There’s an expensive movement afoot to replace Penn Station with something fancy while moving Madison Square Garden and generally spending billions on something that will have only a minimal impact on actual trans-Hudson rail capacity. It’s drawn support of various urban planning groups, and city politicians have granted the World’s Most Famous Arena only a ten-year occupancy permit as the various stakeholders struggle to develop a plan. There’s no doubt that something should be done to improve Penn Station, but I’m skeptical that spending billions on cosmetic upgrades is the right move.
As the debate over the train station’s future has unfolded this year, Bob Previdi, a fifteen-year MTA vet, has emerged as a voice against the new Penn Station. At least, he has argued, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR should try to work together to improve conditions at the old station. In April, he argued for through-running as a simple way to increase capacity, and today, he has an Op-Ed in The Times calling for multi-agency cooperation.
That these arguments need to be put forth in the first place speaks volumes about the provincialism of transit agency fiefdoms in the city, but let’s set that aside for now. Here’s Previdi’s argument:
Let’s face it, though. A new Penn Station, if it happens, would take billions of dollars, agreements between the federal government and multiple agencies of three states, and a decade if not more to accomplish. (Amtrak is expected to move across the street to the Farley Post Office by 2035.) Rather than wait for all of that to unfold, there are a few simple things those entities and Madison Square Garden should do now to improve the experience for the unfortunate 440,000 intercity and commuter rail passengers who pass through the station’s claustrophobic maze every weekday…
As a starting point, the executives of the three railroads that operate out of the station — Amtrak, which owns it, and New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road — should put their heads together to develop a plan to provide seamless customer information and ticketing. Now, New Jersey Transit operates on both the Seventh and Eighth Avenue sides of the station, Amtrak on the Eighth Avenue side, and the Long Island Rail Road below West 33rd Street, where the subways are. For all of the infrastructure issues that plague the station, the biggest problem for passengers is that each rail line operates as if the other two don’t exist. To navigate the station, you need to know where to buy your ticket and which monitor to watch for your train. Good luck if you’re not familiar with the station and its catacombs…
More visible and universal signs that point people to the various railroads, subway lines and street and building exits would help people find their way. So would maps that show passengers how to find the station’s many retail shops and food outlets. Most malls post maps of their layouts. Why can’t Penn Station have one map?
A more inviting retail atmosphere would also improve the customer experience. Grand Central Terminal, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hired a professional leasing firm to manage the retail mix after the station was renovated in the 1990s. Union Station in Washington did the same thing. Both stations are now hugely successful as inviting retail and restaurant locations. Perhaps Penn Station could be, too. These goals — universal ticketing, access to all arrival and departure information, better signage throughout the station, a more engaging (and perhaps more profitable) retail experience — might seem obvious. The problem is that territorial claims within the station run deep.
It’s hard to put forward an argument against Previdi’s claims. I’ve tried to find one and can’t. It would be nice to have a Grand Public Space to welcome Amtrak riders into New York City, but that won’t happen for decades and at a steep cost. In the meantime, every politician worth his or her salt should be pushing Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR to the negotiating table and forcing them to stay there until this is resolved. If the MTA could be pressured so easily by two state governors to hand out refunds over a temporary partial service outage, surely we can act to resolve some of Penn Station’s more fixable and obvious problems.
The problem with inter-agency cooperation is that, ultimately, there is no ribbon-cutting. There is no monument to the lasting legacy of the politicians who fought for the cause or delivered the funding. There’s an uptick in traveler appreciation and a corresponding downtick in stress and inconvenience, but that’s about it. Before we spend billions, though, let’s see what we can do with Penn Station spending just a few million and trying to cooperate. It’s a lesson we all learned in kindergarten.