The east Bronx dream of long-promised Metro-North Rail commuter service into Manhattan is being threatened by Amtrak, the owner of the rail tracks, in its demands that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cough up the funds to make infrastructure improvements on the system before a signed contract is forthcoming, according to borough officials.
Since the MTA confirmed its plan to add MNR service to Penn Station earlier in 2018, adding four new Bronx stations at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point in the process, the agency has been eager to move the over $1 billion project from a study to construction phase.
However, Amtrak is not cooperating.
Since May, the MTA’s preliminary design contract has been on hold due to ongoing negotiations of a memorandum of understanding with Amtrak.
This MOU would essentially indicate Amtrak’s commitment to the project, allowing the MTA to start construction on the Amtrak-owned rail lines that will be shared by the new MNR service branch.
Part of the MOU’s holdup comes from a dispute between the MTA and Amtrak regarding financial obligations for much needed repair work on portions of the infrastructures along the MNR path.
“They’ve been reluctant to sign, tying their approval to a laundry list of demands that go well beyond anything they’re getting out of other commuter railroads,” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.
At the top of that laundry list is the Pelham Bay Bridge, an Amtrak owned train bridge that’s currently in a severe state of disrepair.
According to the MTA, Amtrak is trying to have the MTA foot the bill for refurbishment of the Long Island City train yard and the Pelham Bay Bridge, a draw bridge over the Hutchinson River, along with negotiating other financial responsibilities, such as repairs of the Amtrak trestle that crosses over Bronxdale Avenue. The bridge only has a 10-year life expectancy remaining, according to Amtrak estimates.
“That has put the project at a standstill for close to a year,” Donovan added while mentioning the project’s intended completion of 2022 is being put in jeopardy by the ongoing negotiations. The project needs a December signing to reach its targeted service start date.
In efforts to break the stall, 28 Bronx elected officials wrote a letter to the Amtrak Board chairman, Anthony R. Coscia on October 4.
“It is worth noting that Amtrak has much to gain from this project, including track improvements and operational flexibility, bridge improvements, and power, signal and communications upgrades,” the letter said, later going on to explain the MTA’s willingness to share costs of the Pelham Bay Bridge repairs.
“Amtrak cannot use the MTA as a piggybank to help you out of your fiscal challenges,” the letter later mentioned.
In response to that letter, Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman said, “Amtrak has been cooperating with MTA’s planning efforts regarding the proposed expansion of Metro-North train service…Amtrak and MTA executives have met frequently in recent months to try to reach agreement on a number of key issues regarding design, construction and ultimate train operation of this project,” he added mentioning that some of Amtrak’s hesitancy comes from a new project of its own, the expanded Acela service from New York to Boston which is slated to begin in 2021.
A borough elected official summed up his frustration with Amtrak’s negotiation tactics by using a football analogy: “Every time we get close to the goal zone Amtrak moves the goal post further away.”