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Moynihan construction start in October

by Benjamin Kabak

After this week’s PACB approval, construction on Phase 1 of Moynihan Station will begin in October. With a tortured history that rivals many of New York City’s late-20th Century transit expansion plans, a firm start date for the project is good news indeed. Phase 1 is a $267-million expansion plan for Penn Station, and it is expected to be completed by 2016. When the $1.5-billion Phase 2 will get off the ground is anyone’s guess, but when the project is finally completed, New Yorkers will enjoy a much airier and roomier commuter rail hub, evocative of the old Penn Station. Issues concerning track capacity into and out of New York City will not be addressed.

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Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 1:06 pm

In English, what you’re saying is that the contractors and consultants ran out of transportation projects to waste money on, so they’re now plugging a public architecture project and selling it as if it were about transportation.

Train stations are utilitarian places. They don’t need to look like cathedrals to the railroads’ wealth, as they did a hundred years ago. Penn Station is dinky, Gare de Lyon is dinky, Shinjuku Station is dinky. It’s a fact of life, just like crowded trains. Accept it and spend money on things that the average commuter gives a crap about.

Jeremy July 23, 2010 - 2:02 pm

Alon, this isn’t a question of dinkness vs. monumentality. It’s a question of functionality. The current size and design of Penn Station is completely inadequate for the number of commuters it serves. Unlike, say, Grand Central, the platforms at Penn Station are narrow and crowded. This project will provide tremendous benefit to the daily riders.

SEAN July 23, 2010 - 2:39 pm

A great station atracts more users wich leads to greater investment in the station & the general neighborhood. A great example is the new Trans-Bay Terminal going up in San Fransisco.

Alon Levy,

I think you are off the mark, wich is rare.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 3:58 pm

The plan for Transbay is quite dinky as well as dysfunctional, featuring a depressing mezzanine and a platform level obstructed by wide concrete columns.

Marcus July 23, 2010 - 5:07 pm

The hope is that the transbay terminal will revitalize that neighborhood, which has been depressed for decades. There used to be a freeway there, which was torn down in the early 90s, but nearly all the land on which the freeway stood is still surface parking lots, often in the shape of the old freeway. I honestly have no idea if a train station will make much difference. One of the grandest stations ever build, Michigan Central Station, is now an abandoned ruin.

You can see what I’m talking about on Google Maps:

Scott E July 23, 2010 - 3:58 pm

“Unlike, say, Grand Central, the platforms at Penn Station are narrow and crowded”

True, but this project won’t change the size of the platforms. That would involve moving tracks, and would be a much heftier endeavor, that even the ARC project (NJ Transit to a “deeper” Penn-Station) won’t dare touch. If anything, there will be more “vertical circulation” (stairs, escalators, elevators) to get people on and off the platforms more quickly. Other than that, the concourse/mezzanines/street entrances are the areas that will benefit.

I’m still not sold on the project. NJT has a separate project ongoing to increase capacity and bring entrances from the street farther east, not west. That will be far more beneficial, even if it doesn’t have provisions to extend to GCT.

Nathanael July 25, 2010 - 10:24 pm

The so-called “Moynihan Phase I” project will have tremendous benefits to the mobility impaired. No longer will anyone in a wheelchair depend on one (yes, ONE) elevator being in working order to get in or out of Penn Station.

Added concourse/mezzanine capacity is *badly* needed — as well as more straightforward routings from street to ticket office to platform, which this will provide. Hopefully this will make Penn Station less of the maze it currently is for anyone not intimately familiar with it.

AK July 23, 2010 - 2:38 pm

Like Jeremy, I think the project has some functionality in mind. However, I strongly disagree with the notion that we shouldn’t spend money (possibly even a lot of money) to make certain heavily trafficked train stations (of which Penn Station is #1 in America) beautiful.


Public spaces are exceedingly rare in modern New York, and train stations which millions of people pass through every week shouldn’t be cast off as mere utilitarian requirements (like a water pipe or sewer system), but instead should be built to embody the spirit of a community. As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the bag-search case of MacWade v. Kelly,

“The subway is an icon of the city’s culture and history, an engine of its colossal economy, a subterranean repository of its art and music, and, most often, the place where millions of diverse New Yorkers and visitors stand elbow to elbow as they traverse the metropolis.”

Indeed, train/subway stations are incredibly meaningful to people (the very existence of this blog is a testiment to their centrality in the lives of many).

So, while I think more money could be used to make the Moynihan Project better (Alon’s recommendations on this topic have been quite erudite in past postings), I am quite pleased that the project has a significant aesthetic component.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 5:06 pm

Jeremy, AK: my contention about the project – at least the over-expensive second phase – is that there are much cheaper but more functional alternatives. For example, the underrated platform/lower concourse remodeling the LIRR engaged in, leading to higher throughput per track. For another example, kicking the back offices to another building, away from where passengers go on about their daily commutes.

The basic problem is that although Moynihan is publicly touted as a transportation project, the main figures behind the early push for it were Moynihan’s family, who wanted something named after the late Senator, rather than people who cared about transit. Thus the purpose and need of the project is to build Moynihan Station, rather than to improve Penn Station’s passenger circulation.

AK July 24, 2010 - 11:16 am

Moynihan’s family already succeeded in getting a major building named after the late senator (the Pearl Street Courthouse, across the street from the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, in Lower Manhattan), so I don’t really buy that it’s a project centered around naming rights (after all, the GOP would have been roaring about such waste in the current environment, especially naming it after such a “liberal”). BUT, I get your point, and I wish that the project did more for Penn’s functionality, like you do, I just wanted to make the very narrow argument that aesthetics matter quite a bit and that investment in them should reflect that reality.

Alon Levy July 24, 2010 - 3:06 pm

I agree that aesthetics matter. If the city needed to build a new station – say, Fulton Street – then it goes without saying that it should make an extra effort to make it look nice. My objection to Moynihan Station is that it’s not necessary as a transportation project, and even if it were, $1.5 billion is excessive.

As for naming rights, a courthouse is not as iconic as the city’s primary train station. That’s probably why Moynihan’s family was so instrumental behind the project.

P.S. While Moynihan was a Democrat, he wasn’t especially liberal. He was one of the first neocons, he advised Nixon on urban policy, and his ideas about education are now widely cited by conservatives.

Andrew July 25, 2010 - 11:35 pm

I agree with your overall point – but why are you referring to Fulton Street as a new station? It’s in exactly the same location as the old one – the tracks aren’t being moved an inch.

(South Ferry, on the other hand, is a new station.)

Alon Levy July 27, 2010 - 5:18 am

The building is new, and the city is billing it as a new train station. It’s the perfect opportunity to rename things – just like Moynihan Station.

Nathanael July 25, 2010 - 10:28 pm

I really doubt it’s possible to make a decent Amtrak hub station without extra space. The ‘back office’ space is not enough to make something with the capacity even of Chicago Union — and that’s badly overcrowded due to mid-20th-century abuse similar to Penn Station’s.

Building an Amtrak waiting room / first class waiting room / ticket office / baggage handling in the Farley building, connected to this new concourse, would allow the current zoo-like Amtrak/NJT concourse to be devoted to commuters, and would work wonders. I agree that the current “phase II” plan seems overbuilt, but the principles seem sound — it’s not a horrible misdesign like NJT’s “34th St. Station”.

Alon Levy July 27, 2010 - 5:27 am

Overcrowding doesn’t make a train station not work. The current station is quite tame by international standards. Useful train stations get crowded, and it’s rarely cost-effective to spend money on prettifying them. Consider it a sign of success that Penn Station isn’t a ghost town as is common for American train stations. Complaining about it is like complaining that you can’t get a seat on the train at rush hour.

By modern station standards, the current Penn is enough. There’s room for enough ticketing booths and TVMs that lines are fairly short. There may not be room for baggage handling, but that’s a steam-era relic anyway; you might as well complain about not having room for a telegraph operator. This means the only functional problem is passenger circulation, but there the constraint isn’t the station itself but how it’s currently being used. First kick out the back offices; then, if it’s not enough, worry about finding room for a new station.

bob July 26, 2010 - 10:06 am

It’s a bit disingenuous to say the family is the reason this project is progressing. Moynihan himself was beating the drum for this for years. After his death the family (daughter mostly from what I’ve seen) picked up the issue, but there’s been plenty of others, Municipal Art Society in particular, pushing hard. The politicians clearly see this as beneficial so they found some money so they can declare victory. (I’m doubtful they will ever come up with the Phase 2 money.)

It’s quite possible the family really thinks this is a good idea, and wants to get his last big push done. Whether they really care about the name or not, we really can’t tell, unless you can read minds. To me it’s still Penn Station.

Caelestor July 23, 2010 - 8:29 pm

“Issues concerning track capacity into and out of New York City will not be addressed.”

Of course. Like I said earlier, through-run operations would free up platform capacity and simplify the slow approaches into the station.


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