Penn Station needs a complete transformation, with new entrances, widened concourses and far more natural light — an improved commuter experience that should be a top priority of the federal government as it commits to upgrading the tunnels and tracks that deliver the passengers.
Those future enhancements to the underground network are now front and center. But we also need a broad public effort to address quality-of-life and safety concerns that Long Island Rail Road customers face on a regular basis, the ramifications of a rise in homelessness, panhandling, substance abuse and mental health concerns at the station.
These issues aren't new. But they were exacerbated by the pandemic, when other refuges for homeless individuals were shut, available public bathrooms were few and far between, typical New York City crowds had disappeared, and troubled New Yorkers turned to substance abuse in greater numbers.
And while public officials have said the situation has improved in recent months, there's much more to do.
A JURISDICTIONAL HODGEPODGE
Penn Station's platforms and tracks are owned by Amtrak, for which the station is a key component of the essential Northeast Corridor. But Amtrak personnel and police only manage a section of the station, while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit handle the commuter rail and subway areas. Add in the New York Police Department, and you have a security stew. It's not surprising that there are gaps, particularly where one area of the station meets another. Some sections are patrolled better than others. Overlapping agencies make it difficult to pinpoint accountability.
While Amtrak wouldn't release Penn-specific numbers, a spokesman noted there are 431 Amtrak police officers across the nationwide network, and just under 70 support staffers, adding that Penn is Amtrak's largest field office. The MTA, meanwhile, has more than 1,000 transit police officers across its system. It's hard to believe that so few Amtrak officers can have much impact.
Beyond policing, New York City officials, including from the Department of Homeless Services, also are involved in serving and managing Penn, and recently have stepped up their efforts. But the Bowery Residents' Committee, a homeless outreach organization contracted to work at Penn, was cited by the MTA inspector general in 2019 for providing "at best minimal outreach services" and even turning away those seeking help.
Who's ultimately in charge?
It's a good question that deserves a definitive answer. While the various policing entities say they work together and attempt to coordinate through meetings, the recipe is ripe for finger-pointing and piecemeal solutions.
SOCIAL SERVICES NEEDED
Certainly the need for stepped-up policing at Penn — in instances where the law is broken, panhandlers become aggressive, or riders feel unsafe — is key.
But Penn's issues also require a social services and outreach response, specifically targeted to those who are homeless, abusing drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. On homelessness, it'll be up to Amtrak and the MTA to determine whether the Bowery Residents' Committee can handle the challenge, or whether they should open the door to other agencies that could do a better job. But transit officials say they're also seeing increases in needles in the drains and on the tracks, and too many people who are under the influence — and that requires a different set of skills and assistance.
For a variety of reasons, Grand Central Terminal, the new Moynihan Station and other large stations across the Northeast haven't seen such quality-of-life difficulties to the same extent. Part of that is due to Penn's old, decrepit condition and its dark corners and myriad pathways. But it's also likely due to the different strategies enabled by singular leadership, from the MTA's control over Grand Central to Amtrak's recent pilot program at Union Station in Washington, D.C., that pairs case managers and officers in the station.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Dealing with Penn's complicated mix of troubles requires a coordinated, multifaceted approach. But it would help if New York City officials, especially the next mayor, take the lead, since none of the transit agencies is equipped to handle the complex social and emotional issues at play. On the policing front, the MTA and NYPD have resources Amtrak doesn't, but policing can't happen in a vacuum. Building on recent NYPD programs, and Amtrak's caseworker-police officer pairing strategy, might help.
Ultimately, of course, the problems at Penn highlight far larger issues that require comprehensive, long-term solutions, such as more supportive and affordable housing, expanded mental health and social services, improvements to the city shelter system, and a clear strategy to deal with the rise in drug and alcohol use.
Grand visions for Penn's physical structure would improve the everyday experience but we can't wait until then for improved social services. Every agency must play a role to make Penn a safer, more customer-friendly place from which to travel.
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