Deeming the Bedford Hills train depot both historic treasure and important community resource, First, however, professionals must figure out just who owns it.
And if you think the answer is either obvious or easy to find—that it’s simply, say, the people offering to sell the station—you just might be wrong. That’s among the reasons why Bedford has asked the experts at Chicago Title Insurance Co. in White Plains to do an exhaustive search.
Their search will span a century and a half of sometimes-colorful railroad history, combing the dusty ledgers of railroad robber barons and the microchip entries of corporate shell companies. When it ends some time this summer, town officials hope, they will know whether the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or someone else, has the legal right to sell the station and six-plus acres of surrounding land.
The MTA, successor to the Penn Central as a provider of commuter rail service locally, does not own the Bedford Hills station. Instead, it leases that property and other suburban stations from a holding company that ultimately wound up with assets of the bankrupt, short-lived Penn Central commuter railroad.
Nevertheless, the MTA last year rang up Bedford Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts, asking whether the town wanted to buy the building and its associated property for $655,000. Town officials—struggling with a bad economy, declining revenue and new tax-cap spending restrictions—initially passed. Later, however, they reconsidered, citing such things as the station’s rich history, the needed parking it afforded and the rental income—real and potential—it generates.
Indeed, Town Comptroller Ed Ritter estimated the station could be paying for itself after only three years. Bedford would finance the station’s purchase with $300,000 from the town’s fund balance, or working capital, essentially making it a “loan to ourselves,” Ritter said. The balance, $355,000, would come from a long-term bond, he said, and be retired with station rents. Only nominal tax money would be needed, he estimated, and only for three years, at that.
Ritter sketched out that financing scenario in an interview two months ago, when the town board was just beginning to openly consider the station's acquisition. At the time, in response to a reporter’s question, he downplayed any suggestion that the title search was simply a formality, predicting instead that it likely would be complex.
Ritter was right.
For much of the 20th century, commuters at Bedford Hills boarded trains of the New York Central Railroad, which owned that station from 1904 until its merger, in 1968 with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Their joint venture, the ill-fated Penn Central, filed for bankruptcy just two years later. But by then, keeping track of station ownership was akin to following a pea hidden under moving shells. Here’s how those shells appear to have moved:
Shortly after the merger, the railroads become formally known as the Penn Central Corp. Soon, however, other entities like the Penn Central Transportation Co. and Penn Central Holding Co. form. Along with the original parent company, they merge, swap stock, trade places. By the time bankruptcy overseers arrive at the scene of the corporate train wreck, Penn Central Corp. is not even in the picture. Instead, highballing down the tracks with a suitcase full of assets, it is pursuing a bright new future in real estate and insurance, among other things.
In 1994, the erstwhile Penn Central Corp. changes its name to American Premier Underwriters and becomes part of the American Financial Group (does the name Carl Lindner ring a bell?). In 2006, American Financial sells its rail assets to a holding company—Midtown Trackage Ventures LLC, which includes Midtown TDR Ventures LLC—where they appear to reside today.
The MTA operates under a lease with Midtown Trackage that runs to 2274 but includes an option to buy in 2019. “We’re going to try to sell it to the town as if we owned it,” an MTA spokesperson, Marjorie Anders, said in trying to explain how the agency could put on the block something it did not own.
“It would start out as a lease,” she said, “and if the MTA actually bought it, [Bedford] would own it.”
Lee Roberts, for her part, said the town will do nothing until Chicago Title completes its search, expected to take four to six weeks.