For many New York politicians and transit executives, Penn Station is a problem. The city has spent decades living down the decision to raze the 1910 Beaux Arts beauty, and everyone is trying to fix the current iteration. It is, after all, a station that needs something. It’s a basement of a sports venue that’s cramped, ugly and crowded. But just what money should we spend on Penn Station anyway?
Word of the latest attempt to remake Penn Station hit the news a few days ago. Ostensibly led by the LIRR but done in conjunction with New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, Penn Station Vision will be the name of a report soon to be released by Aecom. The $1.1 million study — half of which was funded by the MTA — will present a blueprint for restoring some respectability to Penn Station. No one can turn the West Side’s transit gateway into Grand Central, but it could be a far more pleasant station than it is today.
Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo had a report on the contours of the plan. With a focus on better lighting, cosmetic improvements to the dingy and cramped passageways and an effort to relocate some Amtrak back offices, it’s a start but not too much more than that. Castillo offered up an overview:
[LIRR President Helena] Williams said those changes will be phased in over several years, and even decades. She expects to include some improvements in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s next five-year capital plan, which begins in 2015.
The changes could include luring more upscale commercial tenants, improving lighting (including by letting in natural light if possible), adding new signage and getting rid of the main train departure board in the LIRR concourse to lessen crowding there.
Grander changes — including opening up space by relocating administrative offices, knocking down walls, and finding a new use for Amtrak’s waiting area when it moves to the adjacent Moynihan Station — could take much longer to complete. But LIRR officials and their partners in the project said they are committed to seeing it through. “We know the commuter experience can be and should be improved. The idea is to create a new, modern experience for Penn Station,” Williams said.
These are incremental improvements to a utilitarian station, and it’s tough to get too excited about such expenditures. The MTA’s next capital program will be tight on dough, and there are far more worthwhile projects to fund than some efforts to better light Penn Station. Transit experts and advocates expressed similar sentiments to Crain’s New York earlier this week. “How many more people are going to move to Long Island because Penn Station was redeveloped?” Columbia Professor David King said.
Meanwhile, one key element of the plan — better unifying operations and the overall feel of Penn Station — seems to have the support of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit as well. Currently, with three separate fiefdoms operating out of Penn Station, navigating Penn Station can be a challenge. Signs aren’t standardized, and moving from one departure area to the next involves twists and turns through strangely isolated passageways.
“Everybody has had a hand in stirring that pot a little bit, and part of the result, I think, is this almost haphazard look of development that doesn’t create the volume or the architecture of scale that you’d like to see in a grand terminal,” Drew Galloway, an infrastructure V.P. at Amtrak, said to Newsday. “It doesn’t work well today. Anybody who takes a walk down there today at 5 in the evening will agree.”
Still, MTA Board Members are skeptical that Amtrak is willing to cooperate. “To us, Penn Station is the one place where almost everybody who rides the Long Island Rail Road ends up. To Amtrak, Penn Station is one of many stations,” Mitchell Pally said. “It’s never going to be their No. 1 priority.”
Ultimately, I wonder if it even should be the MTA’s. It’s a better use of money to get better train service into Penn Station than it is to spend resources on improvements that do little to nothing to boost transit capacity. Penn Station is what is is, and putting lipstick on that pig won’t change anything.
“The basement atmosphere,” Bruce Becker, head of the Empire State Passengers Association, said, “I don’t think there is much that can be done with that, other than perhaps sprucing it up.” How much money from a limited pot of funds do we want to spend on sprucing something up anyway?