Last week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released an appropriately balanced call to develop a plan to relocate Madison Square Garden so that track capacity beneath Penn Station could eventually be increased. A close reading of the plan revealed it to be controversial in its suggestion that MSG be granted a ten-year reprieve before facing pressure to move but also more concerned with rail capacity than with the aesthetics of a Penn Station headhouse. It was, in other words, about planning for the future and not atoning for the decision to allow the original Beaux Arts building to face the wrecking ball fifty years ago.
Not everyone seemed to appreciate the nuances of Stringer’s report. Now, I’m not referring to those who disagreed with it; there was, after all, plenty with which one could disagree. Rather, I’m referring to writers such as The Post’s Bob McManus who published a screed against Stringer’s proposal on the grounds that it was too stuck in the past. Not actually paying attention to Stringer’s report, McManus said that we should all get over Penn Station and that Moynihan Station is not a well-thought-out plan.
McManus is not incorrect on either front, but Stringer wasn’t proposing rebuilding Penn Station or adopting Moynihan as the only solution. Rather, as part of the ULURP process, Stringer wants to see the city formulate a long-term plan for the Penn Station area that focuses first on rail expansion that involves moving MSG because the support pillars block such an expansion. It’s one plan, but it’s not the only plan. I wouldn’t expect an editorial writer in The Post to pick up on nuances or spend 20 minutes reading an 18-page double-spaced report though.
What about another plan? Over the weekend, Crain’s ran an editorial from Bob Previdi calling for a different solution for Penn Station’s capacity concerns. He wrote on through-running:
Finding the $15 billion or so for Amtrak’s Gateway project has proved difficult. But there is a way to spend roughly half as much while still doubling rush-hour train traffic. It involves taking a regional approach in how we use Penn Station.
Today, many Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit trains terminate at Penn Station by discharging their passengers, loading more passengers and heading back in the direction they came from. This causes too many at-grade movements (where trains cut across each other’s path) within the station. It slows everything down, limiting service and inconveniencing pass-through passengers.
If trains simply kept going in the direction they came from—with NJ Transit trains continuing to Long Island and LIRR trains along New Jersey routes—we could streamline operations and expand the number of destinations each railroad serves. For example, NJ Transit customers could reach JFK airport, Citi Field and the U.S. Open tennis tournament, while Long Islanders would be able to reach Newark Liberty airport, MetLife Stadium and the Prudential Center.
Achieving this would require changing equipment and updating operating procedures, but this concept is not new or radical. It’s been done in the U.S. and around the globe, including in London and Paris. Heck, even Philadelphia did it: Way back in 1984, the old Reading Terminal and Suburban Station were combined into the Center City Commuter Tunnel.
This too is an approach worth embracing because it focuses on rail capacity and costs. Amtrak’s plans seem to focus on rail capacity as long as costs are no limit, and plans from folks bemoaning the lack of Penn Station believe funds should be spent only on restoring the past. “If we are concerned about what we can afford—and how we can leave some funds to fix the existing station—then New York’s and New Jersey’s elected officials should insist that the agencies find a way to make better use of the existing track, tunnels and yards that support Penn Station,” Previdi writes.
Maximizing dollars has been a theme of mine with regards to the MTA and Port Authority. We’ve seen capital projects become fiscal sinkholes as costs and construction delays spiral out of control. We’ve seen one agency spend billions on a headhouse with less regard for rail service and another sacrifice design and flexibility to keep costs under control. Maybe for Penn Station the initial answer lies in through-running. At the least, it’s worth a closer look.