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Cuomo asks Trump for funding for ‘emergency situation’ at Penn Station

Long Island Rail Road passengers wait for their

Long Island Rail Road passengers wait for their train's track to be posted during the evening rush hour at Penn Station in Manhattan on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Signal issues caused delays and cancellations during this evening's rush hour. Credit: Charles Eckert

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has asked the White House to intervene in finding a solution to the “deplorable” conditions at Penn Station, calling frequent service disruptions and “near riot” conditions in the transit hub an emergency situation demanding the same attention as a natural disaster.

In a letter to President Donald Trump sent Sunday, Cuomo asked for federal financial help in facilitating transportation alternatives and construction during Amtrak’s planned infrastructure renewal at Penn, which Cuomo predicted will result in “a summer of agony” for Long Island Rail Road commuters.

He also asked for help in finding a long-term answer for the ‘‘intolerable situation’’ at Penn, the busiest rail station in the country, serving more than 600,000 travelers daily. That could include wresting control of the century-old station from its owner, Amtrak, and turning it over to the Port Authority of NY and NJ, as Cuomo suggested.

“I request that the federal government treat this as an emergency situation and provide funding for the short-term Penn construction and transportation alternatives and facilitation of a long-term resolution for Penn Station,” Cuomo wrote in his letter to Trump. “While this is not a hurricane or flood it will affect as many people and businesses with dire consequences. Like a natural disaster, we didn’t create it but our public offices require we address it.”

Cuomo’s letter came as new details are expected to emerge Monday at a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board’s Long Island Rail Road Committee on how Amtrak’s planned summer work will affect the LIRR, Penn’s primary user, carrying more than 230,000 customers through the station daily.

In his letter, the governor revealed new information about the plan, which he said “could result in an approximately 20 percent reduction in its peak hours of service,” and cause transportation infrastructure, including buses, subways and roads, to be “stretched to its limits” as commuters look for alternatives. Cuomo said to ease the chaos, the state is studying high-speed ferries from Long Island and a “new advanced” park and ride system on Long Island that would use private coaches and a bus-only HOV lane.

“The point being, we are open to creative solutions,” Cuomo said.

For a more long-term solution, Cuomo asked Trump to help in finding a new manager for Penn, which has been plagued by service disruptions in recent months, including those caused by track problems that resulted in two derailments and an Amtrak dispatching glitch that forced the LIRR to cancel nearly 90 trains during one evening rush hour this month.

Leaving Penn under Amtrak’s control is “not sustainable or wise,” said Cuomo, who suggested the Port Authority take over the station as part of the $23 billion Gateway package of improvements to the Northeast rail corridor. They would include the construction of a new tunnel across the Hudson River.

Cuomo urged Trump to get behind that project and others that would benefit Penn commuters, including planned improvements inside the station and the completion of the adjacent Moynihan Station at the Farley Post Office building on Eighth Avenue.

“We could build a state-of-the-art, secure, world-class transportation hub. This would fit with your proposal for $1 Trillion plan for federal infrastructure investments to rebuild America, and I urge you to consider this critical request as you and Congress begin a dialogue on federal budget priorities,” Cuomo wrote.

‘‘We are glad to see Governor Cuomo join our long-standing call for increased funding for Penn Station, the Northeast Corridor and the Gateway Program,’’ Amtrak said in a statement late Sunday. ‘‘We agree that the heart of the problem is years of under investment and the overloading of an infrastructure and station designed to meet the needs of last century, not this one...But, changes in management and private-sector expertise can’t make up for the billions that should have been invested to create the basic capacity and performance that commuters deserve.’’

Representatives for the White House and for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would handle Cuomo’s proposal, did not respond to requests for comment.

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly referenced the LIRR as an example for underinvestment in transportation infrastructure. But his early budget proposals have been widely criticized by transportation advocates for cutting funding to Amtrak, which relies heavily on federal subsidies, and eliminating a grant program that would be key to getting Gateway off the ground.

In a statement, Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, applauded Cuomo’s call for federal help to “fix the Penn Station nightmare known only too well to riders for years.”

“We share his desperation over current conditions,” said Epstein, who expressed skepticism that Amtrak’s planned summer work — which includes neither upgrades to Penn’s signal system nor the adjacent East River Tunnels badly damaged by superstorm Sandy — will make much of a difference. “We need a real fix and the funds to do it and we need it now.”

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led the fight in Albany to improve conditions for LIRR riders, said Sunday that Cuomo is “absolutely right: the situation at Penn Station is dire.”

“I talk with commuters every day, many of whom have taken the LIRR for decades, and they have never experienced this level of dysfunction,” Kaminsky said. “As Penn Station is a major rail-hub and a critical part of the Northeast U.S. economy, it certainly behooves the federal government to get involved immediately and provide necessary funding.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is criticizing Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — for sitting on $432 million in federal funding he helped secure for critical repairs of superstorm Sandy-damaged East River Tunnels leading into and out of Penn Station. The tracks also are owned by Amtrak.

In a letter sent late last week to acting MTA Director Veronique Hakim and Amtrak President Charles “Wick” Moorman, Schumer said both rail agencies have made “no meaningful progress” in a planned effort to rehabilitate a pair of tunnels that were inundated with millions of gallons of corrosive saltwater in the October 2012 tempest.

With Vin Barone, Laura Figueroa and Emily Ngo

Recent major LIRR service disruptions originating at Penn:

May 11: An Amtrak dispatcher routing problem caused massive LIRR service disruptions during the evening commute, including the cancellation of nearly 90 trains, a suspension of westbound service, and dangerous crowding in Penn Station, where access had to be restricted by police for hours.

April 25: A problem with the overhead electrical system in one of Amtrak’s East River tunnels resulted in widespread cancellations and delays for the LIRR and a temporary suspension of westbound service.

April 14: A power problem in one of Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels caused 1,200 people to be stuck on a disabled NJ Transit train for three hours in Penn Station, and spurred residual delays for the LIRR.

April 3: An NJ Transit train derailment caused by Amtrak track problems caused a week of major service disruptions for the LIRR, which relinquished four tracks at Penn Station to allow Amtrak and NJ Transit trains to operate.

March 24: An Amtrak train derailed and sideswiped an NJ Transit train, causing major disruptions for the LIRR, which relinquished four tracks at Penn Station to allow Amtrak and NJ Transit trains to operate.

March 6: A problem in an Amtrak switch interlocking in one of the East River tunnels cut the LIRR’s track capacity in half during the evening rush hour, resulting in nearly two dozen canceled trains, a suspension of all westbound service, and lengthy delays.

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