EAST BRONX — More than 700 people converged at a Co-op City forum last month to talk trains.
Since then, large crowds have convened in other Bronx neighborhoods to discuss the same topic — a plan to run Metro-North trains from Penn Station through the East Bronx.
Transit officials say the new route would slash travel times, spur development, cut pollution and link Bronxites to jobs and shopping centers.
But the hopeful Bronx straphangers who flocked to meetings may not have known that several months earlier a group of Long Island lawmakers wrote a letter to the MTA opposing that very plan.
The new Metro-North routes count on Penn Station space currently used by the Long Island Rail Road, creating the controversy.
An $8.24-billion LIRR extension to Grand Central Station now under construction is expected to free up that space at Penn Station, but the Long Island state senators wrote that their commuters need both the old and new station space.
Parkchester resident Chandra Moore said she believes that if Long Island commuters are entitled to a multi-billion-dollar rail extension that will shorten their commutes, then Bronx residents are worthy of a similar project that would cost a fraction of that price.
“We have every right to get to Midtown’s west side as they do the east side,” Moore said after a forum Monday. “We deserve it just as much as they do.”
Moore said a trip by mass transit today from her neighborhood to Penn Station takes her an hour and 20 minutes. The proposed Metro-North route would trim that trip by an hour.
Bronx elected leaders, including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., are turning to Albany and the MTA to appeal for Penn Station slots and funding for the Metro-North expansion to the East Bronx, which would cost around $500 million to launch.
Long Island officials “are fighting for their constituents. We’ve got to fight for ours as well,” said Diaz, who spoke Monday at the last of the four public forums on the proposal. “We’re asking for our fair share.”
Diaz added that he had already discussed the matter with other Bronx politicians and planned to travel to Albany soon to rally support among state legislators.
The proposed Metro-North expansion, called Penn Station Access, would send trains from Penn Station along existing Amtrak lines to four East Bronx neighborhoods, where new stations would be built in Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park and Co-op City.
Another route would direct trains up the west side of Manhattan past two new stations there.
Both routes would connect with current Metro-North tracks that lead to Westchester and Connecticut.
By using existing rail lines, the new routes could be introduced at a relatively low cost and would benefit the roughly 160,000 residents near the proposed East Bronx stations, who currently lack regional rail options, according to Bronx and MTA officials and transportation experts.
“It makes eminent sense to me,” said Peter Derrick, a transit historian and visiting scholar at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.
Derrick noted that Metro-North’s ridership has grown faster than that of the LIRR and that the Metro-North project requires a “few hundred million dollars as opposed to a few billion” for the LIRR extension.
For the Metro-North plan to work, its trains must find space in Penn Station, the nation’s busiest rail terminal. The station's 21 tracks are shared by LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak.
About 230,000 LIRR riders pass through Penn Station each day, according to an MTA document.
When the LIRR extension, called East Side Access, is completed in 2019, as many as half of those riders could be diverted from Penn Station to the eight new tracks being built below Grand Central Station, according to MTA officials.
But in February, eight Long Island state senators wrote to the MTA chairman arguing that even with the new Grand Central space, the Penn Station slots will remain vital for LIRR’s growing ridership.
“Even when the East Side Access project is finally finished, the LIRR will still need to operate at Penn Station to meet a project[ed] significant increase in ridership over the next several years,” one of the lawmakers, Sen. Kemp Hannon, wrote in a separate statement.
Any reduction in LIRR space at Penn Station “could have a devastating impact on commuters and other travelers,” Hannon added.
A senior Democratic aide in Albany suggested Tuesday that the Republican Long Island lawmakers who oppose the Metro-North plan may be using the Penn Station slots as “bargaining chips” to win other concessions later.
“They’re not going to block” the plan, the aide said. “They just want to make sure they get something out of it,” such as another LIRR train added during rush hour, for example.
Neither Hannon nor Sen. Charles Fuschillo, the Transportation Committee chairman who also signed the letter to the MTA, responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the MTA, which includes both Metro-North and LIRR, said any discussion of how to divvy up Penn Station space between those two systems is premature, since ongoing studies of that station and the Metro-North plan will not be completed until next year.
“The MTA is studying the proposal and considering how best to proceed with what is best for the entire region’s transportation network,” MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.