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Penn Station still maddeningly confusing for commuters

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Despite some half a billion dollars in improvements over the years, Penn Station is still one of the most difficult transit hubs to figure out, the perennial ugly sister to a majestic Grand Central Terminal.

With its low ceilings, cramped signs, huge crowds, and maze of hallways, travelers say they often find themselves getting lost in the underground labyrinth.

“Every time I come here it’s confusing,” said Ada Dearce, 45, of the Upper West Side, who regularly goes to Penn to pick up her teen daughter.

Home to New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, and three subway lines, Penn Station is the busiest train station in the country, drawing half a million travelers each day.

With a storied past, it wasn’t always so maddeningly confusing. The original Beaux Arts-style station was built in 1910 with high ceilings and towering columns and was easy to navigate.

“It was so well-designed and things flowed so clearly and smoothly that if you let a drop of water out at the curb it would find it’s way onto the right train,” said Manhattan-based urban designer Jack Robbins, recalling a description he once heard of it.

But to make way for Madison Square Garden, demolition of the transit hub started in 1963.

“It went from being a rather beautiful and classical soaring structure to basically what became an ugly underground shopping mall,” said Andrew Sparberg, a Transit Museum historian who gives tours of the station.

Still, it’s improved in recent decades, Sparberg said.

In the early 1990s, the LIRR spent an estimated $200 million for better signs, added stairways and escalators, and a bigger concourse. In 2002, New Jersey Transit spent $125 million for its own concourse on Seventh Avenue and $19 million in 2009 for a new entrance on 31st Street.

Some hope the next major overhaul, the Moynihan Station extension to Penn Station, will give commuters the biggest relief yet.

The first phase is expected to be completed by 2016 and cost $267 million. It will expand and lengthen the West End Concourse, which will ease crowding, said Juliette Michaelson, of the Regional Plan Association.

The second phase, which will cost up to $1 billion or more, will build a new train hall for Amtrak, though it’s unclear when it might be completed.

“By segregating Amtrak you are segregating the tourists and everyone who doesn’t know the station well,” Michaelson said. “You can leave confusing Penn station to commuters who know exactly where they are going.”

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A look at the changing face of Penn Station over the years:

1910: Penn Station and its tunnels to Long Island and New Jersey open. Pennsylvania and Long Island railroads begin direct electric train service in and out of Manhattan.

1963-68: Original station demolished above the street level, new Madison Square Garden and office building constructed on the site. Track levels are unchanged.

1994: Long Island Rail Road completes $198-million in improvements, such as a larger concourse, a new entrance on 34th street, and new stairways, escalators, and elevators.

2002 and 2009: New Jersey Transit builds its own $125 million concourse on 7th Avenue and a new entrance on 31st Street.

Oct. 2010: Phase I construction on the Monynihan Station extension of Penn breaks ground at the Farley Post Office building. New entrances to Penn, a wider and longer West End Concourse, and new escalators are expected to be completed in 2016 and will cost an estimated $267 million.

Source: Andrew Sparberg, Transit Museum historian, and news reports

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