Amtrak derails Metro North progress; MOU still not inked

The proposed Morris Park station area.
City Planning

“Don’t be a scrooge, Amtrak” said our Santa-hat wearing Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. while collecting petition signatures at the Mall at Bay Plaza on Friday, December 7; calling on the East Coast transit goliath to get on board with Metro North Railroad’s planned expansion into the east Bronx.

During the process of collecting over 2,000 signatures for a region of the borough Diaz referred to as a ‘transit starved’, he went about explaining the cause of the project’s hold up.

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced the expansion of Metro North service to Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge earlier in 2018, by adding four new Bronx stations at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point in the process, the agency was eager to shift the $1.2 billion project from a study to construction phase.

“It sounds like a large number but it really isn’t for a project this big,” Diaz said.

The new rail service would basically share Amtrak’s current Penn Station line from New Rochelle, into Manhattan.

This $1.2 billion, track sharing plan, has received support from Washington, DC to Albany as both Senator Chuck Schumer and Governor Andrew Cuomo are proverbially ‘on board.’

However, the track is not clear ahead – because Amtrak is not cooperating.

“We’ve been close to making progress with them,” Diaz said.

The progress he is referring to is an MTA preliminary design contract, which has been on hold due to ongoing negotiations of a memorandum of understanding with Amtrak.

The MOU would essentially commit Amtrak to the project, allowing the MTA to start construction on the Amtrak-owned rail lines that will be shared by the new Metro North service branch.

Holding up the agreement is a dispute between the MTA and Amtrak regarding financial obligations for repair work required on portions of the designated track.

“We know Amtrak owns these tracks, but their requests (for compensation) have to be within reason. The MTA has been willing to compromise but Amtrak is being a bully,” the borough president said, citing the Bronxdale Avenue train trestle as one of the disputed Amtrak properties that’s in dire need of repair.

Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams released a statement regarding the ongoing transit conundrum saying, “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.”

Diaz and several thousand plus Bronxites would strongly disagree.

“Every time we get close to the end zone, Amtrak moves the goal post further away,” the borough president said, exhibiting frustration.

Just days after his petition drive, Metro North held a public workshop at Albert Einstein College of Medicine to break down what the new stations will entail.

The Morris Park station, which will be accessed from Bassett Avenue and Hutchinson Metro Center will include an overpass, linking the two properties.

The trip from Morris Park to Penn Station will take only 25 minutes.

The Parkchester/Van Nest station is planned to go near just east of Unionport Road, at East Tremont Avenue.

This station will only be accessible from the East Tremont Avenue side because a Con Edison yard prevents entry to the station on the track’s north side. That ETA to Penn is 22 minutes.

The Hunts Point station will be built near its century-old predecessor below Hunts Point Avenue. This station will have access from both sides of the tracks. The MTA is looking into rehabbing the current dilapidated building for future station use. Penn Station would be a 20-minute trip from here.

The Co-op City station would go in the back portion of Section 5, near Baychester Village. This one-sided station, would bring rapid transit to one of the most isolated sections of the city, carrying commuters to Penn Station in a half hour.

While many focused on the travel times to Manhattan, several people noted the wonderful employment opportunities this project would open to Bronxites in Westchester and Connecticut.

This is a dream come true to the residents of the east Bronx, but there is one major concern that’s been ignored by the MTA, but didn’t go unnoticed by those attending the workshop – parking.

No parking lots will be constructed for the new commuter service, according to Carol Samol in the NYC Department of City Planning. A parking lot would cost approximately $7 million to build, according to one professional attending the workshop, and would require public funding.

During the 3-hour workshop attendees were asked to write down what they want to see at the new stations. Surely adequate parking topped the list.

Another activity asked the working group how often it is that they drive to the Morris Park area vs. taking mass transit. Again as a shock only to the MTA, the response was heavily weighed towards car use.

But, taking first things first, a signed agreement with Amtrak is on Ruben Diaz, Jr.’s Christmas wish list, paving the way for the project to start.

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. signs the Amtrak petition.
Schneps Community News Group/ Alex Mitchell

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