Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that New Yorkers are getting the new Penn Station they have long been promised. Sort of. Bloomberg reports:
The $1.6 billion project to transform the Farley Post Office Building, a Beaux Arts landmark on the West Side of Manhattan near Pennsylvania Station, will begin this fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a presentation to the Association for a Better New York. A new 255,000 square-foot Moynihan Train Hall, named after former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, will house passenger facilities for the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak. The station, bigger than Grand Central Station on 42nd Street, is projected to be finished in December 2020, Cuomo said. The hall will also have 700,000 square feet of office and retail space.
“This is not a plan,” Cuomo said. “I don’t announce plans with caveats. This is what’s going to happen.”
Opening Moynihan Train Hall has been a dream of New York politicians for several decades. On its face, Moynihan looks like the perfect solution to the perennial problem of how to replace the decrepit Penn Station: It avoids having to tear down Madison Square Garden while still providing travelers with a much more pleasant place to wait for their trains.
But the project is also a case study in the problems plaguing infrastructure across the country.
For one, the project has been in the works for a long time. The claim that construction will begin this fall is somewhat misleading—renovations of various sorts have been on again, off again at the site for a decade. This is typical of building in the United States, where consultants and multiple layers of government drag everything out over years and years.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s grand plans remain significantly unfunded—with at least $500 million still not properly budgeted for. Private developers are ponying up cash in exchange for retail rights, but Amtrak and New York State don’t appear ready to make up the rest. Again, lack of funding bedevils construction around the country.
But the biggest and most telling problem with Moynihan Train Hall is that its planners seem not to understand much about how people actually use train stations in 2016. The assumption that justifies spending $1.6 billion on what essentially amounts to a new waiting area is that passengers spend a lot of time waiting. Everything from the comfortable lounge spaces to even the USB charging ports is designed for people who need a spot to hang out. But Penn Station is primarily a commuter hub, and commuting generally doesn’t include a lot of time sitting around before your half-hour train to New Jersey. Trains run frequently during rush hour, and most people arrange their commutes to minimize time in Penn Station. That may change a bit if there’s a nicer place to wait, but it’s unlikely to change much.
That’s not all. As former Amtrak President David Gunn, a longtime opponent of Moynihan Train Hall, has pointed out, the Farley building is a good 15-minute walk from the Seventh Avenue subway tracks that many people use to access Penn Station. Will anyone walk so far out of their way on their commute so that they can charge their iPhone?
Moynihan Train Hall might turn out to be a pleasant place, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s at best a not-so-great compromise. The most predictable future for Moynihan is that it becomes a food hall and shopping mall conveniently located (sort of) a block from Penn Station. For people actually looking to take the train, it’s likely to be largely irrelevant.
Meanwhile, as the promise of self-driving cars should remind us, it’s not clear that commuting will work the same way in ten years as it does today. That uncertainty calls into question the wisdom of spending so much money on projects related to trains under any circumstances, even ones more favorable than those surrounding Moynihan Train Hall.