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Stuck in Limbo

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Stuck in Limbo

Governor Cuomo’s Penn Station presentation raised more questions than it answered. January 8, 2020
New York
Politics and law
Infrastructure and energy

New York City’s transit advocates were abuzz this week as Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking before the Association for a Better New York, proposed an expansion of Pennsylvania Station south of its existing block. As Cuomo described it, the project would add eight tracks to Penn Station’s currently crowded 21 tracks. Despite an elaborate presentation, Cuomo’s plan was short on details, and most significantly, he neither explained what purpose the new tracks would serve nor tried to justify their multibillion-dollar cost.

Cuomo’s idea looks to be the latest in a long history of failed efforts to enlarge Penn Station. Contrary to his claims, the station’s current tracks aren’t holding back passenger service; instead, it’s the capacity of the tunnels—two tracks under the Hudson River and four under the East River—leading into the station. Crossing the Hudson is the biggest concern.  As commuter traffic has kept rising, New Jersey Transit has long viewed the lack of capacity as a problem; it’s also an issue for Amtrak, which wants to provide more high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor.

NJ Transit and Amtrak have been engaged in an off-and-on collaboration for decades to find a mutually acceptable solution. In the 2000s, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey won federal approval for Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), two new tracks under the Hudson terminating in a new station under 34th Street in Manhattan. Amtrak was less enthusiastic about the project because the tunnels lacked an eastbound connection to the Northeast Corridor, making them unusable for high-speed rail. But Chris Christie, New Jersey’s then-governor, killed the project for unrelated reasons.

Amtrak’s alternative to ARC, the Gateway Project, is a nearly decade-long partnership between NJ Transit, the Port Authority, and the states of New York and New Jersey. The program includes the Hudson Tunnel Project, a proposed two-track tunnel under the Hudson, to the south of the existing tunnels, connecting to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor both in New Jersey and at Penn Station in Manhattan. The new tunnel, however, wouldn’t include additional track capacity at Penn Station. Earlier versions of the Gateway Project, dating to 2011, included a Penn Station South with seven platforms that could be accessed from both the old and the new tunnels. This scheme is the unacknowledged genesis of Cuomo’s proposal.

But concerns abound. While Gateway Project leaders assert that the new tunnel has utility, even without Penn Station’s expansion, it’s not clear how expanding the station can improve service without the tunnel. No additional trains, for example, would be able to access the station. For now, the Gateway Project is moribund due to the Trump administration’s unwillingness to commit federal funding.

Moreover, acquiring the Midtown Manhattan property necessary to implement these projects would be expensive—perhaps prohibitively so. In recent years, the city and state governments haven’t pursued large-scale condemnations for infrastructure projects, and for good reason. Amtrak’s Penn Station South scheme from 2011 included acquisition not only of all the properties on the block south of the station but also property on the Eighth Avenue frontage of the block to the west and the Seventh Avenue frontage of the block to the east. Due to the necessary track configurations, it’s not clear that such extensive acquisitions are avoidable in a southern expansion. The largest buildings in the acquisition area include the 28-story Stewart Hotel New York at 371 Seventh Avenue and the 17-story, 330,000 square-foot office building at 370 Seventh Avenue.

Cuomo gave no hint about the cost, and said little about the financing, beyond stating that funding would come from payments generated from Amtrak and real-estate development around the station. But Amtrak has no resources—and if it did, it would have other priorities. For real-estate development, Cuomo’s presentation featured a diagram of a “business-transit development district” that includes—in addition to the existing station, the southern block, and the Farley Building—three city blocks to the north and east, where Vornado Realty Trust controls many properties. It’s unclear how much extra development these blocks could accommodate, or how much revenue such development could produce. In any case, future revenues from real-estate development are subject to the vagaries of the market, the timing of lease expirations for existing tenants, and the timing of new construction. 

Cuomo’s priorities may thus be misplaced. The quick reaction from transit advocates emphasized the difficulties caused by Penn Station’s operation as a terminal for two commuter railroads. If the two railroads agreed to run trains through the station, rather than backing them out the way they came in, or moving empty trains to storage yards, operations might improve at a much lower cost. The impending introduction of commuter service on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line to the east offers strong potential for through-running, since trains will use the same overhead power source as NJ Transit’s New Jersey lines.

Cuomo’s presentation ultimately raised far more questions than it answered. To move forward, the New York region’s transportation system needs a more credible planning process.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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