The MTA:  Why Always the Most Expensive, Interminable Way?

A couple of, well, decades ago, the MTA started planning MetroNorth service for the time when East Side Access opened and many Long Island Railroad trains would be going to Grand Central Station.  This could provide an opening for MetroNorth trains, at least those on the Hudson and New Haven Lines, to go to Penn Station.  The tracks are already there, so this should be relatively simple and cheap right?  

Wrong.  After 22 years of planning, and the expenditure of however many $millions or $tens of millions on staff and consultants, the MTA might finally spend $1.6 billion to add a few stations to the New Haven line as part of the Metro North to Penn project.  Perhaps there will be service in another decade or two.

If there wasn’t such operational inefficiency involved, however, MetroNorth service to Penn Station could start next spring for no money at all.  How?

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What would have to happen is for the head of the MTA to call the head of Amtrak on the telephone.  

How would you like your Empire Service and Northeast Corridor customers to have the option to travel to Grand Central as well as Penn Station, by transferring for free to MetroNorth trains at Yonkers and New Rochelle?  You would?  Great!  

All we ask is that you also allow MetroNorth customers to transfer Amtrak trains at the same time, also for free, and stand in the vestibule on the way to Penn Station.  We’ll coordinate the schedules to make this possible.  And that you allow those originating at Yonkers and New Rochelle to do the same for the price of a MetroNorth ticket.  

And whatever you do, don’t tell the damn politicians, so we won’t have to pay anyone off or spend 20 years doing studies.

Twenty years?  I’m exaggerating, aren’t I?

Metro-North held outreach meetings throughout the Metro-North service area beginning in 1999 regarding the previous Penn Station Access (PSA) project from which the current Proposed Project is derived. In 1999, Metro-North initiated the PSA Major Investment Study/Draft EIS to evaluate options for improving access between Penn Station New York (PSNY) and the Harlem Line, Hudson Line, and New Haven Line (NHL). FTA published a Notice of Intent in September 1999 and the Final Scoping Document was issued in November 2000. Between 2002 and 2009, Metro-North continued PSA project planning and environmental review. In 2007, based on meetings with FTA and various project stakeholders, Metro-North and FTA agreed that a preparation of an EA to comply with NEPA was appropriate. The PSA project planning effort included coordination and operational planning with the current rail operators in PSNY—Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), and NJ TRANSIT—to understand the operational opportunities and issues for bringing Metro-North service into PSNY.

Public outreach for the Proposed Project was initiated in November 2011, when Metro-North met with the Bronx Borough President’s office to discuss the Proposed Project and local interest in the proposed commuter- rail service and four new Metro-North stations in the eastern Bronx. Metro-North also met with other key elected officials and stakeholders representing community and business constituencies in the eastern Bronx.

In fall 2012, open-house-style public information meetings were held in the four proposed station area communities…Updated PSA Environmental Review fact sheets were prepared in February 2014 and March 2018 for the Proposed Project. As the Proposed Project advanced, MTA developed a separate dedicated project website to keep the public and key stakeholders apprised of project developments (https://pennstationaccess.info/). MTA landing page also includes a link to the separate dedicated project website. 

Since 2012, public participation efforts have continued. With MTA officially taking over delivery of the project in 2018, a more proactive community engagement effort has been initiated. To that end MTA has, over the course of 2018 and 2019 participated in multiple NYCDCP community open houses aimed at informing NYCDCP’s Bronx/Metro-North study. Based on community input solicited at these open houses, NYCDCP is preparing a final report with recommendations on how to integrate the four new Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible Metro-North stations into the Hunts Point, Parkchester-Van Nest, Morris Park, and Co-op City neighborhoods.  Additionally, MTA Outreach Team launched a joint Bronx & Westchester Community Council, which the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Westchester County Executive George Latimer co-chair. Key stakeholders who have a greater than one-to-one reach in each municipality make up the Bronx & Westchester Community Council, which allows the Proposed Project to reach a wider audience. 

In fall 2019, MTA released a formal Request for Qualifications for design and construction services, hosted an informational session for contractors, and launched a new project website (https://pennstationaccess.info/). In February 2020, MTA identified a shortlist of contractors qualified to bid to design and build the Penn Station Access Project. 

That’s right, they did an Environmental Impact Statement to run commuter rail trains in a different direction on tracks that are already there, and have been for more than 100 years.  Meanwhile, they didn’t do an EIS to increase the Staten Island Expressway from six lanes to, in some places, ten.

No one is ever asked to defend this.  No one ever takes responsibility for it.  No one ever considers the values that are behind it.  No one ever asks why it is the media doesn’t question it.

What if the service is such a hit that Amtrak finds the MetroNorth passengers packing on are causing service quality issues for their long-distance customers?  Then it would be time to add MetroNorth shuttle trains between New Rochelle and Yonkers and Penn Station, so more Metro North passengers could transfer there and have the option of either.  Anyone think shuttle trains aren’t good enough, because the suburbanite would have to transfer?  Virtually all subway riders have to transfer.  And the LIRR only plans to run shuttle trains between Jamaica and Downtown Brooklyn once East Side Access opens.

There are plenty of tracks and switches north of New Rochelle for a shuttle train to turn around on without impeding through trains.  Yonkers is a little trickier, but there is a siding north of the station, and I’m sure a switch could be added south of the station for $20 million $3 billion or so.  The fact that Yonkers and New Rochelle would be places from which one could commute to either the East Side or West Side of Manhattan, the latter non-stop, would presumably be good for those cities’ revival. 

And then, if MetroNorth to Penn were an even bigger hit, it would be time to think about electrifying the West Side Amtrak tracks, adding the New Haven Line stations, etc.  If half or more of the cost of anything done by any New York government agency wasn’t, in effect, campaign contributions, it would cost less than $1.6 billion to do all that and to electrify the Hudson Line all the way to Rensselaer.  Perhaps all the way to Buffalo.

For comparison, according to the book How We Got To Coney Island Brooklyn’s street railway companies started planning to convert from horsepower to electric power in about 1890.  The switchover took place by the middle of the decade, since back then you could just bribe the pols directly rather than going through 30 steps with every other interest also skimming off the top.  It would have happened even sooner if the New York Times, etc, didn’t oppose electrification, giving the pols an excuse to stall.

And if you think all this is just money, think of all the things we are told we can’t have because there isn’t enough of it.  So they have to raise taxes.  And then we are told we still can’t have things because there still isn’t enough of it.  Then the price goes up again.  And again.  And again.

East Side Access should open long before then end of 2022.  Ideally the start of that service should be timed to coincide with a massive meltdown in subway service, just so the city’s serfs can fully get the message.  MetroNorth service to Penn Station should already be operating via transfer to Amtrak trains, and then should expand via shuttle trains at the same time East Side Access opens.  There is no non-political, non-special interest reason not to do this.