The idea to restore rail passenger service from the West Shore of Rockland County has been periodically discussed and proposed going back decades since service ended in 1959. All during the 1950s, the New York Central, which operated this route, was losing money. In 1954, the railroad announced that it planned on suspending service by 1959. Suspension of ferry service from the Weekhawken Terminal, which connected riders to Manhattan, ended in 1958. More commuters began traveling by car over the Tappan Zee Bridge, now known as the Mario Cuomo Bridge named after the late governor. This provided an easier direct connection to NYC.
In 1981, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority considered looking into the feasibility for resumption of service. Approval from both New Jersey Transit and Conrail, which operated freight service would have been needed. It was never successfully obtained. The Federal Transit Administration provided $4 million in funding to New Jersey Transit in 1997 to pay for a feasibility study. Several years later, a final report was issued. The project failed to advance beyond this study due to unresolved funding issues and disagreements with CSX, which owned the right of way. There were also operational issues with NJ Transit.
Residents from Blauvelt, Clarkstown, Congers, Haverstraw, Orangeburg, Orangetown, Tappan, West Nyack, Valley Cottage, Stony Point and other nearby communities might all benefit from this investment. Many Rockland County commuters, residents and taxpayers believe that they are shortchanged when it comes to service provided by the MTA. Implementation of this project might be one way to resolve this ongoing dispute.
The first action is identification of funding a planning study to look into the potential and viability of two new passenger rail systems. This is just the first step to support development of any potential capital transportation improvement project. The New York Department of Transportation, under the Federal Transit Administration Metropolitan & Statewide Planning and Non Metropolitan Transportation Planning 5303,5304 and 5305, is a recipient of millions in annual planning dollars. Some of these funds could be programmed to pay for this proposed study. It will require several years between obtaining funding under an approved grant, developing a scope of work, advertising and awarding a contract followed by a consultant to start and complete the study. The MTA and Metro North could apply to NYSDOT for funding to pay for a study which could determine the feasibility for restoration of West Shore rail passenger service in Rockland County. The MTA could also program a very small portion of their annual Section 5307 Urban Formula funding to cover the cost.
The next step would include attempting to qualify this project for the FTA capital funding under various programs. The MTA could attempt to qualify this project for the FTA capital funding under various programs. This could include Urbanized Formula 5307, State of Good Repair 5337 or Federal Highway Administration CMAQ (Flexible Congestion Mitigation Air Quality) or other FHWA programs. (These funds can be transferred to the FTA for funding transit projects.) There are other new FTA programs under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal with details and requirements to be spelled out in future FTA Federal Register Notices over coming weeks and months.
Another option is requesting permission to enter this project into the FTA national competitive Capital Investment Grants (CIG) 5309 New Starts or Core Capacity programs. There will be up to $23 billion available between 2022 and 2026. Of this amount, $8 billion will be available specifically dedicated to new high capacity transit projects, This is a three step process. First step is obtain permission from the FTA for entry into either the New Starts or Core Capacity programs. This would include completion of the federal environmental review process (NEPA) resulting in the FTA issuing a finding. FTA will determine if the project will require a more detailed full blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), versus a simpler Environmental Assessment (EA). This could easily require one to two years. There would also have to be an agreement between the FTA and MTA for budget and scope of work for the overall project. The second step would be obtaining the FTA permission to enter and complete final design and engineering. This would require one to two years.
The third step would be negotiating an FTA Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) for the project. This would include a final project scope, budget, schedule, project management plan and fleet management plan. The scope of work might also include construction of/or improvements to existing tracks, sidings, signals, power, power substations, sidings, stations, commuter parking, land acquisition, business relocations, utility, water or sewer relocation agreements, local feeder bus services and operating agreements with other freight and transit operators They might need to purchase additional rolling stock and modifications to existing or construction of new rail yards for maintenance and storage of equipment. Operational and service agreements with both CSX freight rail and New Jersey Transit would also be needed.
Another requirement is a positive cost benefit analysis. A financial plan would have to be developed. This could include identifying local match against any future FTA planning or capital grants to support advancement of the project. MTA would also have to ensure that they have adequate local operating assistance dollars to cover farebox revenue shortfalls. Riders only pay for a portion of the cost for any trip. The MTA would also need to have the resources to maintain all the capital investments financed by the FTA. All federally funded capital project investments have useful life requirements. They are usually based on industry standards. This would serve as documentation that any new or extensions to existing rail lines will stay in service for the intended useful life. The third step might require between one to two years.
The FTA in offering MTA a Full Funding Grant Agreement would cap the level of federal participation for the project. In addition to providing local match against federal dollars, MTA would be on the hook for any cost overruns above and beyond the agreed upon FFGA project cost. Based upon my personal experience from working for the FTA on similar projects, the process from start to finish could easily up to ten years before you board the first train.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.