2017-04-21 / Columnists

Delays Ahead For Bronx Metro North Access To Penn Station?

Transit Talk
By Larry Penner

Wonder why Metro North’s New Haven branch new East Bronx service to Penn Station will not start until 2024 or later? The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration amended Metropolitan Transport- ation Authority Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) East Side Access (ESA) Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) was signed off in November 2016 by both USDOT FTA and the MTA. Senator Charles Schumer and Governor Andrew Cuomo are never shy around a camera or microphone and always looking for a photo op. Neither of them held a standard Sunday sidewalk press conference to celebrate this event. Here's why both Schumer and Cuomo are so silent. After years of negotiations, the MTA and USDOT FTA came to an agreement which would reflect the true current cost and schedule. Both the cost went up and first revenue day of service slipped once again. Taxpayers now have to pick up the tab which according to the amended FFGA could be up to $12 billion. LIRR riders will have to wait until December 31, 2023 before boarding the first train to Grand Central Terminal.

There is little room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during either a.m. or p.m. 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. This also includes limited platform capacity at Penn Station to accommodate any additional trains. Penn Station is currently operating at 100 percent capacity during both a.m. and p.m. rush hours.

No Metro North trains from the Bronx will be able 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 Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak access to one of four East River tunnels along with platform space at Penn Station before being able to start service

There are a number of other competing new services looking for nonexistent rush hour Penn Station platform, track and East River tunnel capacity in coming years. First we have Metro North wanting to begin service at a cost of $700 million plus from the east Bronx via the Hell Gate Bridge and Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside, Queens on to Penn Station sometime between 2021 and 2023. Next, the LIRR has invested $450 million to complete double tracking on the Ronkonkoma branch. Once Main Line Third Track is completed at a cost of $2 billion plus, the LIRR has plans to expand Ronkonkoma branch rush hour service to Penn Station. Governor Cuomo also has plans to provide new frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point station. This is to support his $450 million plus LaGuardia Air Train. Many Rockaway residents want restora- tion of LIRR service on the old Rockaway Beach branch which suspended service in 1962. (Today NYC Transit runs the A subway along a significant portion of the old LIRR right of way). Both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit have future plans to expand service in and out of Penn Station..

Bronx residents might get a better bang for the buck with funding going toward new subway cars, renovated subway stations, upgrades to subway signals and tracks along with expanded express bus service to midtown and downtown Manhattan rather than Metro North Penn Station access. It might have made more sense to just provide seed money to complete the environmental review process along with preliminary and final design. These costs average 10 percent of any capital project. Finding between $70 and $100 million to fund these efforts as part of the MTA's 2015 - 2019 Capital Plan may have been more realistic. It might have also made more sense to program the $700 to $900 million in construction funds into the next MTA 2020 - 2024 Capital Plan. This would coincide with East Side Access into Grand Central Teriminal reaching actual beneficial use. At that point, Metro North will still have to come to a formal operating agreement with all other transit agency tenants at Penn Station for track and plat- form access. That would include the LlRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak. The net result could be actual construction for this project being postponed to the next 2020 - 2024 Capital Program. In the end, Bronx transit riders may still have to wait until 2024 or later before boarding any Metro North train to Penn Station.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.

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