Shakeup could change Metro-North shuttle

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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted last week to accept a reorganization plan and preliminary budget that includes a number of proposed cost-cutting measures addressing a nearly $1 billion annual projected budget deficit by 2022.

It may put a valuable local service at risk as well.

Buried in the 500-page budget is a proposal to end the Metro-North division’s management of the Hudson Rail Link buses. The service shuttles Metro-North riders from the trains to stops in their neighborhoods, including from the Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil stops.

Currently, the city contracts with a company to operate the buses, while Metro-North provides management and customer service. The new budget would transfer all functions and responsibilities of Rail Link, plus the purchase of two new buses, to a vendor.

“If no MTA party or outside vendor is identified, Metro-North will unilaterally cancel the contract,” the proposal reads.

That last line prompted more questions than answers.

“It seems like what they’re saying is, if they can’t find another vendor to do it, there’s a possibility they might say they’re just not going to do it entirely,” transportation advocate and Riverdale resident Vittorio Bugatti said. “I find that completely unacceptable.”

As of 2017, Metro-North consisted of five rail lines carrying 86.6 million people annually from Grand Central Station to suburban neighborhoods in New York and Connecticut. On days when express buses are late or never appear, Metro-North is a lifesaver to people like Bugatti, who works in Midtown.

“It’s a great service if you take advantage of the shuttle buses to the stations and not have to worry about driving and parking,” he said.

Rail Link buses make several stops in neighborhoods near Metro-North stations to pick up and drop off commuters. Since the train stations are located on the bank of the Hudson River — and therefore at the bottom of a steep slope — buses allow riders to avoid a tough walk without having to rely on personal vehicles they leave parked at the stations all day.

“They also give us dedicated bus service so that we don’t have to depend on the MTA to provide, say, the Bx10 that gets us somewhat close to the station but then we have to walk the rest of the way,” Bugatti said.

The proposed changes to Rail Link are part of a larger restructuring within MTA. The state legislature hired consulting firm AlixPartners to study ways the agency can decrease costs. Consultants spent three months preparing the plan that calls for sweeping reorganization of the transportation agency’s structure.

The result is a “transformation plan” to reduce the budget by $530 million annually over the next few years, which could possibly eliminate up to 2,700 jobs. Even with a successful implementation of the plan, the MTA would still have a deficit of about $440 million annually by 2022.

When Bugatti saw the proposed changes to Rail Link, he raised the alarm among fellow commuters through a social media post.

“There are legitimate concerns about this, and I think what my post was about was, if they want to try a different way of providing the service then tell us what it is,” he said. “We need some sort of assurances that whatever decision is made, they’re going to be able to maintain that service.”

If things go as the plan proposes and the MTA finds another vendor who’ll shoulder all of Rail Link’s responsibility, it should save the agency almost $3 million annually by 2023.

An MTA spokeswoman told The Riverdale Press the changes would not result in losing the Rail Link bus service — a point driven home by a Facebook comment authored by Fredric Klein, a staffer for Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, in response to Bugatti’s social media post.

“As was suggested earlier but is now confirmed by Metro-North, this is only a preliminary proposal being explored by the MTA as part of their larger reorganization plan,” Klein wrote.

MTA is exploring if it’s more efficient to transfer Rail Link to a different agency, like a city bus, agency officials said. The soonest things would change is next year, but it shouldn’t affect riders.

“We were assured that there will continue to be Rail Link service now and in the future, regardless of how it is organized with the MTA bureaucracy,” Klein wrote.

Bugatti hopes that’s the case, but encouraged his fellow transit neighbors to continue holding transportation officials accountable.

“The community needs to make sure that we get the transportation that we need,” Bugatti said.

“Because if we’re going to be giving the MTA billions of dollars over the course of the next several years once congestion pricing is sorted out, we need to make sure that we’re getting better service — whether it’s Metro-North, express buses, local buses or subways.”

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