Dec
28

Building a home for Amtrak they can’t afford

By · Published in 2011

A cutaway of Moynihan Station as seen from Penn Station.

Over the past decade and a half, spurred on first by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and later by supporters who wanted to continue his efforts, well-connected New Yorkers have fought for an expansion of Penn Station into the Farley Post Office. Part of their reasoning is to boost train service and ease customer congestion underneath Madison Square Garden while the rest of their efforts are driven by the idea of a Great Public Work. Penn Station, they rightfully say, is an eye sore. It’s dirt, dingy and ugly, and the post office would provide a setting of grandeur that could right the wrong of destroying the original Beaux Arts building.

To that end, the project has been divided into two parts. Phase 1 includes better egress points into the current Penn Station, and it is currently funded and ongoing. Phase 2, which will cost upwards of $1 billion, involves moving Amtrak’s operations into the Moynihan Station area and perhaps readying the station for high-speed rail if the stars and money align properly. That is more of a dream right now than anything else.

Lately, news about Moynihan Station has been scarce. After the October 2010 groundbreaking, the project has moved quietly forward, and only an announcement that the Port Authority will oversee the new station made a ripple earlier this year. Now, though, Amtrak is making noises about its eventual potential move to Moynihan Station. In fact, they won’t be able to pay the rent.

Bloomberg News had the report shortly before Chirstmas (and Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities picked it up as well). Wrote Lisa Caruso:

For Amtrak to move more passengers on trains between Washington and Boston, its only profitable route, it must move out of New York’s Penn Station, said Drew Galloway, assistant vice president for the eastern region. The new space it covets is across the street, where New York state and two developers plan to transform the 97-year-old James A. Farley Post Office into a $1 billion train hall and retail complex.

The rub: Officials at U.S. taxpayer-subsidized Amtrak, which lost $1.3 billion last fiscal year, say they can’t afford to leave Penn Station, which the railroad owns, unless their new home is effectively rent-free. With the development’s finances unresolved, New York officials haven’t made guarantees.

…Amtrak won’t have to help pay to build its new home, Gilchrist said. How much it will contribute to operations is under discussion, though Washington-based Amtrak won’t occupy it if it faces more than a “modest increase” from costs at Penn Station, Galloway said in an interview.

Now, Amtrak can hardly be faulted for their stance here. After all, Moynihan isn’t their idea. In fact, David Gunn pulled Amtrak support from the Moynihan project because it does nothing to add track capacity into or out of New York City. It is simply an expensive cosmetic upgrade that helps ease overcrowding across the street. It is, Gunn said, “an example of how the whole transportation planning system has broken down. It was controlled by a bunch of rich developers.”

Current Amtrak officials are going to attempt to get creative with funding. They could lease out their current Penn Station space to offset costs, and developers in the area may look to throw in some millions as well. Yet, it’s the same story as the one we’re seeing downtown where billions are being spent on a PATH train that doesn’t add capacity while the upgrades at Fulton St. aren’t worth the dollars.

In a time when transportation money is scarce, the available dollars are being burned on things that look good instead of things that deliver better transportation service. If that seems backwards to you, well, that’s because it is, and until things change, we’ll be left with fancier train stations and no better service than what we already have.



29 Responses to “Building a home for Amtrak they can’t afford”

  1. capt subway says:

    I always thought Moynihan Station proposal to be a huge and unconscionable waste of tax $$, the equivalent of the Alaska Bridge to Nowhere. What is the point of moving the station further west and further away from the IRT 7 Ave line, and even further away from the IND, BMT & PATH at 34 & 6? And let’s not even begin to consider the horrible disruptions to Amtrak, NJT and LIRR service that would go on for all the years required to construct the new station.

    The sooner this hair-brained scheme, cut from the same cloth as that other solid gold boondoggle the Fulton Transit Maul (sic), is laid to rest the better.

    • al says:

      The access and circulation improvements are warranted (but on the pricey side) due to development slated for the area stretching from Midtown South to Penn Station to the Hudson Yards. On the other hand, the $1 Billion for modification of Farley Post office into a retail and station house has far less merit.

      I also wonder if they could turn that existing building into a pedestal with a nice voluminous atrium like the Hearst Tower and large office/retail building above. Think Grand Central Terminal and Terminal City.

  2. Bolwerk says:

    This is galling indeed. $100M of that $1B would probably more than suffice to make that QueensWay rails-to-trails into a working rail service.

    How much was the per-mile cost for the Port Jervis restoration, anyway? $5M/mile?

  3. Dan says:

    Can NJ Transit benefit from this at all? NJ Transit leases all Penn Station tracks making their schedules easier to maintain and increase capacity.

  4. Chris says:

    As much as I’d want a pretty edifice for a train station, it is a waste of money – especially, when Amtrak would have to pay rent for space that in its current location is effectively free. Governments tend to waste money on edifices – as they stroke the egos of those who commission those works. New rail tunnels, new subway cars, new transit options, though needed very much, do not do this.

    But to answer Bolwerk – I’d rather see the remnants of the Rockaway LIRR line reactivated as a rail line, and also to figure out a way to use the LIRR Montauk line through Queens as a mass transit option again. We keep killing off rail options when we need to be developing them – NYC and its region needs more effective, unified mass transit, not less….

    • Bolwerk says:

      I don’t know enough about the cost-benefit analysis of the ROWs to comment, but given that the ROWs are there are anyway the costs alone should be possible to meet at well under a tenth the cost of Moynihan Station. The major drawback, of course, is reactivating such ROWs only helps New Yorkers and maybe Long Islanders – but is perceived to do nothing for the metropolitan region or the NE Corridor. And since they do useful work, they don’t look as pretty as a brand new station.

  5. The Cobalt Devil says:

    I love big old train stations as much as the next guy, but when I travel via Amtrak I don’t pick my destination by how nice the departure/arrival station is. Union Station in DC is gorgeous, but I don’t go to DC to see the station, I go there for business or to see the sights. And more often than not, I drive from Staten Island and park the car in Metropark, NJ because it’s more convenient than schlepping to Penn Station. I would still do the same even if Amtrak spent a billion dollars on a new station, even though Metropark is little more than a concrete platform with a plastic/glass canopy and a tiny waiting room. People in the Northeast ride the train for convenience, not to hang around a railroad station.

    Kill this boondoggle now and put the money toward infrastructure improvements or new equipment.

    • Bolwerk says:

      You can bet MetroPark probably handles its passenger loads better on a per-platform basis than any Penn Station platforms. For commuter service, the ideal model for Penn Station would probably be some kind of low-dwell time through service. Think Union Square on the 4/5/6, which may see annual traffic approaching Penn Station anyway, not the L Train at Eighth Avenue. With reversals done elsewhere, 4-6 tracks ought to be sufficient.

      Long distance services, of course, require giving people with luggage time to board and alight.

      • Nathanael says:

        Amtrak has been forced to reconfigure Chicago Union due to crowding.

        The same problem is happening in NY Penn. It is utterly reasonable of Amtrak to demand that it not pay more for its passenger-crowd-relief measures; if the Farley redevelopment costs too much, one assumes Amtrak will eventually just kick the LIRR out of its space.

        • Bolwerk says:

          That would be a tragedy from a regional planning perspective, and entirely pointless. The capacity is there to accommodate them both.* And at least some of the crowding is entirely Amtrak’s fault. They could let people wait on the platform at least for regional trains, relieving waiting areas upstairs for longer-distance passengers. It makes no sense that the busiest station on the NEC has arguably the worst passenger flow.

          * It would be a lesser tragedy once the LIRR starts going to GCT. Even then, Penn is the only (potentially affordable) conduit for LIRR/MNRR transfer service.

          • Nathanael says:

            The Penn Station platforms are actually dangerously narrow, which is an underlying problem here.

            Yes, they could let some people wait on them, but what about the passengers leaving the trains? They’d need Japanese style “platform attendants”.

            Perhaps some thought should be given to fixing the underlying problem. The platforms could be widened by removing tracks, which could be done if NJT and LIRR used through-running… which of course LIRR will NEVER EVER CONSIDER….

  6. Ray says:

    There is not enough private funding involved our infrastructure development; and I share serious doubts about Fulton, Calatrava/WTC, Moynihan and even East Side Access. Yet, I’m asking why am I not equally dubious when the Port Authority announces and then quickly executes (on budget and on-time) impressive new air terminal facilities at JFK and other NY airports.

    The answer is there’s an established mechanism for infrastructure redevelopment. Airports add FAA authorized facility fees added to the price of tickets fund repayment of bonds which finance construction of new terminals built by airlines to their specifications. Here in New York, these guarantees have attracted airlines (jetBlue, American) and joint ventures (Delta/Schinpol IAT) to enter into agreements with the Port Authority at JFK to build. The long term result will be the renovation/reconstruction of major terminals at the airport funded by these surcharges. All this while governments tightened belts and the airline industry went thru mergers, staggering bankruptcy reorganization and a recession prone market.

    I see the Port Authority acting in the same role at Moynihan. No Amtrak doesn’t have the money, but their passengers do. Amtrak is in the intercity rail business. competitive with the same air transport market within 500 miles. The pricing model should sustain such surcharges and private developers should be relatively attracted to the opportunity. The PA knows how to arrange and organize such projects. That’s what makes them the right choice to oversee Moynihan.

    And I believe we are thinking too small. As the negotiations proceed to establish Amtrak passengers within Moynihan at a favorable repayment rate, the scope of redevelopment should be expanded to allow the PA to redevelop Penn to contemporary standards for New York’s commuters at the same time.

    These stats make the case clear:

    Airline traffic (in and outbound) at JFK –
    JetBlue Airways 9,561,000 passengers (41.25%) – NEW Terminal 5 – $875MM (20MM capacity)
    Delta Air Lines 5,018,000 passengers (21.65%) – Redeveloped Terminal 2,3,4 – $1.2B
    American Airlines 3,518,000 (15.18%) – Terminal 8 – $950MM (12.5MM capacity)

    Rail traffic (in and outbound) at Penn
    Amtrak 8,377,944 (comparable to both Delta and American combined)
    NJ Transit at Penn 19,972,750
    LIRR at Penn 57,785,000

  7. John says:

    The other thing to take into account on any idea of moving Amtrak west to a new Moynihan Station is that Amtrak already has their own plan laid out to move south, into a Penn Station add-on, as part of their Gateway Tunnel proposal announced last February.

    Gateway may have even less of a chance to get built than the Moynihan project, but were the two new (and far more necessary) Hudson River tunnels to be built, the bulk of Amtrak’s service would be shifted into the new station area (with new platforms, something Moynihan doesn’t create) between 30th and 31st streets. If that project ever materializes, it totally negates the other project, unless you shift NJT or LIRR trains to platform further west, which might make a little sense if the Hudson Yards development ever really takes off, but otherwise it would just irk those commuters by making subway transfers less convenient.

    • Bolwerk says:

      As I hinted at in my reply to Cobalt Devil, I really don’t get this whole thing about new complexes. Penn Station has, what, 30 platform-facing tracks? Two more tunnels into the existing station fixes most of the capacity issues. Gateway just confuses things by making LD and local trains further apart. Moynihan adds injury to insult to injury by taking passengers further away from anywhere they could possibly want to go.

      • John says:

        Gateway at least has the advantage of putting the platforms between 7th and 8th avenues, albeit further south of the IRT and IND Penn Station stops. Moynihan takes the trains in the opposite direction from the current traffic patterns of most people entering or leaving the station for no other reason than to justify a new commercial retail complex. If I had a spare billion or two (or three, four or five) to spend, I’d much rather go with at least some form of Gateway, since it does boost trans-Hudson capacity.

        • Bolwerk says:

          You get more or less the same boost without the new complex. It’s the tunnels that are useful. Surely from there the “free market” can satiate the consumerist ideologues who insist that everything is about shopping.

          • The Cobalt Devil says:

            Seriously, it’s all about the retail. Moynahan doesn’t increase capacity one iota, and it uses the same tracks/platforms as the current Penn Station. If given a choice, I’d take the old Penn over the current one any day, but that being said the Penn Station of today ain’t that bad. It’s relatively clean (especially compared to 1980s), has more than enough food/bank/drugstores, etc and handles the crowds reasonably well.

            Who in their right mind would go to Penn/Moynihan Station to shop? If people ride into the city from Jersey or LI, they don’t want to hang out at the railroad station and eat/shop and then go back home. They want to see the city. It’ll be another version of Union Station in DC: the aforementioned Cinnabons, pretzel shops, touristy stores selling t-shirts, ATMs, and maybe a TGIFridays or an Olive Garden. NYC can get by without any more of these, and we don’t need to spend a few billion bucks on what amounts to a new mall.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Penn has 21 tracks, of which 1-4 stub-end and only connect to Jersey, and 20-21 only connect to Long Island and the West Side Yard.

        The ARC plans that did not involve a new cavern – i.e. the original connection in Alt P, plus Alts G and S – had the new tunnel connecting to the southernmost tracks, i.e. 1-5. Alts G and S had the new tunnel heading east of Penn coming out of those tracks, sent to either Grand Central or Sunnyside.

  8. Christopher says:

    Like SF’s fancy new station, this should have been payed for by the developers. We absolutely must start getting developers to foot to the bill for transit improvements that bring people to the land they own adjacent to it. NYC seems to be the only city that isn’t using TIFs and other funding mechanism to expand it’s transit network. Instead using public funds to benefit private corporations while not asking anything from the private corporations. In fact, by giving them sweetheart deals (cf. Atlantic Yards) we are subsidizing their pocketbooks even more. Sure, sure. Economic development is one of the roles of a city and state but the funding here is entirely lopsided. And we are almost entirely alone in that. We need to be smarter about these projects. THey are overdue and needed but they need to be funded smarter.

  9. paulb says:

    There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Even when it’s a bad idea. But there’ll probably be a new Cinnabon, at least. Or is Cinnabon over?

  10. UESider says:

    The current Penn Sta is an abomination… it would make travel in and out of the city so much better to have a grand station a la Grand Central or the prior incarnation

    I’m not a big supporter of moving to the other side of 8th – just makes connections harder. it’s already bad enough that there’s no good way east

    Unless there’s a 34th St shuttle in the plans to connect over to Herald Sq and then Park, it just wouldnt be a great option

    It’s a bit of irony, but there should really be more dignity in traveling thru Penn, even if most people are only going to NJ

  11. jim says:

    It’s probably worth trying to look at this from Amtrak’s point of view. For Amtrak there are two capacity problems with Penn Station. (1) There’s not enough waiting room space for intercity travelers. (2) Intercity passenger flow is not sufficiently separated from commuter passenger flow. Since there’s many more commuters than intercity travelers, the latter are swamped. Moynihan promises to remedy both problems. Intercity passengers will stay west of 8th Ave. Commuters will stay east of 8th Ave. There will be new public space set up devoted to intercity passengers waiting for Amtrak trains.

    Amtrak can, of course, remedy both problems within Penn Station. There’s two levels extending over two full city blocks. It can surely be reconstructed to separate intercity and commuter traffic; adequate waiting space can surely be found. But to create new public space in Penn Station requires that existing private space be removed: Amtrak office space which would have to be replaced by rented accommodation or retail space which currently pays rent. And, of course, reconstruction costs. Moynihan is preferable if free (which is what Galloway said).

    The alleged deficiencies of Moynihan really aren’t. Few intercity travelers need direct access to the Seventh Ave. subway. The E train is better for the midtown hotels. One can walk to the hotels in the ‘thirties (when I used to stay at the late, much lamented Williams Club, I’d walk to 39th and Madison). Recognize that NJT and LIRR will stay at Penn. Commuters need Seventh Ave. access.

    For Amtrak expansion, the existing Penn Station platforms suffice. There was a modeling exercise done for ARC which suggested that even with current operating procedures an additional ten to a dozen trains per hour could be handled using the existing platform tracks. If one wants to both expand Amtrak operations and NJT operations then additional platform tracks would be needed — which is where the Gateway Penn South proposal comes from.

    • Nathanael says:

      Very accurate description.

      And given that Amtrak would be using Moynihan pretty much only for intercity travelers, Amtrak has to pay careful attention to the costs.

  12. Igor says:

    How is this even possible? How could this have been approved/proceed if Amtrak cannot afford to make the move?

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