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Cuomo's grand vision for cramped Penn Station leaves unanswered questions

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to expand Penn Station by buying up Manhattan property is raising questions, including how long it will take, what it will cost, and whether it will be worth the trouble. Transit reporter Alfonso Castillo takes us through Cuomo's plan for Penn Station. (Credit: Charlie Eckert)

It could take until the end of the new decade for trains to board at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed “Penn South,” according to transportation experts, who added there are several unanswered questions about how the plan to build eight tracks connecting to Penn Station will come together — and whether it will be worth it.

Cuomo unveiled his plan last week for a “Penn South” beneath the demolished buildings now adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road’s transit hub in Manhattan. The proposed annex, bordered by Seventh and Eighth avenues and 30th and 31st streets, would be part of a new "Empire Station Complex" that, once completed, would be triple the size of the current Penn Station.

MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber said the push for the expansion came from Cuomo as part of discussions with the MTA about its future plans once Amtrak, which owns the facility, moves most of its operations to the Moynihan Train Hall being built west of the station at the Farley Post Office.

While the MTA is taking on improvement work at Penn, including widening walkways and creating a new entrance at 33rd Street, it was Cuomo who urged planners to go beyond aesthetics. He sought to get to the core of what’s been ailing the cramped and dingy 110-year-old rail station — the busiest in North America.

“It was really the governor focusing on the capacity issue that prompted this," Lieber said. "This was him saying, ‘If we’re going to plan for the future, we need to be thinking beyond just fixing the existing station. We need to be thinking about expanding it in a way that protects capacity in the long run.' ”

To address Penn's capacity issues, project officials said Cuomo turned to a proposal he was already familiar with — the “Gateway” project forwarded by Amtrak, partnering with New York and New Jersey. The project included plans to build seven tracks south of Penn. Cuomo negotiated with Amtrak to have the state take the lead on developing Penn South, since that project was bogged down in a federal funding dispute.

Although project officials emphasize the specifics of Cuomo's new proposal for Penn Station won’t be known until more planning takes place, some new details have emerged since the governor's announcement.

The Empire State Development Corp., the state's the development arm, will head the acquisition of about 20 properties on the block marked for the project and is tasked with pursuing the area’s eventual redevelopment, according to project officials. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would work with NJ Transit, Amtrak and private consultant FXCollaborative to spearhead transportation infrastructure improvements underground.

An initial studying phase is expected to kick off shortly with the creation of a "community advisory committee” made up of politicians, experts and advocates that would set forth to figure out some of the parameters of the project. The state on Thursday separately put out a bid for a firm to lead an environmental study of the project. The planning and studying phase could take up to three years, project officials said.

Transportation experts said they expected the entire project could take up to 10 years, but Lieber said that with Cuomo making it a priority, it should get done faster.

Brian Fritsch, of the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, a planning group, said the project's timeline remains one of his top concerns. He believes the new tracks will be in place much faster under Cuomo's plan than if they remained part of the Gateway megaproject that could be 20 years from completion.

“We think that this is a great opportunity for all of Penn Station users, and certainly the Long Island Rail Road is the biggest one right now,” Fritsch said. The LIRR moves nearly 300,000 riders in and out of Penn every weekday.

It's unclear how the LIRR will be able to use the new tracks, if the railroad gets to use them at all. The original Gateway proposal would have routed the new tracks only west, underneath the Hudson River and into New Jersey, meaning they would not connect with the LIRR's lines.

Lieber said project planners are not committed to the initial design for the track layout, but he said the MTA and the state would insist that New York’s commuter railroads would share in the increased capacity as a condition to leading the project. That could ultimately include exclusive use of more of Penn’s existing tracks by the MTA, Lieber said.

The expected arrival of a fourth railroad at Penn could further complicate matters. Metro-North plans to begin routing trains on its New Haven line through the station once the LIRR begins running trains in 2022 to Grand Central Terminal, Metro North’s Manhattan home.

MTA Board member Neal Zuckerman, who represents Putnam County, said he also plans to push the MTA to use the added capacity at Penn to link to Metro-North’s Hudson Line.

The early scramble for use of the extra space is a key concern for Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). He believes the LIRR needs to realize a net gain in track access at Penn, even after it gains its second Manhattan station as part of East Side Access.

“Obviously, I think a rising tide lifts all boats. This should help all of us. But I’m still very interested in what that split is. We want to make sure we don’t get crowded out,” said Kaminsky, who long has pushed for improvements to the LIRR’s operation at Penn. “I think there’s a lot of details we don’t know yet, but I do believe in the grand vision of needing to expand it.”

Others disagree with the more expansive view.

Sam Turvey, chairman of Rethink Penn Station NYC, a transportation planning group, believes the state’s effort, and money, would be better spent working within Penn’s existing footprint.

Extra capacity could be freed by operating more “through-running" service at Penn, where trains could continue west and north to other stations, rather than turning around, he said.

“We believe you don’t need as many tracks. Use that money to build a world-class train station, similar to Grand Central,” said Turvey, whose group has advocated for the restoration of Penn to its original early 20th century design, with its tall, glass, arched ceilings. Such an effort would require demolishing Madison Square Garden.

“We think that’s a smarter way to do things," Turvey added. "It seems like we’re doing a large-scale improvement but not addressing the most unfortunate aspect of the site, which is that somebody decided to stick a basketball and entertainment arena on top of a train station."

But Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at NYU, said calls to improve Penn Station by relocating the Garden are “a fantasy” and should not get in the way of a plan that he believes is coming at the right place and time.

“The West Side of Manhattan now is such an attractive place to work and live that you can finance the new tracks with the revenue coming from the development above that block, on top of the new tracks,” Moss said. “We’re going to be able to use land development to finance infrastructure, which is what has really been missing from the MTA recipe book.”

Such “value-capture” financing is how the state and the MTA plan to pay for the project, though it still does not have a price tag. Gateway project officials projected the cost of their “Penn South” plan at about $6 billion.

Under the funding strategy, the state would redevelop the block, a decidedly unglamorous part of Manhattan that is largely inhabited by offices, taverns, fast-food eateries and a parking garage.

In the state's re-imagined version, Penn South would become a more posh business district. The increased revenue from the new, upscale tenants would be used to back bonds that would be issued to pay for the subterranean infrastructure improvements.

“Long Islanders are going to get the benefit of expanded mass transit, but the value-capture is going to be on Manhattan real estate,” Lieber said.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group, said his largest concern has to do with another major infrastructure project: Gateway.

The linchpin of the megaproject is the construction of a new tunnel below the Hudson River. Without such a byway, Penn’s new tracks would all bottleneck at the same existing tunnels.

That $30 billion project has important backers in the federal government, but President Donald Trump's administration has so far not gotten behind the project.

“The biggest outstanding question of all is: Where is the federal government? When are they finally going to say the tunnels are a top priority, and we’re finally going to get them done?” said Sifuentes, who believes the Penn South project must move ahead, even if Gateway cannot right now. “Penn Station is well over capacity. It’s triple its original capacity plans at the moment, and that’s only going to continue to grow.”

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