CO-OP CITY — For residents who live in Co-op City, getting to Manhattan without a car can be a trek.
"I don't really go to the city," said 61-year-old Valerie Pagan, a resident at the sprawling Bronx housing complex for the last two decades. "It's a long way. It takes a long time."
But an MTA plan to expand Metro-North rail service to four neighborhoods in the East Bronx — including Co-op City, home to some 50,000 residents — would provide a direct connection into Penn Station and to Westchester, and greatly shorten commute times, officials say.
The MTA has been hosting information sessions for the last several weeks to get community feedback on the plan, which would eventually create a new train line on existing Amtrak railroad tracks that runs from Penn Station through the East Bronx into Westchester and Connecticut. Train stations are being proposed for locations in Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park and Co-op City.
Hundreds of residents turned out fort the community forum in Co-op City last week. Kenneth Kearns, district manager for Bronx Community Board 10, said the new rail line would cut commute times for many residents in half.
"Right now if you're in Co-op City and you want to go to Manhattan, it’s a time-consuming process," he said. "It'll make life a lot easier for people."
Commuting from Baychester to Midtown takes an hour, and for most residents means taking a bus to the No. 6 train at the Pelham Bay Park station, Kearns said. And the express BxM7 bus, the quickest route, is often packed during rush hours.
"It's hard to get to other places," said Co-op City resident Richie Vasquez, 26, who moved here from Buffalo last year. "You either need a car or you have to wait for a bus."
According to the MTA, a ride along the proposed East Bronx rail line would be just a 27 minute commute from Co-op City to Penn Station.
And commuters heading out of the city would have more options, too — a ride from Co-op City to Stamford, CT, would take just 31 minutes. Roughly 5,000 Bronx residents currently use Metro-North to commute to jobs outside the city, according to Robert MacLagger, Metro-North vice president of planning, making the Bronx the largest rail reverse-commute market in the country.
Officials have identified a stretch of unused Amtrak tracks along Erskine Place, near Hunter Avenue, as a potential location for the new Co-op City station, which would make the line an easy route to the Bay Plaza shopping center nearby.
The entire plan hinges on another MTA project that’s currently underway to expand Long Island Rail Road access to Grand Central Terminal, which should be finished sometime around 2019. When that happens, the shift of some Long Island commuters to Grand Central would free up space in Penn Station, creating the opportunity for the Bronx connection.
The MTA is currently conducting a federal environmental review of the proposal, known as the Penn Station Access Study. In addition to the four stations proposed for the Bronx, the plan would create two stations on Manhattan's west side.
Vern Cooper, general manager of Riverbay Corporation, which manages Co-op City, said that if the plan were to eventually take a shape, it would be a "huge selling point," for drawing more residents to buy homes in the area.
"Community support is key to this initiative getting off the ground," Cooper wrote in an e-mail, then cited the large numbers of people who attended last week's MTA session as proof of that support. "The community wants to see this project happen here."
The next information sessions on the Penn Station Access Study will take place on Oct. 2 at the Casita Maria Center in Hunts Point and on Oct. 22 at St. Raymond's High School in Parkchester.