Change at Penn Station for the Bronx?

| |

Governor Andrew Cuomo and other public officials recently embraced a potential $1 billion investment for transportation improvements in the Bronx that could have long term impacts for residents of Great Neck, Little Neck, Douglaston, Bayside, Auberndale, Murray Hill, Flushing, Floral Park, Bellrose, Queens Village, Hollis, Jamaica, Woodside and other Queens neighbors who ride the Long Island Rail Road.  This $1 billion investment could provide Metro North service from various communities in the East Bronx including Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point to Penn Station on Manhattan’s west side, which is nothing new.  The service was previously advocated by elected officials on and off since the opening of Co-op City at the old Freedom Land Amusement Park site in the 1960s.  One reason the Freedom Land Amusement Park went out of business was the lack of good public transportation access.  I have always been curious why elected officials and transportation experts of that generation never considered extending the 6 subway line beyond Pelham Bay Park Station directly into Co-op City.  Imagine how many thousands of Co-op City residents would benefit by direct access to the subway?  During the same period a number of feasibility studies were conducted for potential commuter rail service.  But they seem to have forgotten about Riverdale and other communities in both the north and west Bronx.

They missed potential new service options for residents of Riverdale and other communities in the north and west Bronx to Penn Station.  This could be provided via the Metro North Hudson line using existing Amtrak Empire Hudson line connections into Penn Station.  It might also include new stations in Manhattan to serve the growing communities of Inwood, Washington Heights, Harlem and the Westside.  Imagine an intermodal connection to the George Washington Bridge Port Authority Bus Terminal.  Reverse commute opportunities to jobs and colleges in the suburbs could be provided for both Manhattan and Bronx residents.  The Midtown west Hudson Yards series of investments adjacent to Penn Station are becoming a reality.  This will result in thousands of new jobs and residential units.

Will existing 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 charges fares of $193 for a monthly or $82.50 for a weekly ticket.  A ten-trip peak is $82.50 and off-peak ten-trip is $53.25 to Grand Central Terminal.  Would this be any different to Penn Station?  What would the fare structure be for Bronx East customers traveling to jobs and colleges in Westchester County and Connecticut?  How much more would these fares be in 2019 or even later if passenger revenue service is finally introduced?  You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that today’s fares will probably only go up.

How would potential commuters arrive at any new Bronx East Stations? For those outside of walking distance, will there be the need for extension or creation of additional new NYC Transit bus routes?  What about parking for those commuters who would want to drive to the station?  One way of reducing automobile congestions and pollution created by those who drive to Manhattan is to take cars off the road.  How many commuters from other Bronx communities, Westchester and Connecticut might elect to use new Bronx East Metro North service if there were available parking adjacent to any new stations?

There are other issues for any new Metro North service to Penn Station. There is little room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during either a.m. or p.m. rush hours. Three of four tunnels running inbound 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 rush hours. Train slots have to be shared among LIRR, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. There is no real opportunity for expansion of capacity at Penn Station until the new LIRR Eastside Access project is complete.  This will provide new connections to Grand Central Terminal when it reaches beneficial use, currently forecast for 2019.  The original forecast service date was 2013. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently announced that the 2019 date will slip to 2020 or perhaps 2021. Besides Metro North, both Amtrak and the LIRR have their eyes on any potential spare capacity that might become available at Penn Station when Eastside Access comes on line to use for their own respective services.  Amtrak’s own $14 billion “Gateway” tunnel project would be looking to support additional Amtrak and New Jersey Transit service into Penn Station.

There is a growing campaign by local Queens residents and elected officials for restoration of the old LIRR Rockaway Beach branch.  Service was discontinued in 1962.  Residents and elected officials from other LIRR branches currently commuting from two fare zones (bus to subway) in Queens are looking for an increase in the frequency of service on the Port Washington, Hempstead and Far Rockaway branches serving Queens stations.  There are also the growing needs of reverse commuters from Manhattan and Queens to both jobs and schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation recently released its “Citywide Ferry Service” study.  The report looks at potential introduction of ferry services to Soundview, Ferry Point, Throgs Neck, Hunts Point, Co-op City Orchard Beach and City Island in the east Bronx.  Other possibilities include Yankee Stadium, Fordham, Roberto Clemente State Park and Riverdale in the west Bronx.  NYC Councilmembers Annabel Palma and Jimmy Vacca are advocating for introduction of ferry service to many of the same communities Metro North is considering providing service to.

MTA buses provide express service on many routes formally served by the old New York Bus (east Bronx) and Liberty Lines Bronx Express (west Bronx) private bus operators.  The City of New York provides over $100 million annually to subsidize both operating and capital costs for these and other services in Queens and Brooklyn that were formerly run by private bus operators.  Should NYC increase its subsidy levels or the MTA utilize its own funds, there is the option to purchase and operate additional express buses to provide more service.  This could benefit commuters with destinations to both the west side of Manhattan, including Penn Station along with the downtown Financial District. Many riders prefer a one seat ride rather than changing from bus to subway or commuter rail for trips to work.

Ironically, it might be easier to implement service from the north and west Bronx to Penn Station than from the east Bronx.  Opening day revenue operations might start earlier and at less cost.  There are stations, track, power and other necessary capital improvements on the Hudson line for operations already in place for significant portions of the route.  There are no capacity conflicts with the East River Tunnel to Penn Station.

It is a fair question to ask Governor Cuomo and other elected officials why they left out Riverdale and other nearby communities in their respective support for better commuter rail connections for all Bronx residents to Penn Station.

Queens residents look forward to the day when they can ride the LIRR to either Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station and transfer to a Metro North Rail Road train with connections to the Bronx, Westchester or Connecticut.