A top-ranking MTA official says Amtrak’s ‘unreasonable’ demands have stalled plans for a $1B rail project that would link Manhattan’s West Side to Westchester
Amtrak’s 11th-hour demands have stalled plans for a rail project that would deliver Metro-North commuters to Manhattan’s West Side for the first time and open a new path to jobs in Westchester County, a top-ranking Metropolitan Transportation Authority official says.
Negotiations between Amtrak, the government-run passenger rail, and the MTA have broken down in recent months, delaying by at least six months the opening of bids for design of the Penn Station Access Project, according to Janno Lieber, the chief development officer for the MTA, Metro-North’s parent agency.
“The MTA is going to build this,” Lieber said in his first interview on the subject. “The MTA is going to pay for it. Amtrak is getting a new railroad … They’re getting all this for free and we need a commitment that they will allow us not just to build them a new railroad but to operate on that once we’re done.”
After two decades of on-again, off-again discussions, the $1 billion plan to transform Amtrak’s existing right of way into a thoroughfare for tens of thousands of daily commuters appeared to gain momentum this year only to be bogged down during the current round of talks.
Proponents hope the latest hurdles can soon be cleared for a project that comes with a promise to transform the daily commute for residents of Westchester County and points north by eliminating the cross-town trek to the West Side after they disembark at Metro-North’s Grand Central Terminal hub.
They include Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, where residents would, for the first time, have a one-seat ride to Manhattan’s West Side.
“Frankly I think it’s not on the typical person’s radar but when you speak to someone their eyes light up,” Bramson said. “If you’ve got an office on the West Side it shaves 20 minutes off your commute. That’s 40 minutes a day. That’s a big chunk out of your life.”
A few highlights of the MTA’s plan:
- After New Rochelle, New Haven Line trains would split, with some taking the existing route to Grand Central and others taking a new route along the Hell Gate Line to Penn Station.
- Six Sound Shore towns — New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Rye, Port Chester and Harrison — would be able to access the route to Penn Station.
- Four new stations would be built in the Bronx in Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point.
- The project would come online in the years after the East Side of Manhattan is opened to Long Island Rail Road trains, which currently use Penn Station as their Manhattan hub.
An old bridge, a new problem
Amtrak owns much of the property on which the project will be built, including the Hell Gate right of way, which the railroad currently uses to get into and out of Penn Station. The same approach would be used to deliver New Haven Line trains to Penn Station.
And that’s where much of the tension between the two sides has been centered.
Amtrak wants to collect access fees for use of the Hell Gate, in addition to what the MTA has already agreed to pay as part of a federally-mandated cost-sharing deal, Lieber said.
And the MTA balked at Amtrak’s recent demand that the authority pay for the bulk of the cost to replace the Pelham Bay Bridge, a 111-year-old Amtrak-owned span that crosses the Hutchinson River in the Bronx.
At a September MTA meeting, Lieber estimated the cost of replacing the bridge at between $400 million and $600 million, plus millions more in access fees. He considers both demands deal breakers.
“We are concerned that the commuter population in New York State especially is being held ransom for some unreasonable demands,” he added.
Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the railroad has been cooperating with the MTA’s efforts to expand its service into Penn Station, run by Amtrak.
In a statement, Abrams said Amtrak wants “to ensure that the proposed expansion of Metro-North service does not adversely impact Amtrak intercity passenger rail operation, which will see a significant expansion in 2021 with the introduction of expanded Acela service between New York and Boston.”
The MTA hopes the project, estimated to take three to five years, can break ground soon after work is completed on the MTA’s East Side Access Project.
That project will give Long Island Rail Road trains access to Grand Central Terminal by way of a station being built in the basement of the landmark terminal.
Lieber estimates that work will be done by 2022.
If all goes as planned, the Penn Station project would dovetail with the completion of the Moynihan Station development on the site of the Farley Post Office building west of Eighth Avenue as well as planned upgrades at Penn Station located beneath Madison Square Garden. Both projects are being financed largely by the state of New York.
Abrams said Amtrak is trying to coordinate plans for the Penn Station project with the Moynihan project as well as East Side Access, while trying to accommodate four passenger railroads at Penn Station.
In addition to Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, NJ Transit uses Penn Station. The four railroads would have to share ticketing space and platforms in Penn Station and Moynihan Station.
Costs for the Penn Station Access Project are being shared by the state of New York and the MTA. The Cuomo Administration dedicated $250 million in state assistance for the Penn Station Access project in 2016. In its 2015-19 capital plan the MTA budgeted nearly $700 million, which includes the state funds.
Trouble with Amtrak
Lieber said the MTA’s experience working with Amtrak on the East Side Access project has heightened the authority’s concerns over the recent stalemate. He said Amtrak’s reluctance to assist with work on its property contributed to months of delays and cost overruns.
“We had terrible problems with Amtrak not providing the work force so we could get that work done,” he said. “There’s a history of Amtrak treating the MTA with a lack of sensitivity to issues of fairness and equity for New York commuters.”
In an effort to enlist support for the project, MTA officials have in recent months conducted briefings for political leaders from the Bronx and Westchester whose constituents stand to benefit.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer has lent his support for the project.
“The realities of commuting into the city is why Westchester is what it is,” Latimer said. “If we were not next door to New York City and had easy access into the city we wouldn’t have the residential population. Our economic structure is primarily based on the fact that we’re adjacent to New York City. Once you appreciate that you realize that access into New York City is the key.”
And with the West Side of Manhattan becoming home to more and more major developments – the Hudson Yards Redevelopment among them – getting commuters there has become a priority.
“You’re going to open up the East Side to Long Island with the East Side Access project that is being completed,” Latimer said. “So Long Island will get the benefit now of having a way to get to the East Side and the West Side. So Westchester and to that extension Fairfield and the Bronx, deserve that equivalent benefit.”
How the plan would work
Under the plan, the New Haven Line would split in two directions after New Rochelle, with trains heading either to Penn Station or Grand Central.
While the Sound Shore towns will gain access to Penn Station, commuters from stations south of New Rochelle – Mount Vernon and Pelham – would continue going only to Grand Central.
In addition, four new stations will be built in the Bronx – at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point.
Reverse commute attraction
Those stations will give workers heading north from the Bronx an easier route to jobs in Westchester, officials say.
“The largest and fastest growing piece of our entire commuter rail system regionally is reverse commuting,” Lieber said. “Why? Because there are great jobs in the suburbs and they’re having trouble finding workers. There are great businesses that want to hire people and they can’t get people there.”
Veteran Bronx political leaders who’ve been advocating for the project for years have been critical of Amtrak.
Among them is the MTA’s vice chairman, Fernando Ferrer, who served 14 years as Bronx Borough President.
At a September meeting, Ferrer sounded skeptical as Lieber described how Amtrak’s demand that the MTA pay for most of the Pelham Bay Bridge replacement project had become a sticking point.
“That’s the bridge they use all the time and it’s never appeared before in their list of needs that they would seek funding for but now that we’re close enough and our back pocket is close enough,” Ferrer said. “They would like us to pick up $600 million for the replacement of that bridge. Wrong?”
“It seems like a cost shift that’s not entirely equitable,” Lieber said.
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