Pataki’s Bronx Tale: Reviving Metro-North Yankee Stadium Train

In a development that could boost support for keeping the Yankees in the Bronx, Gov. George Pataki has privately said he is considering reviving a long-stalled plan to build a Metro-North station next to the team’s current home, a spokesman for Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer told The Observer .

In recent weeks, Mr. Ferrer has had several conversations with Governor Pataki and his economic development czar, Charles Gargano, about the proposed station, which would make it easier for suburban fans to reach Yankee Stadium, ease chronic traffic problems on game nights and possibly help defuse Yankee principal owner George Steinbrenner’s threats to leave the Bronx.

The talks are sure to hearten defenders of the historic ball park, who fear the team will bid the Bronx farewell when its lease expires in 2002. But they could also exacerbate long-smoldering tensions between the two state Republicans and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a vigorous advocate for building Mr. Steinbrenner’s team a new $1 billion palace on the West Side of Manhattan.

Both the Governor and Mr. Gargano have said repeatedly that they’d prefer to see the Yankees stay in the Bronx. So far, however, they have all but chosen to watch from the dugout while the Mayor and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, an opponent of the West Side site who is battling Mr. Giuliani over the stadium issue, have entertained New Yorkers with a rowdy display of bean ball.

But now the mere fact that the state pols are discussing, however informally, a substantive capital improvement to the Bronx site with a Democratic foe of the Mayor raises the intriguing possibility that the two powerful Republicans are preparing to enter the game–as opponents of Mr. Giuliani.

According to Clint Roswell, a spokesman for Mr. Ferrer, Mr. Pataki and Mr. Gargano are enthusiastic about getting started on the new Metro-North station, which would go a long way toward making the Bronx site more viable.

“Both of them have expressed a strong eagerness to build a Metro-North station to facilitate keeping the Yankees in the Bronx,” said Mr. Roswell.

Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki, declined to comment directly on the talks. “The Governor has said that he would like to keep the Yankees in New York, preferably in the Bronx. He would be supportive of a Metro-North station if [the Bronx is] where they ultimately stay,” he told The Observer . “Any characterization otherwise doesn’t reflect the Governor’s position.”

To be sure, Mr. Ferrer, an ambitious Democrat who built an unsuccessful 1997 campaign for New York Mayor largely around the stadium fight, seems an unlikely ally for Messrs. Pataki and Gargano. But according to a well-placed source familiar with the thinking of top Pataki administration officials, those officials wouldn’t be averse to joining forces in the Yankee Stadium drama.

Indeed, state officials see merit in Mr. Ferrer’s argument. They agree that the Metro-North station is the perfect complement to the current facility, one that would go a long way towards solving the problems at the Bronx site. “It’s something that could be resurrected quickly,” the source said. “The state would look favorably on it once all this bullshit with Giuliani gets cleared up and people are thinking again.”

And, according to another source involved in discussions between the state and the Bronx borough president, Mr. Pataki told Mr. Ferrer, in reference to the Metro-North station, “I’d like to build it yesterday.”

That may be a bit difficult–even for a popular governor likely to win a second term this November. Still, Mr. Pataki could theoretically build the station tomorrow because Metro-North is run by the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Yesterday, of course, is when most Bronxophiles feel it should have been built. The idea of a Metro-North stop at the stadium has been kicking around for more than a decade, held hostage by negotiations over the Yankees’ fate. City officials have long dangled the station before Mr. Steinbrenner as an incentive to keep the team in the Bronx. But Mr. Steinbrenner has kept mum about his team’s future, and no one has been willing to spend the $12 million or so on the project without guarantees that Mr. Steinbrenner would return the favor and stay put.

The impasse has resulted in an absurd circumstance: Even while fans–and Mr. Steinbrenner–routinely gripe about transportation to and from the stadium, Metro-North’s Hudson line passes within a pop foul of home plate, offering passengers no way of disembarking at the stadium. The train just glides by, giving riders a brief but tantalizing view of the House That Ruth Built. What’s more, the nearby Harlem and New Haven lines could easily be connected to the stadium.

In fact, a Metro-North station would seem to solve many of the current site’s infamous flaws. It would enable people from Westchester and Connecticut, two of the team’s biggest fan bases, to leave their cars at home and ride the train to games instead. As a result, it would alleviate traffic and, according to some estimates, pack in as many as 5,000 additional fans a game. Five thousand fans times 81 games adds up to 405,000 fans a year. That’s a lot of hot dogs and beer.

Indeed, a new station would also go a long way to discredit the Boss’ claim that the city and the state have done little to address his grievances. If it seems curious that Mr. Steinbrenner has not agitated more aggressively for the Metro-North stop, keep in mind that a smoothly functioning Bronx stadium undermines his arguments for a majestic new edifice elsewhere.

“Why haven’t the Mayor, who is so interested in getting fans into the stadium, and George Steinbrenner, who is so eager to up his attendance, pushed for the Metro-North stop?” asked Mr. Ferrer. “It’s mystifying–especially when, as I believe, the Governor will do it.”

(Spokesmen for Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Giuliani didn’t return calls by press time.)

For Governor Pataki and Mr. Gargano, however, the politics are far less clear-cut. Mr. Pataki and the Mayor–who have been locked in an on-again, off-again feud since Mr. Giuliani endorsed Mario Cuomo for Governor in 1994–have endeavored to project an air of détente in recent weeks.

For instance, in May, the Daily News reported that in his new autobiography, Mr. Pataki has purged all critical references to the Mayor included in an earlier draft. And on a recent appearance on The Howard Stern Show , Mr. Pataki gushed about their fabulous working relationship. For his part, Mr. Giuliani hailed Mr. Pataki’s achievements in a rousing speech at the Governor’s recent nomination party.

Indeed, the two men recently made dramatic strides forward on plans for a Hudson River waterfront park, resolving longtime differences over turf and credit for the vast project.

But Mr. Giuliani’s politically charged proposal for a West Side stadium has produced undeniable strains in their relationship. For one thing, the proposal for the Manhattan stadium has energized Mr. Vallone in his quest to challenge Mr. Pataki’s re-election bid this fall. The stadium issue, after all, has offered him a chance to transcend the droning budget debates, which have little resonance north of the George Washington Bridge. Noted a state official, “We’re counting on Rudy to keep Vallone tied up in controversy until the end of the summer.”

Moreover, state officials have reportedly been irritated by Mr. Giuliani’s aggressive and unilateral efforts to pitch a stadium that would be built on land controlled by the state. Although Mr. Giuliani needs Mr. Pataki’s blessing for a West Side baseball pyramid, state officials have privately griped that the Mayor has stalled on several ambitious projects dear to the Governor’s heart. Among them: redevelopment of the New York Coliseum, the expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and the light-rail link to Kennedy International Airport.

All of this might explain why state officials appear to be enthusiastic about a project that could create political complications for Mr. Giuliani. On the other hand, there may be another reason for state officials to back the project: It is widely viewed as a good idea.

“The construction time is so minimal,” noted Mr. Roswell. “If they made an announcement this summer, it could be ready by next season.”

Pataki’s Bronx Tale: Reviving Metro-North Yankee Stadium Train