(Original publication: October 28, 2002)
New York state and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plan to spend $13.06 million to adapt Metro-North's Hudson Line so freight trains carrying high-riding truck trailers can pass through Westchester County en route to rail yards in the Bronx, Queens and Long Island.
The construction is designed to increase freight train traffic, while taking hundreds of trucks off roads in the New York metropolitan area and easing congestion on the six Hudson River and New York Harbor crossings controlled by the Port Authority. The work is expected to begin in the spring and end in fall 2003.
If successful, the changed rail line could increase from six, to eight or more the number of diesel-powered freight trains that pass through Westchester nightly between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The project has gained both supporters and detractors in the county because of its potential environmental and aesthetic impact.
Rail executives said the infrastructure improvements would reduce the need to first ship freight headed for New York to New Jersey, where warehoused goods are then trucked through Manhattan to Queens and Long Island. That route
is followed now because New York's rail lines can't support the bigger, heavier train cars used elsewhere in the country for their cost-effectiveness.
“I never thought I'd be endorsing a freight-rail project,” said Sherwood Chorost, a Tarrytown village trustee and acting director of Governments United in Action for Responsible Development, a group representing 17
municipalities concerned with development along the Interstate 287 and 850, Tappan Zee Bridge corridor.
“But what's the alternative?'' he asked. “My visceral instinct is to be against freight rail, but as I studied it more, I saw it as a big win for people who live along the roads. I would rather have a couple of freight trains go by than deal with trucks going through at all hours of the
night, destroying the roads, spewing poisons in the air.”
The rail investment recently announced by Gov. George Pataki will allow CSX Transportation, Canadian Pacific Railway and New York & Atlantic Railway to expand their business and improve the rail industry's 15 percent share of
the nation's freight market, which is dominated by trucking. Those railroads now ship fruits and vegetables from the West Coast and Florida to Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, deliver lumber and paper from the Pacific Northwest to the Bronx, Queens and Long Island, and transport New York City garbage to Virginia.
The trains travel through Westchester on their way to or from Selkirk, the only Hudson River rail crossing, which is near Albany.
Because the freight trains already in use are not running at their full 120-car length, the initial growth will come from adding train cars, said Mike Brimmer, regional vice president for CSX Transportation. Once demand is greater, he said, the railroads could add two train trips – one
southbound and one northbound – while still operating at 30 mph during overnight hours so as not to interfere with daytime commuter train travel.
“There's quite a bit of capacity left,'' Brimmer said. “We think we can clearly accommodate two more trains down there, and then it becomes a little tighter and we'll have to work with Metro-North to see if we can run them faster or on different tracks.''
Besides the railroads, the biggest beneficiaries of the rail project should be New York City residents and people who drive in and around Manhattan.
In the South Bronx, which has one of the highest hospitalization rates for asthma in the nation – at 9.3 per 1,000 children under age 14 last year – health advocates encouraged any effort that could improve air quality.
“The idea of taking trucks off the road is welcome,” said Dr. Shawn Bowen, director of the Childhood Asthma Initiative, a program that provides health care to homeless and poor children at a clinic in the South Bronx and is
part of Children's Hospital at Montefiore and the Children's Health Fund.
“Diesel exhaust is one of the more powerful irritants that can trigger asthma. Anything that will reduce the amount of diesel exhaust in that area, especially around Hunts Point, would be more than likely beneficial to asthmatics.”
In Westchester, the money will be spent to raise pedestrian railroad overpasses by about 5 1/2 feet at the Hastings-on-Hudson, Glenwood and Dobbs Ferry stations; lower the rail bed beneath the Dock, and Commerce and Industry street overpasses in Dobbs Ferry and at Main Street in Tarrytown;
and upgrade power substations south of Tarrytown to improve the railroad's flexibility. Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the work would not interrupt commuter service, but might require passengers to switch sides of the track.
The work in Westchester is part of a larger investment on rail improvements to allow the bigger freight trains to reach their delivery destinations.
Of the $40 million to be spent, $7.4 million will pay for new tracks and switches; $11.8 million will go toward rails that can support heavier loads on the Hellgate Bridge between the Bronx and Queens and on rail lines in Queens; and $7.9 million will be spent on rail yard and line improvements in Brooklyn. The project has raised concerns in Hastings and Dobbs Ferry.
From Hastings Mayor Lee Kinnally's perspective, the changes will only create an eyesore by moving a pedestrian overpass 40 feet south to a railroad plaza where the village recently added plantings, new lights, curbs and sidewalks.
“It is a horror,” he said. “We will have a wall of ugly new structures. This is one area that in all of our planning for the waterfront, this was going to be a gateway to Hastings. I fully appreciate what they have to do, but it seems to me they have to try a little harder.”
Dobbs Ferry Mayor Brian Monahan shared the concern about blocked riverfront views. “Views and noise are big issues in Dobbs Ferry,” he said. “People understand there are regional needs and environmental issues bigger than Dobbs Ferry, but it would be nice to be part of the discussions.”
The bridge and track work is needed because “trailer-on-flat-car” trains are taller than a typical train passenger car and require an extra 6 inches of clearance above them, which Metro-North lacks in some places.
Each freight train can be up to 120 cars long, and each car holds three trailer loads, so railroad executives estimate each train can take about 300 trucks off the roads. Officials say the improvements also will support the anticipated 4 percent annual growth of shipping at the Elizabeth Marine Terminal and Port Newark, where the Port Authority has begun work on a $1.8 billion project to increase capacity.
In the next 40 years, cargo is expected to more than quadruple at the port, so the Port Authority is trying to improve railroad infrastructure so it can handle some of the freight and reduce the extra burden on the region's highways, bridges and tunnels.