Maybe it’s spring, or the sprightly pace of vaccinations, or the spell of Democratic Washington. Perhaps it’s the lyrical cadence of the word infrastructure. Whatever the trigger, conversations about public transportation that not 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 with aplomb about a wide range of transit minutiae, from bike lanes to starfighter shields. Andrew Cuomo dangles the joys of commuting by rail, in part because being seen as the state’s master builder may be the key to staying in his job. Even more astonishing, much of this optimism centers on that long-festering sinkhole at the center of the city, Penn Station.
The dream of a tolerable Penn Station once seemed like the most lost of lost causes, a chimera certain to vanish on contact with the mingled scent of urine and cooking grease in one of those crimped, low-ceilinged corridors with the damp stains and dangling wires. Then Moynihan Train Hall opened, and even before the echo of Cuomo’s crowing had died away, it was already being treated as a promising step to more glories down the tracks. A few months later, the MTA, Amtrak, and NJ Transit have jointly released not one but two possible visions for rebuilding the rest of the Dantesque complex. And, lo and behold, they are both aspirational and realistic. The design, developed by the railroad triumvirate with the architecture firm FXCollaborative and the engineering firm WSP, amalgamates the jumble of bureaucratic fiefdoms, decades’ worth of duct-tape fixes, and a thicket of conflicting agendas into a rail hub that might one day be a thing of, if not quite beauty, at least satisfaction — maybe even pride.
These are not yet finished designs, but they’re not doodles, either. Suddenly, we’re talking corridor widths, sources of daylight, numbers of escalators. More important, the plans merge the need for breathing room and a little daily grandeur with the invisible necessities of more efficient transit. A beautiful waiting room is fine; a system that doesn’t keep you waiting is better. It’s no good having state-of-the-art signboards if all they do is keep you informed of delays. There’s plenty more work to do, and I hope the MTA pushes as hard for architectural ambition as for logistical efficiency, because the two should really be indistinguishable.
With Madison Square Garden sitting immovably on top of the station, the box for the station is only so big. The ideal response is to move the Garden elsewhere, a solution that nobody, from the governor on down, apparently has the stomach to fight for. Maybe that option still exists in some hypothetical future. Failing that, a rebuilt station has to find the right balance between elbow room and headroom, and the new plan comes in two different varieties. A two-level design preserves the maximum amount of floor space, paid for with ceilings low enough to muss a tall man’s hair. A single-level version shaves off about 79,000 square feet from an upper floor that relatively few people will use. The more-than-adequate compensation is a set of rooms that are spacious in three dimensions, with ceilings between 18 and 100 feet high, all of it nourished by the one resource that Penn Station hasn’t had in 60 years: daylight. The MTA is asking the public to review the two options and 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 circulation level into a grid of ample passageways linking the core station to Moynihan and a future new terminal between 30th and 31st Streets known as Penn South; the streets upstairs are effectively replicated below ground. A mid-block glass shed with an entrance on 33rd Street would pour sunshine onto the concourse below. A truck ramp alongside it would funnel tractor-trailers directly into the Garden’s loading dock, so they could finally stop herding and jostling on the street. These features are not just matters of convenience. A station that clearly directs you where you’re going also makes it easy to get out quickly — a boon when you’re running late, a lifesaver in an emergency. Two decades after 9/11 and four years after an attempted subway bombing that miraculously misfired, we need a transit hub designed to dissipate 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 railroad companies built Grand Central Terminal and the first Penn Station. Even today, the LIRR doesn’t serve the first, and Metro-North stays out of the second. That’s changing, thanks to a forthcoming East River tunnel that will let Long Island commuters head straight for the East Side without doubling back, freeing tracks at Penn Station for Westchester trains. A rebuilt Penn, twinned with Grand Central, will be the hub for a more interconnected web of regional transit. Instead of being divided up into separate fiefdoms, each with its separate operations, branding, ticketing, and waiting areas, it will be a unified facility that passengers can navigate easily, without a code book and a secret map.
The intricacy of that network makes nearly every decision dependent on every other. How wide does the hallway that runs parallel to Seventh Avenue need to be? The answer is a Zen koan: wide enough to accommodate all the passengers that flow through at peak times. That’s an imponderable number, since there are forces pulling in both directions. On the downside, the East Side Access project will siphon off some LIRR commuters who will use Grand Central Terminal instead. A future wave of new buildings to the west may shift activity toward Eighth Avenue. Flexible work schedules could soften rush hour and spread crowds out through the day and week. Companies might 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 that number of commuters in 2019, a long-term trend that could well survive pandemic disruptions. Developers are still building millions more square feet of office space in Manhattan, the entire Penn district is ripe for greater density, and the city’s New Jersey suburbs continue to expand. The MTA is betting that nearly 900,000 trips will move through the whole Empire Station complex every day by 2038. Is that a reasonable estimate or wishful thinking? Yes, and yes.
That combination of complexity, uncertainty, and cost causes a lot of people to shrug. Some feel these big plans won’t materialize in their lifetime; others imagine a tomorrow when a clearer, cheaper, and more self-evident set of solutions will present themselves. Transit technologists like Elon Musk yearn to bypass traditional infrastructure with quick-deployment bright ideas, though most of them eventually run into sluggish reality. But even if we’re stuck with the old, slow work of begging the government for billions, digging tunnels, laying track, and untangling rail knots, a new sense of urgency is animating the process.
That can evaporate in the breeze, of course, as it has so many times before. Right now, the Biden administration is receptive to the New York–New Jersey rail-upgrade project known as Gateway, but if Republicans regain control of Congress, they could block it. (Trump did, in an undisguised act of vindictiveness against his hometown.) Cuomo’s pushing hard, but his clout may fade. And although the mid-pandemic opening of Moynihan Train Hall demonstrated that big plans do sometimes get done, enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to other chunks of the station. The agencies that control it, at pains to present a united front, are actually arm-wrestling over priorities behind the scenes. Amtrak, which owns Penn Station as well as most of the tracks, tunnels, and rail yards that the MTA and NJT use, is focused on getting the new Hudson River tunnel into construction and adding new tracks at Penn South; overhauling the existing concourses is a postponable extra expense, possibly even a distraction.
The forces of inertia are powerful. Certain visionaries believe (correctly) that the only way to achieve railroad greatness is by booting Madison Square Garden off the site, and they’re in no hurry to give up on those ambitions. Urban pessimists have convinced themselves that the whole idea of a central business district is passé, and so is the whole ritual of a daily commute. Why bother beefing up regional transit if nobody needs to leave home? The answer is that, after 150 years of social upheaval, technological progress, demographic transformation, and climate change, the most durable and energy-efficient way of moving large numbers of people rapidly from one place to another remains the train. The more frequently those trains come and the quicker they move, the better New York and its suburbs can function, and the more appealing the area becomes. Waiting for a consensus means accepting more years of stasis, a trillion trips through the same warren of mortification, the persistence of frustration, the ever-present shadow of crippling breakdowns, and the certainty of regional decline.