Quoting Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday unveiled a wide-ranging infrastructure vision that he argued would not only improve rail, air, and bus travel but also save New York from economic depression and prepare it for the next century.
His $306 billion-dollar plan focused on Midtown, and projects largely dependent on layers of slow federal and city bureaucracies. But if they came to pass they could fundamentally change the city.
The governor said he plans to “acquire” a square block to build a new station called Penn South, which would service NJ Transit train travel. Those trains would arrive on new tracks made possible by a new tunnel running under the Hudson River as part of the long-delayed Gateway Project.
While President-elect Joe Biden has said funding Gateway would be a priority, it’s unclear when the money for the $13 billion initiative would be available. And while Cuomo wants the benefits of the Gateway project, he added that “New York has neither the resources nor the patience to partner in more wasteful bureaucracy.”
Beyond Penn South, which builds off of the new Moynihan Train Hall, the governor said he wanted to redesign more of Midtown, from Broadway to the Hudson River, and has dubbed the area from Penn Station to the Javits Center the “Empire Station Complex.” Cuomo also wants to acquire the MSG Theater to create a new entrance to Penn Station on 8th Avenue.
The complex would include a new Port Authority bus terminal (pictured in a rendering above). This, despite the fact that there are currently three proposals for a new bus terminal already under consideration, one of which would place a new bus terminal under the Javits Center.
The Port Authority wouldn’t comment on Cuomo’s plan specifically, but said the bus terminal process was already well underway.
“The review of public comments and discussions with stakeholders were slowed down due to the pandemic, but the Port Authority is nearing the end of its review and plans to publish the Final Scoping Report on the project in the near future,” a spokesman for the Port Authority wrote in a statement.
“It will be the most ambitious mass transit development in the United States of America,” Cuomo said.
The governor is also confident that increasing the Javits Center’s footprint by 50 percent, building more commercial and residential developments (1,400 affordable units) nearby, and expanding the High Line could “make this a walkable, enjoyable part of Manhattan,” though his presentation was scant on detail.
Cuomo also rekindled hopes that the MTA’s now frozen $51.5 billion capital plan could be brought back to life. The agency decided to pause all work on that plan as its finances were decimated by the drop in ridership during the pandemic.
“We will accelerate key elements of the historic $51 billion MTA capital plan, upgrading signaling, purchasing new trains and buses and making dozens of more stations ADA accessible. We will further extend the Second Avenue Subway from 96th Street to 125th Street,” Cuomo said.
MTA budget watchdogs aren’t convinced, even with the recent $4 billion in government relief, and a Democratically controlled government in Washington, that the agency and state will have enough money for these projects.
“The MTA's operating budget is still on fire, with a more than $8 billion deficit remaining through 2024. Fare hikes may come as soon as next week while the MTA is planning on the state raiding $600 million of its operating funds,” Rachael Fauss, with the good government group Reinvent Albany, wrote in a statement. “Even with the $4 billion in federal funding secured in December, the MTA is using $900 million from its 'capital lockbox' to plug its operating budget holes. Capital work like updating the subway's aging signal system remains urgent, but until the Governor stabilizes the MTA's operating budget and pledges to not raid its dedicated funds, there won't be enough resources to fund the capital plan.”
The MTA is more sanguine, writing in a statement, “The Governor’s strong leadership and vision to keep building and put potentially tens of thousands of New Yorkers back to work will not only modernize our system but revitalize the region’s economy.”
Other transit-oriented groups, like the Regional Plan Association, believe with strong support from Washington, New York is poised to see a boom in infrastructure spending.
“Moving forward with vital infrastructure projects such as Gateway, Penn Station, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the MTA Capital plan will greatly benefit our region, the entire Northeast corridor, and the nation’s economy as a whole,” Tom Wright, President and CEO, Regional Plan Association, wrote in a statement. “Today’s announcement, coupled with what the incoming Biden Administration looks to achieve, offers a great deal of promise and potential for the tri-state metropolitan region.”
And then there are the bigger problems that are currently affecting the lives of people who rely on the MTA, including lack of overnight subway service, and what looks to be an fare hike later this year. The MTA board is expected to vote on the fare increase next week, and the governor and the transit agency have been cagey about when 24/7 subway service will continue, given that the nightly cleaning of the system used to justify its suspension does little to stop the spread of the virus.
"New Yorkers need Governor Cuomo to focus his energies on delivering a reliable and accessible subway system. He must also stop the regressive fare hike, restore 24/7 subway service and find lasting progressive solutions to the MTA's revenue problems,” Danny Pearlstein, Policy and Communications Director with Riders Alliance wrote in a statement. "Public transit has a pivotal role to play in New York's pursuit of climate and racial equity. As he sets and implements his infrastructure priorities, the governor must put the needs of essential workers and millions of transit-dependent New Yorkers first."