New Jersey

Amtrak Fires Back as LIRR Declares It Won't Pay Rent During Penn Station Work

Amtrak is firing back at the Long Island Rail Road for threatening to stop paying its usual rent at Penn Station during the major renovation work this summer that's expected to inconvenience tens of thousands of commuters. 

Amtrak CEO Charles "Wick" Moorman admonished MTA heads Fernando Ferrer and Ronnie Hakim, writing to them in a letter Wednesday, "Refusing to pay Amtrak the money required to maintain Penn Station New York will not solve the station's many challenges." 

"It is unconstructive to respond to the problems at Penn Station by calling for less investment by its two largest users -- LIRR and NJT -- who account for 80 percent of train operations," said Moorman.

Moorman said the underlying cause of the problems at Penn Station "go far beyond the isolated track issues we had this spring," and that increasing passenger loads -- including from LIRR -- have strained the infrastructure. 

If LIRR stops payments to Amtrak as required by their contract and by federal law, it will immediately trigger contract disputes, and Amtrak will be obligated to make only the investments and provide the services needed for its own customers, Moorman said, effectively shutting out LIRR riders at Penn Station. 

MTA Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said the agency will consult its legal team to pursue all avenues. The MTA says it will already cost them "millions of dollars" to provide the buses, ferries and park-and-ride lots being offered as alternatives to commuters on disrupted LIRR trains. And both governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have vowed to make Amtrak pay for what they called "decades of underinvestment" that's led to a "continuing string of infrastructure failures at Penn Station." 

Amtrak says it's already pouring in $30 to $40 million for the eight-week summer renovation project at Penn Station, and is bearing a "disproportionate share" of the work impact. 

"The relationship between Amtrak and LIRR is very different from an ordinary landlord-tenant relationship," Moorman writes. "Unlike a commercial or residential landlord, Amtrak does not earn any profit or return on investment from the commuter railroads' use of our property."

"The only rent the LIRR currently pays to Amtrak for Penn Station New York, under its 1988 lease, is some $148,000 a year for exclusive use of its Level A Concourse and three platforms serving six tracks," according to Moorman. 

That lease, which runs for 99 years, "must be among the best deals in New York City." 

Moorman also claimed that since 1976, when Amtrak took over operations at Penn Station, the commuter railroads have only been required to pay "incremental" costs for operations while Amtrak has shouldered most of the funding for capital projects -- even as the commuter rails were accounting for the vast majority of operations.  

In fact, Moorman maintains, LIRR already owes Amtrak "significant funds" from two years of not complying with a federal requirement to help fund Northeast Corridor commuter investments. 

Finally, Moorman points out, Amtrak actually leases a portion of the MTA's own Metro-North infrastructure. And when Metro-North experienced its own string of failures and outages in 2013, Amtrak never sought to recoup the $50 million it invested in the Metro-North infrastructure, or the revenue it lost during the service failures and delays. 

"During these incidents, Amtrak did not disparage Metro North, or seek to gain advantage from the situation," Moorman wrote. "Instead, Amtrak offered assistance to restore Metro-North's infrastructure, and has not to date pursued claims for the millions in losses we have incurred as Amtrak regularly experiences the worst on-time performance for our trains on any section of the Northeast Corridor -- currently in the low 80 percent range -- which is far below the performance levels regularly achieved by LIRR on our railroad."

Moorman emphasized that "all users" at Penn Station need to make sufficient investments to improving Penn Station, and working together will make a better case for additional federal, state and private funding. 

"While this summer will be extremely challenging for all who operate or ride trains in PSNY, the actions we now are taking start us on a path towards achieving the levels of reliability and services we all desire," he said. 

"For decades, Amtrak, LIRR and New Jersey Transit have worked together to achieve unprecedented levels of services in the most challenging operating environment in the nation," said Moorman. "However, this can only continue if we pursue investments together that will create the capacity and conditions to support the volume of train traffic the region requires." 

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