I don’t have any numbers on where those 10k come from. I know an Operations Manager who lives in Connecticut and works down there – but he’s pretty close to retirement so it wouldn’t affect him. On the flip side I know a trained chef who almost took a job creating recipes for a food company. She’s young and didnt take it. Why? She lives in the suburbs and would have had to drive. She doesn’t want to drive to work anymore (as more young people nowadays). If that station was functioning now she would have taken it.
As an aside – as gentrification is beginning in nearby Mott Haven and Port Morris – I’d expect by that time the value of the lovely townhouses in Hunts Point will go up (especially since all the strip clubs now run out of the area)… So come 2022 if we are still here – the demographics might be different there. It might be similar to Red Hook – but with better transport.

tacony October 15, 2015 - 1:16 pm

The funny thing is that New Haven Line local trains only stop at Fordham in the Bronx. They skip every other stop. New Haven Line express trains don’t stop anywhere in the Bronx.

There are five other local stations that every New Haven Line train skips. They only have service on the Harlem Line despite the two sharing the same track in the Bronx. And the amount of Harlem Line service at some of these stations is not convenient, making transferring from one to the other a real pain.

The number of Bronxites using the Harlem Line to reverse commute up to Westchester has exploded, and the number of people using the New Haven Line to reverse commute from Manhattan to Stamford and Greenwich is also up. But I’m not sure if this is a chicken or egg scenario with regard to Bronx-to-New Haven Line workers. Does Metro-North not make that easy because there’s no demand? Or is it that White Plains has a lot of retail jobs in its 3 malls that attract Bronx workers while Connecticut reverse commuters are more affluent finance workers who live in Manhattan?

It seems odd to be spending billions on new stations when they haven’t even provided the service needed to make it easy to reverse commute from the areas of the Bronx that already have Metro-North stations.

AG October 15, 2015 - 1:31 pm

The New Haven line is strange that way. For instance they don’t allow for travel between Fordham and GC. That is very strange since you have the huge university- the zoo and botanical gardens right there. Both of those last two are huge tourist draws. Even more strange is that the Harlem and Hudson lines allow it. If you use those trains in the evening you will see plenty of people on the Middle class areas of Woodlawn and Marble Hill/Sputen Duyveil/Riverdale use it to GC. As it relates – I would expect to see that to/fro Co Op City and Morris Park.

tacony October 15, 2015 - 1:54 pm

Ah yes, I forgot about that issue too. Metro-North doesn’t even allow travel from Fordham to GCT on New Haven Line trains– not because of any technical limitation but as a matter of policy apparently because ConnDOT doesn’t want to subsidize Bronxites. Will the new PSA stations also be hobbled by such ridiculous restrictions? All the express trains from Connecticut will bypass the Bronx, and the locals will be discharge-only, only allowing reverse-peak service?


AG October 15, 2015 - 2:32 pm

Based on what the governor has said – I would expect it to function more like the Hudson and Harlem lines – since NY is putting up all the money (to allow people from CT to get to Penn). Though yes the people in CT (as their quotes supporting the new stations) are more focused on getting Bronx residents to fill jobs up there (CT has anemic growth).

AG October 15, 2015 - 2:46 pm

You do have a point regarding those suburban trains . On current New Haven trains – leaving GCT even on the 909 pm train you have people standing. Usually a good amount of people get off at MT. Vernon East though and more seats open up. Still – at the start you could mistake it for a subway. In the reverse – even by the 653 am train inbound – many of the people who get on at MV East have to stand. That only eases as a fair amount of riders get off at Fordham.

As to the Atlantic terminal issue – if we are lamenting – I’m lamenting that tunnel to Lower Manhattan wasn’t built after 9/11. Maybe in another decade that will come up again.

adirondacker12800 October 15, 2015 - 3:16 pm

If we want it to open in 2035 we have to start the planning now. Major Investment study and a few years of lawsuits then Draft Environmental Impact and a few years of lawsuits. Then a few lawsuits over whether or not the MIS was flawed. And then a few that the DEIS is getting old….

AG October 15, 2015 - 3:48 pm

Am assuming you mean the Lower Manhattan tunnel… Sadly you sound pretty close to how it would go. That said – was an EIS done? I recall Congress set aside a couple billion for the project after 9/11… Of course the money was diverted.

AG October 15, 2015 - 3:44 pm

Should have specified “by the time it reaches MV east” at 653 am

tacony October 15, 2015 - 12:53 pm

Mayor Bill de Blasio will wake up tomorrow and suddenly care about transit projects in the city, thus requiring the MTA to adjust some plans for city-focused projects

I’d rather see him tie city money to system performance. Major service disruptions should hit the MTA financially. Give them an incentive to not provide such horrid service. Why do I care about system expansion when I’m waiting 15 minutes for an uptown 6 train that never left Brooklyn Bridge on-time on a Sunday, and when it arrives it’s too crowded to get on? Why do I want new stations when the existing stations are covered in filth from never being cleaned?

This is the stuff everybody complains about, yet this is the stuff the MTA doesn’t seem to think matters, because they can’t blame anyone but themselves. But maybe if the MTA budget were actually impacted by their failure to run the system efficiently, it would change? I know operating and capital budgets are separate, but could one serve as a gift in exchange for performance in the other?

Does it help the MTA adjust to a life where trains are crowded well out of normal peak hours and service can’t match demand?

The point is that outside of “normal peak hours,” the only reason the “service can’t meet demand” is the MTA’s own choice of loading guidelines and the MTA’s incompetence in keeping to schedule. I don’t see how any of the capital plan impacts this.

Few people complain about the fact that the LIRR goes to Penn Station instead of going to a cavern deep below Grand Central that will be served by extremely long, slow, periodically-out-of-service escalators. Few people complain about the lack of “Help Points” in the stations. (Hint: if the trains ran more frequently and dependably we wouldn’t be standing around in the stations so much….)

Everybody complains about the trains being unreliable and the stations looking like horror movies, but the MTA doesn’t seem to care. The capital plan is driven by political BS that “sounds like a good idea” to people who don’t use the system or think much about it– e.g. Cuomo’s random embrace of putting more Metro-North stations in the Bronx. Because if you ask some random people in those neighborhoods if they’d like a station there they’ll tell you “sure!” (And the track is already there, so it minimizes NIMBYism!) Will all those people actually end up using those stations when they’re built? Very few. But it’s the political symbolism of giving something to constituents that sounds like a good idea, not the actual usefulness of the project. That’s the heart of the capital plan.

AG October 15, 2015 - 2:40 pm

But how could he make demands on workers when he is controlled and empowered by every union? He only makes demands to “the evil rich people”. Have you ever heard him demand anything from anyone who wasn’t an “elite”?

As to very few people using those metro north stations… I would expect they get the same use as any of the suburban stations not named Stamford. People especially in Co Op City have been begging for over 20 years. Have you seen the traffic on the Hutch Parkway coming from Westchester and Connecticut trying to get to jobs in the East Bronx? Why is that not a valid issue to want to alleviate? I fail to see how this is just political. Just because everyone in the tri state won’t use it doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Aside from the fact that new transit caused new investment in urban areas – I fail to see the gripe.

tacony October 15, 2015 - 3:39 pm

The suburban stations have high ridership because the subway doesn’t go to the suburbs. In fact, even within the suburbs, the Metro-North stations where it’s easy to take Bee-Line bus into the city and transfer to the subway are the ones with relatively lower ridership. More people in Yonkers and Mount Vernon for instance, do this instead of using Metro-North.

Everywhere people have the option to take the frequently running low priced subway or the infrequent expensive LIRR or Metro-North, they overwhelmingly choose the subway, despite the fact that the travel times are theoretically greater if you don’t account for waiting time. If you live in Co-Op City, you’re going to be able to take the bus to the subway as you currently can, or you’ll be able to take the bus to the new Metro-North station where you’ll wait around for significantly longer time and pay 3x+ the price. People don’t want to memorize schedules, wait around, or pay that much of a premium. As Ben notes there is “no indication that the MTA will rationalize intra-city commuter rail fares.”

It’s not that it’s a totally worthless project, it’s just extremely expensive for the benefit it will provide. The biggest benefit will potentially go to Westchester and Connecticut, who will now be able to draw more workers from the East Bronx. But relatively few will regularly commute from the new stations into Manhattan, and relatively few will commute to the new stations from the suburbs, just like the existing Metro-North stations in the Bronx.

Let’s use an example: Williams Bridge is one of those stations skipped by all New Haven trains but served by local Harlem Line trains. NYC DCP did a nice little study that summarizes the stats here: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pd.....bridge.pdf

It only gets 167 inbound passengers and 536 outbound passengers per weekday, compared to the nearest 2 and 4 train stops which get 7,212 and 9,596 per weekday. And being “a half mile from the Montefiore Medical Center, the flagship hospital of the largest private employer in the Bronx,” you’d think more Montefiore employees from the suburbs would take Metro-North, but they don’t. I’m sure the upper income workers drive and the lower income workers take the bus to the subway. Metro-North in its current iteration is just not a better option for many people at all.

AG October 15, 2015 - 4:05 pm

Morris Park and Co Op City have WAY MORE potential users than a Williamsbridge stop. Using the 5 or 6 is not convenient from those areas. And Morris Park has way more jobs than the Norwood campus of Montiefiore. Also since only the Harlem line stops anywhere that Norwood campus why would suburbanites go there??? You want them to take an infrequent train and then walk half a mile up a hill. I know a person who used to do that from north of whit plains but the train was too infrequent so they switched back to driving. The situations are nowhere comparable. I mean there is a reason Fordham is one of the busiest station in the commuter network but Wakefield is not. There is a reason Riverdale gets more riders than Melrose. Look where the (planned) Morris Park station is. Also check the difference in traffic. Oh and if it helps Bronx residents get to jobs outside the city – what would be wrong with that? You prefer them to be unemployed or drive (which some already do)? Funny you cite a study regarding why there is low relative ridership at Williamsbridge but pass over the ones by the same entity who say those four new stations are a good idea and the surrounding neighborhoods should be rezoned to capture new real estate investment

AG October 15, 2015 - 4:13 pm

As to what things are worth it… Well by today’s numbers the whole Hudson line should be closed except the Poughkeepsie station. Likewise at least half of the Harlem line stations in Westchester should be closed – since “it’s not worth it”.
Oh and yes – plenty of people from MV use the 2 and 5. Still – go to MV East at 9am and that huge parking lot is filled with cars of commuters

SEAN October 16, 2015 - 11:19 am

Route 42, the bus that goes to the 2 & 5 doesn’t serve Mount Vernon East. Therefore, you need to choose witch serves your needs.

AG October 16, 2015 - 2:10 pm

Am not sure what you mean. Of course everyone does what works best for them – according to their own pocket. Since 2 and 5 are on the border basically walk. Plenty also drive and park close. Then of course there 2 other stations close by that serve the Harlem line (MV West and Fleetwood). My point is not everyone is in the same economic boat just because they live close. Theoretically everyone in mount Vernon could drive and park or take the bus to the subway (you forget the 55 bus as well) – but hundreds of people would rather drive and park at Fleetwood and Mount Vernon West… They pay much more for the train and pay for parking too – though a cheaper option is near buy. Just as plenty of people in the east Bronx pay extra for express buses rather than taking the regular bus to the subway. The east Bronx and Mt. Vernon have similar income spreads. Reason to believe the scenarios would be the same…

SEAN October 16, 2015 - 5:03 pm

Perhaps people choose MNR in Mount Vernon over the subway since the train gets to Midtown in under thirty minutes?

Based on your logic, the 61 bus from Port Chester should be overflowing with passengers since the fare is cheaper then the New Haven Line & it crosses several subway lines in The Bronx. The reality is that this lines ridership is rather thin.

The 55 connects the 5, Mount Vernon East, Fleetwood stations & Cross County. But again, the ridership isn’t spectacular. However- it is better than the 61 by any mesure.

AG October 16, 2015 - 5:27 pm

I honestly don’t understand what you are talking about. There is no subway near Port Chester… I’m not sure you were actually following the discussion.

Henry October 16, 2015 - 1:50 pm

So, financially penalize them for upkeep they can’t do because of a lack of consistently funded maintenance, resulting in less funding for said consistently funded maintenance? Sounds like a plan!

Really, what we need is to shake up the contractors and the unions, who are both implicated in these ridiculous cost overruns.

Larry Littlefield October 15, 2015 - 3:42 pm

As for the second phase of the SAS, instead of turning a three-station extension into a 15-year money pit, the agency should just bid the whole thing out design-bid at $1.6 billion and see if anyone comes in with a reasonable plan.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 8:20 am

Given the existing tunnels, I’d actually bid it as three separate contracts, one for each station.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 8:21 am

(The point being that there’s very little work to speak of to be done in the existing tunnels, and they break up the contracts logically. You can therefore get more competition by bidding each station separately.)

Will October 15, 2015 - 4:58 pm

I really hope you (Kabak) do revisit the Help Point system, because you keep heaping abuse on it and I’m really interested to know why. The best explanation I’ve seen from you yet is that everyone can (eventually) use their cell phones in a station, presumably leaving the Help Points redundant. You seem to assume 1) everyone has a working cell phone and 2) people will know how to find the information they need to ride transit online. Hardwired red buttons for emergencies work even if you can’t afford a cell plan. I can also remember my first time in the NYC subways a few years ago and finding myself helpless without directions. I speak English and I was coming from NJ, but New York is a national and international destination. Why assume out-of-town riders will know to go to mta.info while on the platform and that they be able to understand it? Wouldn’t helpful green buttons on the platform levels in all stations do far more good than the remaining station attendants in fortified booths on some mezzanines?

What I don’t know is what kind of upgrades will be required for the prophesied MetroCard replacement. Does the MTA have to run new fiber lines into stations anyway for the new fare technology, if it isn’t doing so already for the station WiFi/cell network extension? Are most of the Help Point rollout costs attributable to basic infrastructure upgrades that can be reused by other systems (CCTV, for example)? Hopefully you know more about such things than I.

Benjamin Kabak October 15, 2015 - 5:13 pm

I’m waiting for some follow up numbers from the MTA for which I’m hoping not to have to submit a FOIL request. I don’t mean to heap abuse on them, but there are some serious questions regarding cost of installation and maintenance considering how little they’re used. The infrastructure too is in addition to the cell infrastructure rather than piggybacking off of it.

Questions October 15, 2015 - 5:52 pm

How expensive could it possibly be to maintain a glorified intercom system? And how do they work if they’re not relying on the cell infrastructure?

Tower18 October 16, 2015 - 11:53 am


pete October 16, 2015 - 3:49 pm

HelpPoints use Wifi to talk back to one fiber connected node per station (it looks like a helppoint with no helppoint on it, just a grey metal plate with blinking lights). HelpPoints use consumer grade 5.2 GHZ wifi for “information” VOIP calls, and law enforcement only 4.9 GHZ wifi for “emergency” VOIP calls.


Most helppoints are powered by the existing fluorescent lights and the existing 120v power outlets mounted high up on columns fed from the fluorescent lights. Helppoints are a glorified intercom system.

AG October 15, 2015 - 8:50 pm

Interestingly – an article was just out about the guy whose company supplies the Help Point. He’s a local NY company who had never done a project this big before. He was competing against the “big boys” and won the contract. Apparently – Los Angeles Metro is in talks with him to bring the system over there next.

AG October 15, 2015 - 8:46 pm

Makes sense – but sadly it is very very doubtful that would happen.

AG October 16, 2015 - 8:14 am

After being delayed this morning by “signal trouble” and having to jump out and spend 10 dollars extra to get to work on time – for the third time in the past month – I really wish they would triple the speed of implementing CBTC… Unreliable signals are a personal and city-wide economic hit!!


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