Grand plans offered in color renderings to ease the misery of commuting on the Long Island Rail Road can make us dream.
But the $1.6 billion proposal to overhaul Penn Station and connect it to the Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue isn’t yet one to go wild about.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan for one of the city’s most prominent entry points is limited by the bones of the 1960s reconstructed station, a far cry from the grand but deteriorating original structure that was unforgivably torn down more than a half-century ago.
The existing tracks, tunnels and platforms underneath Madison Square Garden cannot be changed. So, the Cuomo plan does try to make the best of a vexing challenge and could do much to improve the experience for commuters on the LIRR, which provides 230,000 rides a day, and on Amtrak, which tickets 30,000 rides a day.
But the plan revealed last week could do even more. There’s still time to think bigger, to consider grander plans and possibilities. That could include revisiting the 2008 idea of relocating Madison Square Garden, and truly opening up the dark and dingy Penn Station to the light above. While MSG has no plans to move, and such a relocation would be incredibly complex financially and politically, Cuomo should ensure that nothing being done in the early stages of his plan would preclude such a possibility.
Even with the current plan there are questions, from just how much the commuter experience would improve to whether LIRR riders would get much bang for the buck being paid by state entities, including Empire State Development Corp. and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Is the timetable too ambitious? Can the often dysfunctional relationship between Amtrak and the LIRR improve enough to pull this off?
And we don’t yet know the future of the Amtrak section of Penn Station.
Here’s what we do know: The transformation of the Farley Post Office into what would be called Moynihan Train Hall would create a new home for Amtrak and a second concourse for the LIRR. With talk of a glass-covered ceiling, 1900s-style architecture and iconic design, the post office-cum-train hall is meant to be a pleasurable entrance to and exit from New York City.
Then again, anything would be an improvement over the facility in use now. The plan for Penn is to widen the existing LIRR concourse, raise its ceiling and give the illusion of natural light by using LED displays of blue skies and fluffy white clouds. The two subway stations would be rebuilt. It’s all supposed to be done by 2020.
For Long Islanders, the most important piece of the makeover is the new access to the LIRR. State officials said the LIRR tracks and platforms, which extend west under Eighth Avenue, would allow LIRR commuters to directly access or exit their trains through new stairs, escalators and elevators in the Moynihan Train Hall. Or, they could continue to use Penn Station.
But critics note that several of the LIRR platforms don’t stretch far enough west to reach the center of Farley. Indeed, platforms 9, 10 and 11, which include tracks 17 through 21, stop just as Farley begins, and passengers would have to make their way through a lower-level concourse to get there. Officials say it’s a quick walk, but others aren’t so sure it would be so convenient.
That’s concerning because, unlike at Grand Central Terminal, where trains wait for generous periods, Penn Station’s turnaround is often less than five minutes between when a train platform is announced and that train’s departure. So, the mad dash through a labyrinth of stairs and hallways is likely to continue. What’s more, advocates say most commuters might still enter from the east. That could mean continued lemming-like jams there during peak times. But if crowds spread out, pathways are marked well, and rider convenience is prioritized, the new design could make a difference.
Let’s be clear. This is, fundamentally, a real estate project. Related Companies, Vornado Realty Trust and Skanska AB would put in $600 million and do the work. In exchange, they would get 700,000 square feet in Farley for retail and office space. That could be particularly profitable in light of Hudson Yards, the massive mixed-use development being built a few blocks farther west.
There’s a chance for real change now, and even bigger change in the future. The proposed Gateway tunnel from Penn to New Jersey suggests the possibility of a one-train ride from Jamaica to points across the Hudson River. On the downside, giving Metro-North trains a berth at Penn could reduce the LIRR schedule. It’s unclear whether demand there would be sufficiently reduced after the LIRR gains access to Grand Central Terminal, which is expected to finally happen in the next seven years.
Commuters need trains that are reliable and on time. This project won’t make that happen on its own. But if the LIRR truly is the priority in the Penn Station makeover, then a better experience might be coming.
And that would be a ride in the right direction.