Over the last few years, I’ve written a bit about the disconnect between the need to spend wisely and the need to build great public works. I don’t believe all transit infrastructure should be purely utilitarian, but in an age when cities have to fight for every last transit dollar, does it make sense to spend billions on fancy headhouses instead of rail expansion projects? I don’t think.
In addition to this disconnect, a few Second Ave. Sagas readers have picked up on the theme of vanity projects. In the public works space, it can be hard to pinpoint and define a vanity project. Mayor Bloomberg is funding the 7 line extension with city money because, first, it was to be a part of the Olympics bid and second, because it is undeveloped land in Manhattan. The subway extension is useful, but is it a vanity project? Or what about the QueensWay park plans? Or my favorite whipping boy, Santiago Calatrava’s gold-plated subway station above the PATH terminal at the World Trade Center?
The latest vanity project that’s come to view is this plan to replace Madison Square Garden with a grand new Penn Station. Few New Yorkers would dispute the charge that Penn is a dump. It is clearly in need of some work, and MSG’s place atop the station will forever interfere with improvements. Relocating the arena and rebuilding the train station makes sense if the money makes sense. How much should we spend on a majestic building when rail needs — such as a new trans-Hudson train tunnel — are so glaringly obviously more important?
Last week, in a piece a long time coming, Stephen Smith at The Observer tackled this question and came up with a much better solution to Penn Station’s service woes. We don’t need a new building; we just need streamlined operations. Here’s his take:
During peak periods, each track at Penn is used, on average, just three times an hour. While Penn Station struggles to move around 300,000 passengers each weekday with more than a dozen commuter tracks, Paris’s main commuter hub, Châtelet-Les Halles, handles half a million with just seven tracks.
The key to making the most out of the existing station is what’s known as through-running. The gold standard in commuter rail integration, through-running would have trains from New Jersey come into Penn Station, but instead of making a capacity-taxing reverse maneuver, they’d run straight out to Queens and Long Island, much like a subway…
This is not to say that large capital projects won’t eventually be necessary, even after the existing service patterns are streamlined. But rather than focus on new station complexes, the railroads should look to a solution considered for the first Hudson River crossing that Governor Chris Christie ultimately killed: a tunnel between Penn Station and Grand Central. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak need a new tunnel beneath the Hudson, but they also need somewhere to put the trains once they reach Penn. A tunnel from Penn Station to Grand Central would achieve this while also allowing for through-running not only between New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, but also between Metro-North and job-rich suburbs like White Plains and Stamford, Conn. Not to mention giving Metro-North riders a one-seat ride to Penn Station, and New Jersey Transit riders a similar trip to Grand Central.
There’s a lot more to Smith’s article, and it’s definitely worth a read if only for the fact that someone, somewhere is discussing an obvious topic that the transit agencies are hesitant to admit to considering. Smith recognizes that we’ll have to spend capital dollars somewhere, and I think Penn Station’s aesthetic problems can’t be overcome without a new station. But the priority should be first on streamlining current operations to make better use of the station while adding trans-Hudson rail capacity.