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The New Penn Station Will Inherit an Old Problem

Governor Andrew Cuomo has a bold plan for the $3 billion transit hub—but is it a complete one?

Governor Andrew Cuomo / Flickr

What’s left to say about New York’s dreadful Penn Station that hasn’t already been said about the post-iceberg Titanic? The Western hemisphere’s busiest transit hub is notorious for its balance beam-narrow platforms, claustrophobic passenger concourses, limited and uninspired retail options, and uncivilized late track announcements that make the Running of the Bulls look like tea time. Like being party to the great ship’s end, the best you can hope about the experience is that it’s brief.

So take that general hatred of Penn Station, and add a pretty drawing of what it might become, and you’ve got a development offer no sane New Yorker is going to refuse. Governor Andrew Cuomo capitalized on that knowledge this week when he announced a plan to transform America’s most-despised train hall into an angelic Empire Station Complex. If the vision holds true to the renderings, the new Penn will be filled with light, air, and the end of all rudeness and haste.

Governor Andrew Cuomo / Flickr

It won’t be hard for the public to fall in love with the pictures. But what they don’t show is the lingering, complex, expensive, and increasingly urgent problem any new station will still have with that basic mission of a rail hub: moving trains.

The full Empire Station Complex project has three parts. The first is to redevelop the shell of Penn Station; of the options presented by Cuomo, the preference seems to be removing the theater at Madison Square Garden and building a grand entrance along 8th Avenue. Part two is to finish converting the adjacent Farley Post Office into a spacious new Amtrak hall known as Moynihan Station—a longstanding effort whose end finally seems within sight. The third part would link Penn and Moynihan via underground concourses into one great transit complex.

There’s a lot to like about Cuomo’s approach to the problem. He wants to move fast; private developers will have about 90 days to pitch plans, with a hope of nearing construction completion within three years (a timeline that not-coincidentally would have Cuomo still in office). He’s intent on securing private funding; the winning bidder will pay “nearly all” the cost, estimated at $3 billion total, in exchange for retail revenue generating by the vast new commercial options in the stations. And he sees the hub as a nexus for a great transit-first future.

“It’s going to have this state moving toward mass transit in a way it hasn’t been for decades,” he said at his press conference. “Transportation is what made this state 100 years ago. It’s what’s going to make this state for the next 100 years.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo / Flickr

The question among New York City transit advocates is whether the governor is as serious about the transportation element of the plan as he is about the economic development component. This is the same governor, after all, who within the past calendar year played hardball over funding the MTA to improve the city’s subway system, and who initially balked at funding the Gateway rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River that will ultimately ease Penn Station’s train capacity problem. Is Cuomo now the man who feels Gateway is “desperately needed,” as he said this week, or the one who said "It’s not my tunnel! Why don’t you pay for it?” back in August?

Ben Kabak, Second Avenue Sagas blogger and consistent critic of any new Penn Station that doesn’t put transportation first, called the latest plan “a lot of flash without much substance”:

Despite promises to build the tunnel in his presentation, we still don’t know what the future holds for Gateway, and nothing Cuomo has said over the past few days of infrastructure press conferences has changed that reality. Gateway exists as an idea with some momentum and vague commitments to reach a funding agreement. There are no dollars flowing, no timelines, no studies, no shovels. Much as the World Trade Center PATH Hub was a $4 billion expense to create a shopping mall, so too might the $3 billion plan to overhaul Penn Station. And the sad part is that for those $7 billion in building expenses, we could have had a new trans-Hudson tunnel sooner rather than later.

There’s reason for even a serious skeptic to be optimistic about the recent progress on Gateway, despite its distant timeline and steep price tag. But Penn Station, by any name, still has plenty of challenges facing train movement that won’t be solved by a bright new passenger hall or even a new Hudson tunnel.

The platforms desperately need widening if there’s any hope of travelers boarding and alighting more quickly, which in turn probably means fewer total tracks, which in turn means improved logistical operations. A process called through-running has the potential to double rush-hour train traffic at far less than the cost of Gateway, according to transit professionals, but would require big changes to equipment and overcoming some technical barriers. Generally speaking, the hub can get more efficient; as then-Regional Plan Association chief Robert Yaro said in 2013: “we use half the capacity of the station and the tunnels going in and out to service empty trains.”

These are the sorts of systematic problems everyone will forget about when Shake Shack opens a stand inside the Empire Station Complex, but they won’t go away. Former Amtrak chief David Gunn once called the Moynihan project “an example of how the whole transportation planning system has broken down,” and now here it is bigger and louder. Cuomo has taken to comparing his recent infrastructure plans with those of Robert Moses. That’s a bold choice, in that it suggests finishing transportation projects instead of just talking about them, but it’s also a fraught one, in that it means those projects didn’t consider the totality of their impacts on the city’s future.

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