Even as Long Island continues to wait for the long-delayed, ridiculously over-budget East Side Access project to bring the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has turned his focus to making sure Metro-North, the state’s other commuter railroad, moves ahead with plans to access Penn Station.
Cuomo recently announced that Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Empire State Development had agreed to a $1 billion Penn Station Access plan to bring Metro-North for the first time to Penn, the home of the LIRR.
From a big-picture perspective, Penn Station Access represents an exciting opportunity for the region. But it also creates enormous questions — especially in making sure Long Island commuters don’t give up any of the benefits they’ve been promised.
In many ways, Penn Station Access will do for Westchester and Connecticut what East Side Access will do for Long Island: provide a path to the other side of Manhattan. And it will create more options in the region’s transportation network if something goes wrong with the tracks, tunnels or platforms at either station. On top of that, the plan includes four new Metro-North stations for the East Bronx, giving that area, especially places like Co-op City, far superior transit options.
It’s a big move for the nation’s largest public transit system. Mutual access to Grand Central and Penn could significantly improve the resiliency of and the options offered by the LIRR and Metro-North, the country’s two largest commuter rail lines, which each serve nearly 300,000 riders on an average weekday. This shift also could boost the region’s economy and create more opportunities for where we live and work, and how we get around.
So, what’s not to like?
Well, significant concerns must be addressed before all that access can become a reality. Foremost, the MTA has long argued that East Side Access, when combined with the third track being built on the Main Line, will increase capacity, allowing for 45 percent more peak LIRR service and plenty of reverse commuting. It’s important that Long Islanders still reap the benefits of all of that construction and expansion, the service changes and outages they’ve endured, and the $11 billion that’s been spent on East Side Access alone.
Unlike with East Side Access, which will create eight new platforms underneath Grand Central exclusively for the LIRR, and doesn’t at all subtract from Metro-North’s capacity, it’s a zero-sum game at Penn. Under Cuomo’s proposal, Metro-North will come into Penn over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the same East River tunnel the LIRR uses to reach Penn. There is no doubt that the LIRR will be required to give up slots at Penn.
Ridership studies show that as much as 50 percent of LIRR riders will use Grand Central instead of Penn once East Side Access is completed. If that ends up being true, then it makes sense for Metro-North to use some of the LIRR’s Penn slots.
But that’s a big if. The MTA must be very cautious before it starts giving away LIRR slots. MTA officials have promised that Penn Station Access won’t begin until after East Side Access opens. That’s good, but if true, it should heighten the priority Cuomo and others give to finishing East Side Access by the current 2022 deadline — or sooner. (Let’s remember that it once was expected to open in 2009.)
Once East Side Access is completed, MTA officials should evaluate ridership patterns and perhaps create incentives for riders to try Grand Central before letting Metro-North use Penn.
Meanwhile, they’ll also have to deal with the need to repair damage to the East River tunnel from superstorm Sandy. The work will require closing two of the tunnel’s four tubes, one at a time. If both the LIRR and Metro-North are using those tunnels, any closures could create big service problems. The MTA should seriously consider waiting until the tunnel repairs are mostly completed before phasing in Metro-North access at Penn.
Amtrak, which owns the tracks at Penn and took a while to reach a deal with the MTA on this project, will have to cooperate and communicate, tasks that haven’t been easy for the federally funded railroad. Beyond that, the need to remake and rethink Penn Station itself will be even greater, with the addition of a fifth railroad to the complex mix of the subway, Amtrak, the LIRR and NJ Transit.
The agreement Cuomo announced also includes the possibility of Amtrak trains running from Long Island into Penn, and then to Boston or Washington. While a one-seat ride might be desirable, measuring demand and the impact on LIRR operations is critical.
Most of the capital improvement costs — including the new Bronx stations — will come from the MTA and Empire State Development. Both agencies should look for private-public partnerships or funds from developers seeking to build near the new station sites.
East Side Access will be an economic boon for Long Island and a convenience for many commuters. But until those benefits are seen, don’t shortchange our capacity at Penn.