The renovation of Penn Station, estimated to cost around $7 billion, may include consolidating the concourse waiting area into one level, constructing more escalators, stairwells, elevators and entrances and connecting Penn and Herald Square with a new underground pedestrian corridor.
Here is what Governors Kathy Hochul of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey failed to mention.
This investment does nothing to eliminate periodic cancellation and consolidation of LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak trains utilizing either the East River or Hudson River Tunnels due to signal, power or other malfunctions.
Previous investments at Penn Station including the $1.6 billion Moynihan Station Farley Building, $300 million new West End Concourse and $600 million new 33rd Street entrance and enlarged main concourse have done little to improve the reliability of LIRR, NJ Transit or Amtrak service.
Pre-COVID-19 ridership numbers may never come back. The MTA and LIRR have said that 50 percent of more of pre-COVID-19 riders will access Grand Central Madison rather than Penn Station when East Side Access service begins in December 2022.
A majority of white-collar workers have yet to return to Manhattan offices.
Many former LIRR and NJ Transit commuters will continue to work from home full or part time.
The perception of crime and homelessness in and around Penn Station will continue to serve as a deterrent for riders to return.
Funding to pay for this $7 billion dollar investment remains uncertain. It faces many financial, legal and operational conflicts and issues. This $7 billion project, just like the Port Authority New York and New Jersey’s $10 billion new 42nd Street midtown Manhattan bus terminal, are both counting on the sale of air rights as a source for billions to help defray construction costs. There is a glut of surplus office space in Hudson Yards west of Penn Station and other Manhattan neighborhoods The Penn Station Empire Station Complex and Port Authority Bus Terminal projects are both located on the West Side of midtown Manhattan only eight blocks apart from each other. They will be competing against each other for tenants.
If the air rights sale generates less than anticipated revenue, the shortfall could be up to several billion. This deficit will have to be made up by the project sponsor—the Empire State Development Corporation. They will look toward the states of New York and New Jersey, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit for a financial bailout. This means higher MTA and Port Authority bridge tolls, fare increases for NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit subway riders along with other tax increases and user fees.
There needs to be agreements with New York City and various owners of underground utilities including water, sewer, gas, electric, steam and cable before being ready to commence construction. Successful completion of these agreements can take several years. Who will pay for additional critical New York City municipal services such as fire, police and sanitation? The project may also be subject to New York City Urban Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). This process takes many months from start to finish. New York City faces its own financial crisis and growing long term debt. Why would City Hall honor a request from the Empire State Development Corporation to exempt developers from municipal taxes by issuing PILOTs (Payments In Lui Of Taxes) that would defray these costs?
Governor Hochul’s support for a pedestrian concourse connecting Penn to the transit at Herald Square as part of her $7 billion Penn Station Redevelopment project overlooked an asset that is already there to do the same just waiting to be reopened.
Until the 1980s, both LIRR and New Jersey Transit riders exiting east at Penn Station had a direct underground passageway known as the Hilton Corridor. It was also known as the Gimbel’s passageway. Gimbels was Macy’s chief competitor at Herald Square. They closed in 1986. This passageway still stands dormant today. It is a forgotten underground link between Penn Station and Herald Square. It was once an 800-foot pedestrian concourse providing an indoor connection to the 34th Street Herald Square IND and BMT subway, along with PATH station complex. Further, there was an adjoining nearby underground passageway starting at 34th Street which ran along 6th Avenue, going as far north as 42nd Street. Many avoided the rain and snow by using this indoor path. Both passageways were closed many decades ago by New York City Transit and the LIRR, due to security issues. If reopened today, Amtrak riders along with NJ Transit and LIRR commuters would have easy underground connections to the Broadway N, R, Q & W and 6th Avenue subway lines along with PATH.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer, who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.