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West Side Access project has big implications for Metro-North riders in Hudson Valley

Passengers crowd Penn Station as they look up

Passengers crowd Penn Station as they look up at the main train announcement board in Penn Station. (Aug. 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

When it comes to megaprojects, the MTA can point to East Side Access, a massive subterranean undertaking that will open Grand Central Terminal to Long Island Rail Road passengers for the first time. Or the Second Avenue Subway, which will link the financial district to the Upper East Side and Harlem.

But behind the scenes, plans for another major project are moving forward -- one that could transform the Hudson Valley in the decades to come.

As early as the fall of 2019, Manhattan's West Side could be accessible to tens of thousands of Metro-North commuters for the first time while opening the Hudson Valley and beyond to workers commuting from New York City.

It's officially known as the The Penn Station Access Project, one of the cash-hungry Metropolitan Transportation Authority's most ambitious efforts to generate newfound sources of revenue.

"It's a great idea," said Randy Glucksman, Rockland County's representative on the Metro-North Commuter Council. "It provides an alternative from going over the Tappan Zee Bridge. That's wonderful. But I sure hope they can finish what they started. Money is hard to come by."

Officials at the MTA said they haven't yet figured out the price tag for the project.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan estimated that it will cost "hundreds of millions of dollars," with funding coming through a mix of bonds and federal and local funding. Officials expect the project, which has been on the MTA's radar for more than 20 years, will be added to its five-year capital construction program due out in 2014.

Unlike the $8.24 billion MTA East Side Access project, which calls for the construction of new tunnels and tracks under Grand Central Terminal, the expanded Metro-North service to the West Side uses existing Penn Station infrastructure, Donovan said.


Besides finding funding for the project, sometimes called West Side Access, another challenge facing MTA officials is relieving the congestion that currently exists in Penn Station. The 11 platforms and 21 tracks at Penn Station now serve LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak trains. The LIRR alone serves some 220,000 passengers daily at Penn Station, according to the MTA.

It's still unclear how many additional passengers might use the station when Metro-North lines are brought to the West Side, MTA officials said.

The answer may come from the MTA's Penn Station Operations Study, which will attempt to identify passenger needs for each of the three railroads there now as well as Metro-North. The agency will then come up with a plan for how the station can handle them all. Findings are due later in 2013.

"It's all about balancing the needs of all the players," Donovan said.

The proposal calls for splitting Metro-North's New Haven line after New Rochelle so that trains can either head to Penn Station or Grand Central. Six Westchester County stops on the New Haven line -- New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Rye, Port Chester and Harrison -- will have access to Penn Station when the line links up with Amtrak's existing tracks on its Hell Gate line. Passengers south of New Rochelle -- in Mount Vernon and Pelham -- will only have access to Grand Central.

In addition, as part of the New Haven line extension to the West Side, four stations will be built in the Bronx -- in Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park and Co-op City.

In the project's second phase, Hudson Line trains will link up with Amtrak's existing Empire Connection line, which runs along the Hudson River. That route calls for new stations near Columbia University and on the Upper West Side.

A proposal to add the Harlem line was abandoned in part because it would require building new tracks.

The earliest some part of the project could be up and running would by the fall of 2019, coincidentally, the completion date for East Side Access, officials said.


Although there has been little public discussion of the Penn Station project, that may change with new leadership at the helm of MTA. Acting agency chairman Fernando Ferrer, who stepped into the post in January after MTA head Joseph Lhota stepped down to weigh a run for mayor of New York City, is among the project's biggest supporters.

Ferrer, a former Bronx Borough president, was quick to speak about it at his first news conference as the agency's leader.

On Wednesday, he checked off the reasons why he considers the project "enormously appealing" for the MTA.

"To add additional service, to get more cars and other vehicles off the road, give more people more transportation options," Ferrer said. "Not only to get to Manhattan but to connect with the rest of the region. Not only to commute to jobs near Midtown West but to commute to jobs up as far as Connecticut. There's enormous support for that. And the job creation potential is huge."

The plan also will open up New Jersey and Long Island to Hudson Valley commuters, who will be able to transfer at Penn Station, MTA officials contend.

However, not everyone is happy with the plan, which does not directly link Rockland commuters with Penn Station. Rockland County residents will have to continue to rely on NJ Transit to take them to the West Side.

"Metro-North's West Side Access project would be of little benefit to Rockland County rail commuters," said Orrin Getz, a longtime commuter advocate from New City. "Allowing Metro-North trains on the Hudson Line to access Penn Station via the existing Amtrak West Side connection has some serious problems, including interference with the existing service that New Jersey Transit currently provides at Penn Station."


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