Monday, August 20, 2012

Metro-North Proposal Spurs a New Kind of Bronx Cheer

Metro-North's proposal for four new stations seen as the most important transportation investment in the Bronx since construction of the subways during the early 20th century, and will give the area a big economic boost. The expected $350 million price tag will be a mere drop in the transit bucket when compared with the Second Avenue subway's $5.3 billion tab, and the $2 billion being spent extend the No. 7 train merely one-stop further.

Co-op City, the sprawling cooperative apartment complex in the east Bronx with 35 high-rises, assorted townhouses and more than 60,000 residents, has always been tough to get to by train.

There is the No. 5 or No. 6 subway, but their closest stops are nearly a 20-minute bus ride away, and though there is also an express bus from midtown, its scheduled 45-minute run is seldom achieved. On a bad day, or if you get stuck during rush hour, you can forget it.

Residents are so excited about news that Metro-North is close to approving construction of a Co-op City station. Not surprisingly, the board, shortly after being briefed on the plan by railroad officials, quickly passed a resolution supporting the project.

The response in three other east Bronx neighborhoods that could also get stations has also been enthusiastic, and with good reason. The idea of adding stations along the Amtrak line that runs out of Penn Station and links up with Metro-North's New Haven line in New Rochelle has been a dream of many for years. Only recently, however, pushed by Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and others, has the idea really gathered steam.

In the Bronx, the potential benefits loom large. Just last month, in a formal pitch to the City Council Transportation Committee, the borough president pronounced the plan to be the "most important transportation investment in the Bronx since construction of the subways during the early 20th century."

His speech came less than a year after Metro-North submitted an environmental assessment to the Federal Transit Administration on the possibility of adding stops in Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point—a project that also has the appeal of being relatively cheap. The total cost is expected to be about $350 million, a mere drop in the transit bucket compared with the Second Avenue subway's $5.3 billion tab and the $2 billion being spent merely to extend the No. 7 train a bit deeper into the West Side.

What's more, the new stations in the Bronx would not just make life easier for residents in places like Co-op City. The proposed Morris Park station would be located just a few blocks from four major hospitals: Montefiore Medical Center, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Jacobi Medical Center and Calvary Hospital.

Montefiore alone employs 17,500 people, a third of whom commute from outside the Bronx. It also draws nearly a half-million patients and countless family members and friends each year.

Another stop down the line, the station at Hunts Point would ease access to the sprawling Hunts Point Terminal Market, the largest food distribution center on the East Coast. The market is currently served by the No. 6 train, which has a stop a half-mile away.

"I think it's a fabulous idea," said Myra Gordon, executive administrative director at the Hunts Point Produce Market, pointing out, there are about 600 small businesses on the Hunts Point peninsula, all of which could benefit from easier access for customers and employees. The produce market has roughly 7,000 employees, a third of whom commute from beyond the Bronx.

In fact, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority data, the Bronx has the highest reverse-commute rate in the country, with people streaming out of the city's only mainland borough to suburban locales in Westchester and Connecticut.

"This is a vastly underserved area," said Jim Cameron, chair of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. "There are jobs here that are going wanting that could easily be filled by people who live in the Bronx if they could get here easily and affordably."

Talk to most public officials, and the new project seems like a slam-dunk.

"This is such a big bang for your buck," a Metro-North spokesperson said. "The tracks are already there, all you'd have to do is build the stations and purchase a few locomotives."

Unfortunately, there is one other piece of the puzzle that must be put in place first—and it is a big one. The plan is for the new trains to run all the way to Penn Station, which cannot happen until the $8 billion-and-counting East Side Access project is finished in 2018, at the earliest.

In the meantime, Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive director of the Point Community Development Corp., while delighted about the stop, is worried nonetheless that its arrival could drive up local real estate prices and possibly drive out small business owners.

"I challenge us to figure out how this will help people who are renters and not owners," she said. "I'm hoping it will be carefully addressed."