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Rethinking the track plan for Penn Station: Through-running improves transit, saves billions and spares neighborhood demolition

DAILY NEWS, Karim Ahmed, Samuel Turvey, June 20, 2023

The City Planning Commission’s June 7 hearing on Madison Square Garden dissolved into a fracas about inadequate loading docks and the paucity of benches on its periphery. Both issues belong on a long laundry list of reasons why MSG should move. But what surprised us was the short shrift given to the critically important matter of modernizing dated transit operations, including safety and needed circulation features, at an improved Penn Station. After all, it was the Legislature’s 2018 declaration that Penn Station was “a clear public safety hazard” that gave impetus to the current push to upgrade the rail hub.Nevertheless, some critical truths have emerged that should serve the public well:First, the Italian infrastructure firm ASTM, which has come out of nowhere to bandy ideas on how to fix the mess on Seventh Ave. — albeit and regretfully continuing to leave Penn Station under MSG — has shown that substantial station improvements can be funded by monetizing some station operations. Hence no need to pay for a new Penn Station by destroying the adjacent neighborhood and building Class A office space on its rubble. It is time for the governor and the Empire State Development Corp. to ditch their designation of this part of Midtown West as a “blighted” zone fit for demolition.

31st and 30th Sts. between Seventh and Eighth Aves. (Block 780) and a number of adjoining buildings will be demolished if the railroads expand Penn Station to the south. (Rendering by Jeffrey Stikeman)

Second, the MTA (in conjunction with Amtrak and NJTransit) demonstrated, in an unprecedented statement, that MSG is “incompatible” with Penn Station. The MTA is right about that but is strangely mum on the safety and logistical problems arising from MSG’s pillars resting on the station’s train platforms if MSG stays in place. The pillars impede the reconfiguration of tracks needed for an appropriate commuter rail network, including one centered on “through-running,” the global standard for commuter rail in peer international and domestic cities like London and Paris. The MSG pillars prevent the widening of platforms, stairways, and escalators so critical to public safety.Third, neither ASTM nor the MTA spoke at the City Planning Commission hearing about introducing through-running as part of Penn Station’s renovation. Through-running is a far superior transit solution to the present dated operating plan for a host of reasons — from the economic revitalization of metro New York to reducing carbon emissions to eliminating the need to demolish the neighborhood south of the station (including Block 780) under Amtrak’s planned expansion. Among its important benefits is that it can improve desperately needed vertical circulation more than any other proposal.Through-running would improve connectivity in localities such as Newark, Paterson, Jamaica, Sunnyside, White Plains, Yonkers, and Stamford. Instead of all LIRR and NJT trains ending in Penn Station, they would continue through the station with LIRR trains proceeding to Jersey while NJT trains would head to Long Island. It would provide the same “connectivity” to our outlying counties as the subway did for our outer boroughs. It would channel the development pressures that have eviscerated Manhattan’s neighborhoods to other parts of the region while also improving the quality of life in Manhattan. Employment opportunities outside Midtown would flourish. The case for through-running is even more compelling as permanent shifts in commuting patterns are emerging since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Penn Station presents the opportunity to introduce a unified regional transit network. (Visual by RethinkNYC)

By enabling widened platforms, stairways, and escalators, through-running would make the humiliating and treacherous rush-hour stair-dash a thing of the past. Emergency evacuations would meet modern safety standards and would no longer unfold in scenes of abject chaos.While ASTM is agnostic on this point, the railroads have consistently opposed through-running and attempted to stymie debate — perhaps because through-running would require a degree of cooperation among the railroads that rarely occurs under our balkanized transit set-up. It was these separate fiefdoms that caused the recently opened East Side Access at Grand Central Terminal to be delayed for years and cost billions more than planned.We ask that former MTA executive Andy Byford be brought in to examine the issues. Byford heads Amtrak’s High Speed Rail effort and implemented through-running in London with the construction of the Elizabeth Line. High Speed Rail and through-running implementations frequently complement one another, and Byford could bring this coordination to New York.If the railroads are right in their opposition to through-running and Byford corroborates their view, then the public will have an easier time accepting the notion that the retention of the transit status quo is in the public interest.If ReThinkNYC and others are right, through-running would save billions while providing metro New York with state-of-the-art transit infrastructure. Byford’s findings would boost the prospect of through-running actually happening. The question, through-running vs. the status quo, must be settled before we decide whether MSG stays or goes, or what type of station should rise above the tracks.The railroads have used a series of contrived justifications to give through-running the bum’s rush. When one is debunked, they move on to another. Instead of an impartial evaluation, they pursue a badly dated and inefficient terminal track model in which trains idle in railyards most of the day or return to their points of origin largely empty. Other cities have faced similar obstacles in implementing through-running and managed to overcome them.ReThinkNYC’s proposal has three crucial benefits in comparison to what the railroads are pushing:

Under ReThinkNYC’s through-running proposal, tracks will be consolidated and platforms widened. Platforms will also be lengthened so that all tracks will access the Moynihan Train Hall. (Visual by RethinkNYC)

First, it would cost a fraction of what the railroads would spend on their so-called southern expansion, which would require the building of a “deep cavern” structure below ground and the demolition of a block and a half of Midtown. Our plan would cost some $4.5 billion and yield a 50% increase in service, compared to the railroads’ 39%. Our plan would achieve the same capacity increases in NJT service as the southern expansion would do and permit increased LIRR service, which the southern expansion would not do. An additional $5 billion to $6 billion would be required for systemic infrastructure and rolling stock improvements for a total cost of $9.5 to $10.5 billion. The southern expansion is projected to cost $17.7 billion, almost $8 billion more than our proposal. Our estimates are based on the CONNECT 2035 NEC report published in August 2021 and studies on through-running provided by the railroads.Second, we believe through-running can be achieved at Penn Station in 10 years or less. Its efficiencies would allow construction to take place while station operations continue mostly unimpeded. We have developed a 10-step construction phasing model that takes advantage of reduced rail traffic into Penn Station since East Side Access entered into service.Third, our proposal preserves a vibrant neighborhood and strikes a blow for affordable housing. It would not require the building of a “deep cavern” station and demolition. It would benefit hundreds of residents (many of them seniors in rent-stabilized buildings) and thousands of small businesses and preserve many historic buildings. The best way to provide affordable housing in New York City is not to tear it down in the first place.The railroads’ opposition to through-running is based on deeply flawed analyses stemming from an April 2021 report by FXCollaborative and WSP, made public via an extract prepared by the MTA. The report makes no attempt at a bona fide cost-benefit analysis of through-running. Rather, it makes dubious assertions — for example, that some tracks cannot be converted to through-running because they would be blocked by the Sixth Ave. subway, a notion ReThinkNYC’s plan decisively refutes. They dismiss the platform realignments ReThink proposes because of their embarrassment at having to retrofit Moynihan Station so soon after it was opened. They also make a number of questionable and contradictory assumptions regarding the capacity increases through-running would enable.Alon Levy, a fellow in the Transportation and Land Use Department at NYU’s Marron Institute, has rightly criticized the FXCollaborative/WSP report as a fraud on the public. Levy confirms that Penn Station can accommodate the flow of people and trains in its current footprint without any need to demolish adjacent properties. Transit experts like Dr. Vukan Vucic, professor emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Robert Paaswell, former chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, have also publicly endorsed ReThinkNYC’s through-running plan. Other engineers would do the same but do not speak out for fear of losing jobs and consulting opportunities with the railroads.Through-running will materially revitalize the local economy, improve the environment, and raise the quality of life for all of the residents of the tri-state area and the Mid-Atlantic region. We all need to ensure that this opportunity is not squandered by focusing on truck loading and planters, however important those issues may be. It is time to implement though-running at Penn Station.Ahmed is the senior transit advisor and Turvey is the chairperson of ReThinkNYC, an organization dedicated to applying innovative thinking to the future of New York City and its greater region.

Source: Daily News