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.