The proposed New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Metro-North East Bronx access was originally studied in 2000. Fast forward to today and promised initiation of service in 2025 faces many unresolved obstacles still to be overcome.
The most recent delay was based upon the uncertainty of fully financing the MTA's proposed $51 billion 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. Added to this, after several years, is the inability of the MTA and Amtrak to reach a final agreement concerning the scope of work, track outages and Amtrak Force Account support necessary to advance the project. Amtrak wants the MTA to pay for some related work on the same corridor. The MTA believes that Amtrak should be paying for these improvements out of the railroad's own Capital Plan. The MTA promised to initiate this new service on the New Haven line via the Hell Gate Bridge within one year after the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) initiated service into Grand Central Terminal. The $11.2 billion LIRR Eastside Access project to Grand Central terminal is forecast for December, 2022 opening day of service. (This is the latest recovery schedule. It is well beyond the original promised 2009 date.) Metro North previously promised that they could initiate service into Penn Station one year later in December 2023. This has now been delayed two more years until December 2025.
The MTA’s Environmental Assessment (EA) of Penn Station Access was approved by the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 office for publication in May 2021. There was $694 million in local funding allocated to pay for this and other project related work included within the MTA $32 billion 2015 - 2019 Five Year Capital Plan. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently requested the FTA to prioritize promptly approving the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the EA in a June 10, 2021 letter to FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez. It is his desire to have the FONSI expedited. Based upon my previous experience working for the FTA Region 2 Office, it averages several months to complete this process.
The MTA, along with more than 30 other grantees served by FTA Region 2 have dozens of pending NEPA actions concurrently under review. Just which other MTA and non-MTA environmental reviews does Sen. Schumer believe that FTA should delay so this project can move to the front of the line? Did Schumer ever send a similar letter during the past five years to MTA Chairman Pat Foye requesting that his agency expedite development of the Environmental Assessment document to FTA? The MTA needing five years to complete this task clearly resulted in significant delays for development of this project. It should take responsibility for this.
Claims that this project will save Bronx commuters up to 50 minutes in each direction lack detailed justification. The same holds true for 33,000 anticipated riders. In our new post-COVID-19 world, Metro-North needs to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections. More people are going to telecommute from home on a part to full time basis.
The anticipated final cost will never be known until completion. The procurement process for awarding construction contracts is promised to take place before the end of 2021. Costs will be further refined by award of construction contracts followed by unforeseen site conditions and change orders to the base contracts during construction.
Coordination will be needed between various contractors, Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, MTA Office of Capital Construction (LIRR Eastside Access project) and New Jersey Transit. Another contract for hiring a construction management firm will be required to support this coordination effort. The existing Metro-North fleet will have to be expanded to support new Bronx East service to Penn Station.
Will current Bronx bus and or subway commuters want to pay the higher fares charged by Metro North? Riders would still have to pay twice when transferring from Metro North to the subway at Penn Station.
Service from existing Bronx Metro-North stations on the Hudson line (Yankees-East 153rd Street, Morris Heights, University Heights, Marble Hill, Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale) along with the Harlem line (Melrose, Tremont, Fordham, Botanical Garden, Williams Bridge, Woodlawn and Wakefield) currently charge fares of $216 for a monthly or $68 for a weekly ticket. A 10-trip peak is $97.50 and off-peak 10-trip is $61.75 to Grand Central Terminal. A single ticket is $9.75 peak or $7.25 off peak. Would this be any different to Penn Station? What would the fare structure be for Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point customers traveling to Penn Station along with reverse commuters to jobs and colleges in Westchester County and Connecticut?
While some riders will exit Penn Station and walk to work, most will have to pay an additional fare for boarding NYC Transit subway to other Manhattan destinations. These fares will clearly go up over the next four years prior to passenger revenue service is finally introduced in 2025 or later.
How would commuters arrive at any new Bronx East Stations? For those outside of walking distance, there will be the need for extension or creation of additional new NYC Transit bus routes. What about parking for those commuters who would drive to the station? One way of reducing automobile congestion and pollution created by those who drive to Manhattan is to take cars off the road. How many commuters from other Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut communities might elect to use new Bronx East Metro North service if there were available parking adjacent to any new stations?
Many more Bronx residents might benefit with funding going toward new subway cars, renovated subway stations including ADA improvements, upgrades to subway signals and tracks along with expanded express bus service to Manhattan rather than Metro North Penn Station access.
Everyone has long forgotten the history for one of the proposed stations to serve Co-Op City. Why not extend the NYC Transit #6 subway line beyond the Pelham Bay Park Station terminal to directly into Co-Op City? Thousands of Co-Op City residents could benefit by a seamless subway ride versus having a transfer from bus to subway.
Assume that Amtrak, MTA and Metro North will resolve all their outstanding issues in coming months. The next step would be to complete the procurement process and award a construction contract. Perhaps a Notice to Proceed to the contractor followed by mobilization of forces and materials takes place by January 2022. Will Amtrak be able to provide sufficient track outages and force account support to meet this aggressive schedule? Will Metro-North be able to provide sufficient force account to do the same? Will there be any need for Metro-North to combine or cancel trains on the New Haven line to support this project? Can construction be completed in less than three years?
Sen. Schumer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, other elected officials, NY MTA and Metro-North overlook the following problems which adversely impact this project. There is no room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections to Queens. Three of four tunnels running inbound during a.m. and outbound p.m. rush hours have very tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing during rush hours. Both Amtrak and NJ Transit need access to Queens Sunnyside Yards. This facility is used for mid day and overnight storage of trains. Equipment is positioned there for morning and evening peak rush hour service. There is limited platform capacity at Penn Station to accommodate additional trains. Penn Station currently operates at 100 percent capacity during rush hours.
The MTA is unable to run any Metro North trains from the Bronx to access Penn Station until the LIRR begins service to Grand Central Terminal. New Metro-North service from the New Haven line must compete with LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak access to one of four East River tunnels along with platform space at Penn Station before being able to start service in 2025.
All three agencies have their own plans for expanded rush hour Penn Station service. This is why proposed new services to Penn Station from the Bronx are challenging to initiate. Amtrak will not initiate major repairs and renovations to the East River Tunnels as a result of major damages suffered from Super Storm Sandy in 2012 until 2025. It will require one of two tunnels damaged by Super Storm Sandy in 2012 being out of service at a time for one year to support this work. The other two tunnels will need similar work. With only three of four tunnels available, there will be a reduction in Penn Station access and capacity. To preserve existing service, many LIRR rush hour trains will be canceled or combined. This may make it very difficult to add new services such as Bronx Metro North Access to Penn Station, until work on all four tunnels is competed by 2029.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants which provided funding for capital projects and programs to the NY MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYC DOT, NJ Transit and more than 30 transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.