Long Island Rail Road commuters arrived Tuesday morning to a considerably different Penn Station — one with tall ceilings and brightly lit, wider walkways.
“Let there be light,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference marking the milestone in the ongoing renovation of the LIRR’s concourse at the 112-year-old station.
“This looks spectacular. This is the new Penn Station,” the governor said. “And we’re just getting started.”
The concourse, which stretches between Seventh and Eighth avenues below 33rd Street, long had been known for its cramped walkway and low ceilings, which were lowered even more while construction was underway. The new 18-foot-high ceilings stretch across the concourse and include 9,500 square feet of LED light panels. Vertical columns along the walkway feature new digital track information displays.
Also providing more breathing room for commuters are 57-foot-wide walkways — nearly double the previous width. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which led the project, pushed the retail storefronts along the corridor back several feet to clear the space.
The difference was immediately apparent to several LIRR commuters as they emerged from track platforms and gazed around the transformed space, which Hochul said had been “dark, dreary, cramped” and “suffocating” for too long.
“I love it, to be honest,” said Amityville commuter Jonathan Jackson, 38, who likened the raised ceilings to those “in a cathedral.”
“It gives you that illusion of being immersive,” Jackson said. “It makes us feel better as people.”
Even though Hochul and MTA leaders showed off the $600 million project Tuesday, the work is far from done. The ceilings remain low on the southern half of the corridor. Officials expect to complete that work in the coming weeks.
Also apparent to Penn travelers Tuesday were drops of water falling from the newly raised ceilings as rain fell outside. MTA chairman Janno Lieber said it was condensation from an improved air conditioning system.
Lieber and Hochul have plans for an even grander redevelopment of Penn, the busiest transit hub in the United States. The planned $8 billion reconstruction effort will include removing much of the upper level of the station, currently used by Amtrak, to allow for even taller ceilings, more open space and natural light.
The plan was recently approved by state regulators — adding another transit megaproject to the list of those already on deck for LIRR riders. They include the $2.6 billion new Third Track in Nassau County, and the $11.2 billion East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal. Both efforts are scheduled for completion later this year.
"The Long Islanders who are going to keep coming back to Penn when Grand Central Madison opens, they shouldn't feel like this facility is Grand Central's neglected stepsister," Lieber said at Penn Station Tuesday. "For more than 50 years, the low ceilings, the narrow corridors have been giving Long Islanders claustrophobia."
The praise for the Penn Station enhancements was not universal. On social media, some criticized the project for focusing on aesthetics while failing to address the track-level capacity constraints at the center of Penn's congestion issues.
Larry Penner, a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration, saw the improvements while passing through Penn Tuesday afternoon and dismissed them as "cosmetic stuff."
"You're not dealing with the major problem, which is downstairs — the lack of platforms and the lack of tracks for capacity," said Penner, of Great Neck. "Capacity affects how long I have to wait for a train downstairs. And every time there's a signal problem in one of the East River tunnels, they have to combine and cancel trains."
New York State and Amtrak, which owns Penn, do have a separate plan to add as many as eight new tracks by acquiring the block south of the station and building underneath it. Those tracks would primarily be used by Amtrak and NJ Transit but could also free up capacity on tracks used by the LIRR.