By Larry Penner
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to increase Penn Station’s capacity by 40%t with construction of the new Penn Station South Station, including four new platforms and eight new tracks requires far more to be successful.
There is no room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during rush hours via the East River tunnels. This has been the case for decades. Three of four tunnels running inbound mornings and evening rush hours have tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), NJ Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing. There is no platform capacity at Penn Station to accommodate additional trains during rush hour. Penn Station is currently operating at 100 percent capacity. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellation of trains.
There are a number of competing new services looking for non existent rush hour Penn Station platform, track and East River tunnel capacity. Metro North wants to begin service at a cost of $1.5 billion from the east Bronx via the Hell Gate Bridge and the Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside Queens to Penn Station by December 2022. Metro North also has future plans ($400 million) to run additional service from Poughkeepsie and other stations via Amtrak Empire Corridor Hudson line using tracks on Manhattan’s West Side. The LIRR has invested $450 million to complete double tracking on the Ronkonkoma branch.
Once the main line third track is completed at a cost of $2.6 billion, the LIRR has plans to expand Ronkonkoma branch rush hour Penn Station service. This compliments an overall 45% promised increase in service that would include significant reverse commute options.
Cuomo wants to provide new frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point station. This is to support his $2 billion LaGuardia Air Train. Additional service from Grand Central Terminal to Mets Willets Point station may also begin once LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal is completed. Cuomo also want a “One Seat Ride” from Penn Station and probably Grand Central Terminal to Kennedy Airport. Cuomo has also requested that the LIRR create frequent service from Penn Station to the new Belmont Park Islanders Arena by 2021 to coincide with facility opening. Some Queens residents want restoration of LIRR service on the old Rockaway Beach branch, which suspended service in 1962. Both Amtrak (northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, along with empire service north to Albany and Buffalo) and NJ Transit have future plans to expand Penn Station service.
As a result, the four existing East River tunnels could not possibly support Cuomo’s promise of a 40 percent capacity increase. Most LIRR trains use tracks 17 to 21 with more limited use of tracks 13 to 16. There is no physical connection from the East River Tunnels to tracks one through four used by New Jersey Transit.
Construction of a new Penn Station South, including four platforms and eight tracks will require far more than the previous estimate of $6 billion. Real estate acquisition to assemble the property could cost between $2 to $3 billion. Construction of the new station could cost $5 to $ 6 billion. This may not include up to $1 billion for new connections to both the Eighth Avenue/34th Street, Seventh Avenue/34th Street and Seventh Avenue 28th Street stations.
Riders who transfer from the Herald Square subway/PATH 34th Street 6th Avenue station complex will not welcome a longer walk to the new Penn Station South. Ditto for those coming from the Hudson Yards development district. The existing West Side LIRR Storage Yard is operating at 100 percent capacity. It is used for mid-day storage to support the evening peak service requirements. A new storage yard of up to eight layup tracks west of the new station to support mid-day storage of up to 160 cars or 16 train sets for east bound rush hour service may be needed.
There will also be the need for bathroom and car cleaning support services. This will add another $500 million to the project cost. The existing four East River tunnels are operating at 100 percent capacity during rush hour and could not connect directly to this new station. As a result, there will be the need for construction of two new East River tunnels.
The scope of work would include construction transversing midtown Manhattan, under the East River and on to Queens. The cost would easily be $6
billion per tunnel. Depending upon location of the Queens side East River portals, there will have to be additional construction. This will be necessary for access to existing LIRR tracks. Work would include new tracks, switches, interlockings and signals. It could involve modifications to work previously paid for at the Herald interlockings, which was part of the $11.2 billion East Side Access project. This additional work could cost several hundred million more. If Amtrak and New Jersey Transit wanted access to the new Penn Station South, additional modifications would be required east of the new tunnel portals in Queens. This would be needed for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to access the Sunnyside Yards. Both agencies use Sunnyside Yards for mid-day and overnight storage. If previously promised access by Metro North to the existing Penn Station will also include the same for Penn Station South, there will be even more costs.
Penn Station South could grow up to $18 billion when you include two new East River tunnels, mid day storage capacity and other key project components not acknowledged by Cuomo, Who knows what the final cost could be. It could take up to ten years just to complete the planning study. environmental review process, land acquisition, business relocation, design and engineering, permits, multi agency operating agreements, along with completion of a financing package, before any shovel goes into the ground. Don’t be surprised if Penn Station South doesn’t open until 2040 for passenger service. This is based upon past transit history for multi billion dollar new projects. Penn Station South could be the Big Apple’s version of the infamous Boston Big Dig.
Penn Station South is just another attempt by Cuomo to portray himself as the second coming of President Franklin Roosevelt and master builder Robert Moses. He is not an engineer, business person, transportation expert or daily commuter. He has never built a business from scratch or created a significant number of new good paying jobs on his own.
Cuomo continues to remind me of J. Wellington Wimpy who famously said, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Tuesday may never come for taxpayers. We will have to pay for all the transportation goodies promised by Cuomo within our lifetime.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, LIRR, Metro North, NYC Transit, NYC DOT, New Jersey Transit, NICE bus and 30 other NY & NJ transit operators.