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Meeting Minutes Oct 23, 2008

A meeting of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council (MNRCC) was convened at 4:30 p.m. on October 23 2008, in the 5th floor Board room, MTA Headquarters, 347 Madison Avenue, New York City. The following members were present:

James Blair
Rhonda Herman
David Buchwald
Gerard Kopera
Francis T. Corcoran
Douglas McKean
The following members were absent:

Richard Cataggio
In addition, the following persons were present:

William Henderson – PCAC Executive Director
Jan Wells – PCAC Associate Director
Ellyn Shannon – PCAC Transportation Planner
Howard Permut – Metro North
Jeff Watson – Metro North
Brian Tobachnick – Metro North
Tom Tendy – Metro North
Bob Jelley – CT Rail Council
Rodney Chabot – CT Rail Council
Barry Adler – Concerned Citizen
Carlos Vallejo – Concerned Citizen
Introduction of Howard Permut, MNR President
Mr. Permut summarized his career at the MTA and MNR. Mr. Permut said he started at the MTA in 1979 and moved to MNR in 1983. In July, 2008 Mr. Permut was selected to be President of Metro-North after having most recently been MNR’s Vice President of Planning and Development. Mr. Permut said there were three main areas he planned to focus on: maintaining MNR as a premier provider of customer service, improving customer communications by providing more real time information to customers, and expanding the use of technology in everything MNR does.

Mr. Permut said that Donna Evans is heading up the “Vision 2013” effort, MNR’s 5 year plan. The goals of the plan include zero injuries, 98 percent on-time performance, 95 percent customer satisfaction, improved teamwork, increased dialogue with external stakeholders, increased sustainability initiatives, increased efficiency, and increased non-passenger revenue. Mr. Permut stated that he feels the key to achieving the goals is through teamwork.

Mr. Permut also said that financial issues, customer access to the stations, and the loss of institutional memory through retirements are three important challenges for Metro-North going forward. Financially, he said there are major funding issues ahead in both Connecticut and New York. He also said that there is a problem with the operating budget because service levels cannot be maintained at the current fare levels with the current dedicated tax collections. He said money must otherwise be identified from other sources due to tax revenues being down significantly. The Capital Program funding deficits are even greater. Mr. Permut said that the current Program runs out in 2009. The MTA is in need of $30 billion for the next Capital Program and has only identified $10-15 billion in funding, leaving a $15-20 billion dollar hole.

Mr. Permut said there are still issues with getting people who want to ride the system to the stations and that some of these issues are not under the control of MNR. While MNR has increased access to its services through its shuttle buses, ferries, and increased parking in addition to partnering with a variety of County bus operators, there are still people that would like to be taking MNR but find access to it too difficult. Mr. Permut was pleased to tell the Council that a new shuttle bus was just initiated between Poughkeepsie and Kingston thanks to assistance from NYSDOT.

Mr. Permut also said that institutional memory is serious concern for the railroad. He noted that replacement of longtime employees is difficult and some areas are particularly difficult to fill. He used the example that Dick Bernard, who has just retired as General Counsel for Metro North after 40 years as an MTA Attorney. He said MNR has areas where people are leaving and taking with them the same degree of institutional memory, which is a huge and irreplaceable loss.

Mr. Permut said that MNR made progress in achieving its goals in the last three months. He said that on-time performance was at 97.8 percent and that every month new ridership records have been set. He is pleased with the progress that has been made on train consist compliance, stating that compliance has been 97 percent during the a.m. peak and 98.2 percent overall. He also cautioned that the Railroad has not hit the fall leaf season yet, which would be a real test.

Mr. Permut described the roll out of the on-board ticket issuing machines, stating that conductors had issued tickets the same way for over 150 years until the development of the new machines. While pleased with how well the roll out has gone, Mr. Permut said that turning on the debit/credit card function of their programming may be too costly.

Mr. Permut said that favorable things have been happening at the Railroad, including an agreement with NYSDOT to extend the contract for the Haverstraw/Ossining ferry and the great benefit that MNR has received from the Amtrak-funded work to improve Shell interlocking.

When asked about potential service cuts, Mr. Permut said there would be impacts from the current financial difficulties. When asked about reducing customer service amenities in lieu of maintaining services, he said that the cost of customer service improvements were miniscule compared to service costs.

Doug McKean asked about other operating agencies that are still punching tickets on board trains. Mr. Permut stated that MNR has a patent for the hand held ticket machines and that other transit agencies have expressed interest in the hand held ticket device.

David Buchwald asked about breaking down the barriers between local and State government, referencing a State legislator who thought transportation was not the legislature’s responsibility because the state has created the MTA, which is an “Authority”. Mr. Permut replied that MNR communicates regularly with elected officials and that Mark Mannix takes a very proactive approach to elected officials. Mr. Mannix asked Mr. Buchwald to let him know who the legislator was so that he could contact him. Jim Blair said that elected officials may seek to separate themselves from the MTA due to rider complaints and funding issues.

Bob Jelley asked Mr. Permut if MNR is considering having the East Side Access project come into the existing Grand Central Station. Mr. Permut said that this possibility was the subject of a simulation in 2000 and that it conclusively proved that East Side Access could not fit in the upper or lower levels of GCT.

Rodney Chabot thanked Mr. Permut for the Railroad’s consist compliance effort and asked that the GCT information booth carry Amtrak train schedules. Tom Tendy mentioned that the information booth normally does have the schedules, but said that he would check to see if the booth had run out. Mr. Permut said the improvement in consist compliance has resulted from the effort of ten departments working together.

Mr. Chabot also asked that New Haven trains be washed more frequently. Mr. Permut acknowledged that while the New Haven cars are the oldest in the fleet making it more difficult for them to really shine, but he said that they would be getting washed more frequently due to the recent opening of the Highbridge car washing facility. Mr. Chabot also expressed concern about some marketing material that was in the shape of a foot, stating that it was very slippery on the floor of the trains.

Bob Jelley asked about Mr. Permut’s thoughts on the proposed commuter rail for the new Tappan Zee Bridge and asked what purpose rail across the Tappan Zee corridor would serve. Mr. Permut said that the original Tappan Zee study was to be done in concert with the Access to the Region’s Core project. Mr. Permut said that the value of the service would be in providing access across the Hudson River to the Hudson line. He said the Access to the Region’s Core and Tappan Zee studies were coordinated and that the West of Hudson lines that feed into the Secaucus Transfer station have capacity issues limiting their service possibilities. He noted that there could be as much as a 45 minute time savings for West of Hudson riders due to the Hudson line being a high speed line built to inter city standards. He said that the two projects compliment each other. Mr. Chabot then asked if it would be possible to run freight across the bridge, to which Mr. Permut replied that it might be possible, although there would be limitations on the size of loads carried.

David Buchwald asked about the possibility of extending the Harlem line third track. Mr. Permut said that adding the third track was an extremely difficult and costly project to complete 8 or 9 years ago, although today everyone loves it. He said that the next phase of its extension would entail huge costs getting it through White Plains and Scarsdale, and that it would be hard to see it as a priority right now compared with other needs in the system.

Jim Blair said that meeting the challenge of providing sufficient parking seems dependent on increasing the number of feeder buses to the system. Mr. Permut said that MNR is always looking for opportunities for bus service. The challenge with feeder buses is that they are expensive and that the Bee Line system has not been able to afford to increase the number of feeder buses to the stations. He stated that providing connecting service is a challenge in good times, and now it will be that much harder.

David Buchwald asked about the roll out of real time train status information and asked how the pilot program currently underway is being evaluated. Mr. Permut said that systems being tested at the White Plains model station will be rolled out to the 125th Street, Fordham, Larchmont and Yankee Stadium stations. He said while there would not be sufficient resources to extend this same system to all stations, the Railroad is looking at other means of providing information in less heavily traveled stations.

Tom Tendy said that the White Plains station pilot program is the laboratory for the software created by MNR. Early on focus groups were used in its development, and international research was conducted to determine best practices. He said that it was too early to determine system reliability. Doug McKean remarked that the 125th Street station can be very confusing. Mr. Permut agreed and said that he sends Mr. Tendy emails regularly when he sees problems himself. David Buchwald said that he was glad to hear that the real time information system currently in place at White Plains would not be the final product because he had issues with it. Mr. Tendy said that they continue to test the system and make adjustments to it.

Mr. Permut said that in 1987 an interlocking was set up near the Yankee Stadium station that will now benefit the new station area and that by the second quarter of 2009 there will be all sorts of service to the new Yankee Stadium station. The type of service available to serve the stadium will depend on the time of day the game is held. Direct service to the new Yankee Stadium station cannot be run during rush hour; instead, shuttle trains will run at these times. Special trains connecting customers’ home stations with the Stadium will be run for weekend games.

Bob Jelley asked about the Penn Station Access project and the possibility of getting Harlem line trains into Penn Station. Mr. Permut said that it is not practical to get the Harlem line trains into Penn Station and that there are capacity problems at Penn Station that will not be addressed until East Side Access comes on line. He said the new M8 equipment will be able to go into Penn Station, but that currently none of the New Haven Line or Hudson Line equipment is able to go into Penn Station.

Approval of Agenda and Minutes
Board Report
Jim Blair gave an abbreviated Board Report, stating that the MTA Board approved a license for Dutchess County to use Metro-North property for an extension of its rail trail, which he believes is positive.

Old Business
Bill Henderson said that the Access to the Regions Core (ARC) project was heading toward a record of decision and that the project would go deeper than was originally planned. This presents a new problem in that the tunnel will now not allow for any connectivity into Penn Station.

New Business
A Letter from Bob MacLagger on the West of Hudson Regional Transit Access Study was discussed. Mr. Henderson said that he had sent an email link to the members that would allow them to receive updates and information about the study. He encouraged members to register for updates but said that staff would participate in the study as well.

Rodney Chabot asked that something be done to enforce dress code compliance, and expressed concern that the train crew is still wearing short sleeves and no jacket. It was agreed that the Council would request a copy of the uniform standards.

Doug McKean raised a concern about the color green that was being used to repaint the 125th St. Station, stating it was the wrong shade of green.

The Council raised the idea of bringing in rank and file MNR employees as guests at their meetings. It was suggested that Norman Brown could also be a Council guest. Mr. Henderson stated that there may be some issues to be worked out to accomplish this. Mr. Buchwald urged him not to give up on the idea of inviting rank and file employees.

At 6:15 PM the meeting was adjourned.

Respectfully submitted,
Ellyn Shannon
Transportation Planner

Chair’s Report
Last week, the PCAC released its 2008 report, Welcome Aboard: Accessibility at the MTA. Reporters from the Daily News and NY1 attended the press conference and to date NY1, am New York and Newsday have written supportive articles about the report.

Last week Ellyn attended a meeting on the Tappan Zee project. The project is under the leadership of NYSDOT, NYS Thruway Authority and Metro-North Railroad. The presentation detailed the tremendous decay of the current bridge in explaining the reason why repairing the bridge is not an option. As many of you have probably heard the three-agency team has recommended the bridge be replaced with a transit-ready bridge and that bus rapid transit (BRT) and commuter rail transit (CRT) be added to the corridor. The recommendation calls for full-corridor bus rapid transit from Suffern to Port Chester with transfer points and new stations in between, as well as a new, two-track commuter rail transit service from the Port Jervis Line at Suffern, across Rockland County with several new stations and over the new bridge, connecting to the Hudson Line south of Tarrytown and thus providing direct service to Grand Central Terminal. Some bus rapid transit service routes would extend beyond the project limits and could be modified as demand changes.

Now that the transportation decision has been made, the actual bridge can be designed, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared and a plan to finance the approximately $16 billion project ($6.4 B bridge, $2.9 B BRT, $6.7B CRT) can be developed. NYSDOT is finalizing a contract for a financial advisor to develop the funding options and will release the initial phase of a finance study soon. The Draft EIS is scheduled to be completed by late 2009, with a Final EIS to be completed in early 2010.

Two weeks ago, Bill and Ellyn participated in a Transportation 4 America press conference calling on the presidential candidates to implement a five-point plan for economic prosperity through transportation. Community and business leaders in 10 different cities joined similar efforts to support adequate and responsible funding for transportation on the heels of the Wall Street bailout and hours before the final Presidential debate.

Ellyn contacted MNR’s Director of Government and Community Relations Mark Mannix to discuss concerns regarding the New Haven rail yard. The CT state legislature expected an audit of the yards to be ready in September, but Governor Rell says the audit is not ready and it is unclear when it will be ready. The legislature is looking to this document before it makes any decisions on allocating additional funding. Mr. Mannix said that a critical component of the M-8 project schedule is the acceptance facility for the new equipment, which is currently under construction and on schedule for completion in fall 2009. This is good news, but he also noted the other critical component in the M-8 project schedule is the maintenance facility for these cars. While its design should be completed by the end of this year, MNR says that they “continue to express their concerns with CDOT that an investment in the facilities to accommodate the new equipment remain a priority and is completed expeditiously.”

Monday of this week, October 20, Bill attended a meeting of the Friends of Moynihan Station meeting. This project has received new life with Governor Paterson’s recent announcement of his interest in its successful completion. The current direction of the project emphasizes its transportation function, which the PCAC has always supported.

New wrinkles in the project include a proposal to expand the current Penn Station southward by adding three or four additional tracks, the involvement of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the project, and the possible shifting of current Penn Station users with the completion of NJ TRANSIT’s new station under 34th Street and the LIRR’s East Side Access project under Grand Central. The progress of this project is of concern to the MNRCC not only because West of Hudson customers use of Penn Station and NJ TRANSIT’s 34th Street terminal, but also because of the ways in which these developments could affect Metro-North access to Penn Station and through service from Metro-North territory to New Jersey.

In September and early October many members worked to create a final draft of the MNRCC 2008-2009 Goals. The goals and tracking report from that effort is in your packets. Hopefully we can finalize the goals today which will enable us to devote more time to accomplishing them.

Please make note that our next meeting will be held on November 13, one week earlier than our normal schedule, because of the Thanksgiving holiday.