Maybe it’s spring, or the frantic pace of vaccinations, or the charm of democratic Washington. Maybe it’s the lyrical cadence of the word Infrastructure. Whatever the trigger, public transport conversations that not so long ago seemed hopeless and abstract now ring with specificity. Mobility activists are quivering with excitement: The president loves trains! Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks confidently about a wide range of transit details, from bike paths to starfighter shields. Andrew Cuomo balances the joys of rail transport, in part because being seen as the prime contractor for the state can be the key to staying in the job. Even more astonishing, much of that optimism centers on this long-festering chasm in the center of town, Penn Station.
The dream of a tolerable Penn Station once seemed like the most lost lost cause, a pipe dream that would certainly vanish upon contact with the mixed smell of urine and kitchen grease in one of those crimped hallways and low ceilings. with wet spots and hanging wires. . Then Moynihan Train Hall opened, and even before the echo of Cuomo’s singing died down, it was already being treated as a promising step towards more glory on the tracks. A few months later, MTA, Amtrak and NJ Transit jointly released not one but two possible visions to reconstruct the rest of the Dantesque complex. And, voila, they are both ambitious and realistic. The design, developed by the rail triumvirate with architecture firm FXCollaborative and engineering firm WSP, merges the jumble of bureaucratic strongholds, decades of duct tape fixes and a thicket of conflicting agendas in a rail hub that could one day to be a thing, if not quite beautiful, at least of satisfaction – perhaps even of pride.
These aren’t finished designs yet, but neither are they doodles. Suddenly, we are talking about widths of corridors, sources of daylight, number of escalators. Most importantly, the plans merge the need for respite and a bit of everyday grandeur with the invisible necessities of more efficient transit. A nice waiting room is good; a system that doesn’t keep you waiting is better. It is not good to have state-of-the-art signs if all they do is keep you informed of delays. There is still a lot of work to be done, and I hope the MTA pushes as hard for architectural ambition as it does for logistical efficiency, as the two should really be indistinguishable.
With Madison Square Garden standing still atop the station, the station box is only so big. The ideal response is to move the Garden elsewhere, a solution that no one but the governor apparently has the stomach to fight for. Perhaps this option still exists in the hypothetical future. Failing that, a rebuilt station must strike the right balance between elbow room and headroom, and the new plan comes in two different varieties. A two-tiered design preserves maximum floor space, paid for with ceilings low enough to ruffle a tall man’s hair. A single-level version shaves about 79,000 square feet of an upper story that relatively few people will use. The more than adequate compensation is a set of spacious three-dimensional rooms, with ceilings between 18 and 100 feet high, all fueled by the one resource Penn Station has not had in 60 years: daylight. . The MTA is asking the public to consider both options and to comment. The final decision surely won’t be made by acclamation, but, for now, the single-level version is the obvious choice.
The plan organizes the main traffic level into a grid of wide passageways connecting Central Station to Moynihan and a future new terminal between 30th and 31st Streets known as Penn South; the streets upstairs are effectively reproduced underground. A half-block glass shed with an entrance on 33rd Street would shed sunlight on the lobby below. A truck ramp along this would take the semi-trailers straight into the garden loading dock, so they could finally stop gathering and jostling each other on the street. These features aren’t just about convenience. A station that clearly tells you where you’re going also lets you get out quickly – a boon when you’re late, a lifeline in an emergency. Two decades after September 11 and four years after a miraculously failed metro bombing attempt, we need a transit hub designed to dispel the smoke and confusion.
Unfortunately, confusion is built into the system. We have inherited a network segmented by the rivalries of a century ago, when competing rail companies built Grand Central Terminal and the first Penn Station. Even today, the LIRR does not serve the first and Metro-North remains outside the second. This is changing, thanks to an upcoming East River tunnel This will allow Long Island commuters to head straight to the East Side without doubling back, freeing tracks at Penn Station for Westchester trains. A reconstructed Penn, twinned with Grand Central, will be the hub of a more interconnected regional transit system. Instead of being divided into separate fiefdoms, each with its own separate operations, brand, ticket office and waiting areas, it will be a unified facility that passengers can navigate easily, without code books or secret cards.
Art: Courtesy of MTA
The complexity of this network makes almost all decisions dependent on each other. How wide should the corridor parallel to Seventh Avenue be? The answer is a Zen koan: large enough to accommodate all passengers passing through during rush hour. It is an imponderable number, because there are forces that pull in both directions. In contrast, the East Side Access project will siphon off some LIRR commuters who will use the Grand Central Terminal instead. A future wave of new buildings to the west could move activity to Eighth Avenue. Flexible work schedules could soften rush hours and distribute crowds throughout the day and week. Businesses could move en masse to Arkansas or Oklahoma, taking employees with them.
On the other hand, a station originally built for 200,000 long-haul passengers each day handled three times as many commuters in 2019, a long-term trend that may well survive pandemic disruptions. Developers are still building millions of additional square feet of office space in Manhattan, the entire Penn neighborhood is ripe for greater density, and the New Jersey suburbs continue to expand. MTA bets nearly 900,000 trips will pass through the entire Empire Station complex everyday by 2038. Is that a reasonable estimate or wishful thinking? Yes and yes.
This combination of complexity, uncertainty and cost causes a lot of people to shrug their shoulders. Some people think that these big projects will not materialize in their lifetime; others imagine a future where there will be a set of clearer, cheaper and more obvious solutions. Transit technologists like Elon Musk aspire to bypass traditional infrastructure with brilliant, rapidly deployable ideas, though most of them finally come up against a slow reality. But even though we’re stuck with the old, slow work of begging the government for billions, digging tunnels, laying tracks, and unraveling railroad knots, a new sense of urgency is driving the process.
Art: Courtesy of MTA
It can evaporate in the breeze, of course, as it did so many times before. Right now, the Biden administration is receptive to the New York-New Jersey rail upgrade project known as the Gateway, but if the Republicans regain control of Congress, they could block it. (Trump did, in an undisguised act of revenge against his hometown.) Cuomo pushes hard, but his influence can wane. And while Moynihan Train Hall’s mid-pandemic opening has shown that big plans do come true sometimes, the excitement doesn’t necessarily translate into other pieces of the station. The agencies that control it, striving to present a united front, are in fact fighting over priorities behind the scenes. Amtrak, which owns Penn Station as well as most of the tracks, tunnels and train stations the MTA and NJT use, is focused on building the new Hudson River tunnel and adding new tracks to Penn South; the overhaul of existing halls is an additional deferred expense, perhaps even a distraction.
The forces of inertia are powerful. Some visionaries (rightly) believe that the only way to achieve railroad greatness is to start Madison Square Garden off-site, and they’re in no rush to give up on those ambitions. Urban pessimists have convinced themselves that the very idea of a central business district is outdated, as is the ritual of a daily commute. Why bother to beef up regional transit if no one needs to leave home? The answer is that after 150 years of social upheaval, technological advancement, demographic transformation and climate change, the most sustainable and energy efficient way to quickly move large numbers of people from one place to another remains the train. The more frequently these trains arrive and the faster they move, the better New York and its suburbs can operate, and the more attractive the area becomes. Waiting for consensus means accepting more years of stasis, a trillion journeys through the same maze of mortification, the lingering frustration, the pervasive shadow of crippling blackouts, and the certainty of regional decline.