Adding yet another costly wrinkle to the decades-in-the-making plan to remake Penn Station, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday laid out a rough blueprint to expand the overburdened station's capacity by acquiring an entire Manhattan block to build eight new tracks and accommodate an additional 175,000 daily riders.
Cuomo's plan, which was unveiled during a speech at the Association for a Better New York and intended to be the lead-up to his annual State of the State address, aims to address an aging and poorly designed New York City transit hub that also happens be the country's busiest. Every day, about 650,000 commuters elbow and weave their way through Penn Station, which sits below Madison Square Garden and serves four critical local and regional transportation lines: Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, the subways and New Jersey Transit. Amtrak, the owner of the station, has struggled over the years to maintain the tracks, with two derailments in 2017 that wreaked transportation havoc for days.
The proposed redevelopment adds to Cuomo's 2016 plan, an estimated $3 billion expansion that transforms Farley post office across the street on Eighth Avenue into the soon-to-open Moynihan Train Hall, which will serve LIRR and Amtrak passengers.
Over the years, the governor, who has often invoked the controversial master planner Robert Moses, has made Penn Station one of his pet infrastructure projects, showering it with a steady stream of press releases and flashy renderings. Most recently, in May, Cuomo's office teased the long-awaited opening of the station's new main entrance at the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, which is expected to happen in 2020.
But for all of his previous big ideas, on Monday, Cuomo called the latest planned expansion "a fundamental reconstruction of the existing Penn."
“We want to change it into a world-class experience," he added.
On Tuesday, some policy experts raised questions about Cuomo's latest vision.
Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told Gothamist/WNYC that the biggest problem with the way the project is framed now is that it doesn't do anything to address the lack of coordination between the different transit agencies that use the space. The MTA's Long Island Railroad, and soon Metro-North (once the Penn Station Access project is completed), NJ Transit and Amtrak, each use the space as a terminal, but the current planning fails to consider how to use the existing tracks and trains differently.
"If we're really thinking (about) the big picture money shot, we should be moving toward a system more like they have in Europe or much of Asia where you have one transit system that handles all commuter rails," Gelinas said.
She said if the governor really wants to increase capacity and serve the needs of commuters, an ideal system would allow NJ Transit trains to run through Penn Station all the way to Queens, and Metro-North trains would run all the way to New Jersey. Moreover, Gelinas warned that many riders won't even be able to get to Penn Station given the uncertain fate of the Gateway Project, which seeks to create a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River connecting Penn Station and New Jersey.
She said it's also unclear, given the MTA's dire financial outlook whether the agency could even take advantage of additional space at Penn Station. While the MTA is also spending a ton of capital on improving Long Island Railroad service (those are capital projects), it's also projecting a nearly $1 billion operating deficit by 2023.
Transit Center, a nonprofit policy group, asked how the proposal will improve service for commuters.
"It’s a red flag that the effect on Metro-North and LIRR service seems to be an afterthought," said Ben Fried, spokesperson for the group, in a press release.
"We know that there are potentially more efficient, cost-effective ways to improve capacity at Penn if the NJ and NY commuter railroads integrate operations, enabling services to run through the station instead of terminating there," he added. "These options are never even explored in public. Why is the default choice always the expensive, overbuilt option?"
The plan does omit several major details, notably the cost and the timeline. Cuomo has said the project would be self-funded, with money expected to come from Amtrak and a commercial development district whose taxes would generate revenue for the state.
But the redevelopment also requires state officials to negotiate and buy up properties, a typically time-consuming process, from owners including Amtrak and the Archdiocese of New York. The latter owns the roughly 150-year-old St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church. The governor also said the state was looking into buying a portion of MSG, currently the Hulu Theater, on Eighth Avenue, to build a new entrance for the station.
One of the immediate casualties of the plan appears to be Tracks Raw Bar & Grill, a Penn Station favorite likened to the fictitious TV bar Cheers, which might be forced to leave its new location on West 31st Street. The establishment moved in November after having to shutter their 17-year home inside Penn Station due to yet another station-related construction project.
“Upset is a good word,” co-owner Pat O’Brien told the Wall Street Journal. “I just want to stay here and earn a living.”
Still, several prominent transit advocates, who have long stressed the urgency of remaking Penn Station, praised Cuomo's announcement.
"Overhauling and unifying the Penn Station complex was a key recommendation in our Fourth Regional Plan and today’s announcement is a great step for the future prosperity of the entire metropolitan region," said Tom Wright, president and CEO of Regional Plan Association. "We are pleased to see a comprehensive plan that encompasses not only the Station itself, but also the district surrounding it. Adding transit capacity and prioritizing safety is critical to the success of the region and for the hundreds of thousands of people that rely on the Station regularly."
Transportation Alternatives, which has been critical of Cuomo on his transit policies, also commended the initiative. "In expanding rail capacity, the governor is signaling that New York’s future must be built around mass transit, not single-occupancy vehicles," said Danny Harris, the group's executive director.
He added: "This is a once in a generation opportunity to upgrade the western hemisphere's busiest rail hub. It's also a tremendous opportunity to remake the area surrounding Penn Station into a place that prioritizes people, not traffic.”