Penn Station repairs put on hold could prevent $17 billion expansion — if transit agencies actually work together: Post investigation

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Published December 25, 2023, 3:43 pm ET

The controversial planned $17 billion expansion of Penn Station could be avoided — saving taxpayers money and three downtown blocks from the wrecking ball — but only if MTA, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak agreed to work together, like a Postal investigation found.

The MTA and NJ Transit — which operate the region’s commuter rail lines — have each drawn up plans that together could double the number of trains that can fit into Penn Station, which experts and activists say would reduce the need for the new terminal.

“If you were concerned with providing the public with the best value, you would first prioritize low-cost investments to increase throughput and improve the rider experience at Penn Station,” said Barry Caro, a longtime activist for the public transport and experienced political advisor.

“Instead we have a plan that behaves as if there is a blank check from Washington and the cost doesn’t matter when that is clearly no longer the case, if it ever was,” he told The Post .

Officials from local governors to transportation leaders have argued that the planned mega-expansion “Penn Expansion” is necessary to handle additional trains coming in when the Hudson River tunnels under construction are completed.

The project – which involves demolishing part or all three city blocks – has ballooned in both size and cost even before it began, rising from an estimated $8.5 billion to $9.5 billion to a potential $16 billion. $7 billion for a two-story, 12-track station. Show documents.

Amtrak inherited Penn Station after the collapse of Penn Central, the successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad. However, the two largest operators in Penn are MTA and New Jersey Transit. The three agencies are often at odds. AFP via Getty Images

But the Post’s investigation – which examined 1,000 pages of technical reports and diagrams, many of which were never made public – shows that the two shelved plans combined would likely hit the coveted 48-train mark and save around $10 billion from Price tag.

Both plans were disqualified because they failed to meet the 48 trains per hour standard when viewed in isolation – as Amtrak and the other two transportation giants pushed for the “Penn Extension.”

The problem with the alternative proposals, according to interviews with experts, officials and activists, is the strained relationship between the MTA and NJT and Amtrak, which owns Penn Station.

A document shows that the railroad companies pushed forward with the planned, incredibly expensive expansion because each of them wanted space for their own independent operations within Penn Station rather than being forced to work more closely together.

A 2011 Amtrak presentation seen by The Post said a key benefit of the Penn Expansion project was to give the railroads “[s]table, semi-independent operations” in the huge complex.

The much cheaper decommissioning option, which would substantially rebuild the existing Penn Station to reach the 48-train mark for less than $7 billion, is feasible — but not without cooperation, experts said.

In fact, the combined proposals largely mirror the plan put forward in 2022 by one of the region’s oldest transit policy watchers, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Amtrak workers repair the tracks at Penn Station in 2017. A New Jersey Transit train can be seen on the side. AP

“It is possible to create a new Penn Station that puts passengers first and improves safety, reliability and service with new signals, tracks and redesigned platforms,” said Felicia Park-Rodgers, top infrastructure expert from Tri State.

“We want the railways to work together to put the needs of passengers first,” she said. “They can put riders’ needs first and improve capacity over the long term without spending $17 billion – but they need to work together to do that. And Amtrak has to get involved.”

Penn Station is owned and operated by Amtrak, although the NJT and MTA allow hundreds more trains to pass through it thanks to a twist of history following the collapse of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The MTA has done significant work on the controversial Penn Expansion proposal, documents show, although officials there say it was done at the behest of Amtrak.

A picture of the Penn Station control room as photographers and reporters were allowed access for a rare tour in 2017. Annie Wermiel/NY Post

“Perhaps planning should be led by the agencies that would use the complex the most,” suggested Yonah Freemark, a top researcher and transportation projects expert at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “The MTA and New Jersey Transit are the primary users of the complex , not Amtrak.”

NJT expects its proposals would increase the number of trains that can fit through Penn Station and under the Hudson to as many as 38 per hour.

The 170-page Penn Station Capacity Improvement Project called for:

  • Replacing the slow switches that force trains to enter at 15 miles per hour from the Hudson River toward Penn’s platforms with new ones that would allow operation at 30 miles per hour.
  • Extending the NJT platforms for tracks 1 through 4 to the West End concourse, which would allow the agency to run longer trains and make it easier for passengers to board and disembark.
  • Operational changes that would reduce the time it takes to return NJT trains from the tracks at Penn from 22 minutes to 18 minutes.
  • Construction of a single new two-track platform immediately south of the current station reduces the need for eminent domain south of West 31st Street.
  • The 2020 document estimated that building a new platform and expanding the existing one would cost about $1 billion at that point – which, taking into account the inflation bubble in 2021 and 2022, increases to $1.3 billion US dollar would increase.

    No formal cost estimate was provided for the conversion work, but NJT estimated it would be “relatively small” compared to the work on the platform.

    Combined with the MTA’s shelved proposal, the current station’s capacity would be expanded to 50 trains per hour — more than the maximum number that could fit through all four Hudson River Tunnels.

    This schematic, commissioned by NJT, shows how the proposed new south platform would fit in with plans to extend two existing platforms for tracks 1-4. The study found that the new platform would increase capacity, while the longer platforms would make it easier for commuters to catch their trains.

    This would improve signals in the tunnels and station complex to allow for closer train connections and higher speeds, similar to the improvements currently being made to the Metro’s signed lines.

    This would increase capacity across the station by potentially four trains per hour, the 2020 analysis found.

    In addition, the middle portion of Penn Station — platforms 5 through 16 — would be redesigned to eventually replace many of the notoriously narrow platforms with ones wide enough to accommodate crowds.

    The space would be created by removing two tracks and reworking the columns that support the station and Madison Square Garden. The cost of this, adjusted for inflation, is estimated at $3.5 billion to $3.9 billion.

    Penn Station’s notoriously narrow platforms force trains to spend much more time in the station for passengers to get on and off, meaning fewer trains can fit through the station. David McGlynn

    The wider platforms would reduce the time trains spend in stations in two ways: passengers could board and alight at the same time; and to end the practice of backing out of the station, which blocks the flow of traffic.

    Instead, trains from Westchester and Long Island would continue to New Jersey and vice versa; Penn Station was originally designed for this purpose. Commuters and travelers would benefit from new direct connections, for example from the Bronx or Queens to Newark Airport.

    Commuters on Long Island climb up Penn’s narrow train platforms in 2018. The MTA recently completed a major renovation of the station’s once much-maligned LIRR concourse, widening the main corridor and raising the ceilings. STEPHEN YANG

    The conversion and operational changes would allow railroads to run up to eight more trains through Penn Station per hour, according to a 2021 presentation to the Penn Station Board of Supervisors.

    But that would require Amtrak and the two transit agencies to cooperate on schedules and infrastructure programs such as train orders and power system upgrades, something they have so far loathed to do.

    “That’s value planning: We have these goals and how do we get there. And we can do it by drilling a big hole in the ground, or we can do it by doing a series of smaller things that get us where we need to go,” said Eric Goldwyn, who led the New York University, which issued a 400-page report on MTA’s construction costs and design practices earlier this year.

    The Tri-State Transportation Campaign released a report in 2022 that included many of the recommendations from both shelved rail plans. It shows how NJT’s new and expanded platforms and the MTA’s wider platforms could fit together in the current station complex. Penn Station is already the busiest train station in America. Before the pandemic, more than 600,000 passengers used it every day – the population of the city of Baltimore. J. Messerschmidt/NY Post

    In statements, the three railroads — Amtrak, MTA and NJT — largely declined to comment on the specifics of the Post’s findings.

    “Amtrak and our partners will analyze these scenarios to determine what can be achieved successfully and safely,” said Jason Abrams, a spokesman for the national airline, which owns the station.

    “The MTA’s focus is on rehabilitating the existing Penn Station for its 600,000 daily riders – and doing so in the most cost-conscious manner,” a top agency executive, John McCarthy, said in a statement. “This work is well underway, as evidenced by the Long Island Rail Road’s new brightly lit, wider and modern concourse.”

    A NJ Transit commuter train heading to Manhattan. for the New York Post

    NJT spokesman Jim Smith said in a statement that the post’s premise was “flawed” because it “[m]“Making assumptions by simply combining theoretical operating concepts with the preliminary studies,” even though NJT’s own analysis did just that.

    He added: “NJ TRANSIT remains committed to working with our transit partners on a truly functional and implementable design that fully utilizes the capacity potential of the Gateway Program to ensure demand for trans-Hudson travel continues for generations to come is covered.”

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