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admin 13.08.2013

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? Showing the grandeur of the original Penn Station (destroyed 1963), this main waiting room approximated the volume of St. Surpassing the great stations of Europe, Penn Station showed how America would lead the 20th Century. Why such a mismatch persists in America’s largest transit metropolis is a lesson for many cities. New Jersey Transit concourse at Penn Station, photo via Wikimedia Commons.It is self-evident who owns Penn Station.
To pile on the insults, the people whose fares and taxes will pay for the new station are the ones who suffer this daily saga. To answer those questions, let us return to the point at which Penn became destined for transit hell. Since then, both stations have had buildings above that abused the intent of air rights by scrunching the growing number of rail commuters for decades. The Alliance for a New Penn Station, a joint project of NYC’s Municipal Arts Society and the Regional Plan Association, recently proposed solutions that can resolve the core problem. As an outsider, I can be more explicit: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and LIRR (MTA) should all have their own station. Amtrak’s solution to a nearly impossible situation also is simple: admit that its small customer share does not warrant suffering Penn’s huge headaches and, instead, should develop a station to its specifications nearby.
Next, let’s see the scope of the problems so how we, finally, can honor Senator Moynihan properly. Mayor Bloomberg, the biggest advocate for rezoning the station’s surrounds, also spent five years trying to make real estate deals pay for the station.
Three months prior to my photo, the Governor put the Port Authority in charge to restart the Moynihan conversion.
Into this vacuum comes a new concept called “value capture” that, so far, seems to be funding part of the nearby Hudson Yards subway extension.
There also is an ominous Big Picture: value capture needs a decade-long track record of paying bondholders on-time.
Finding a responsible owner and funding source for the commuting stations will not get settled finally until the taxpayer agrees. Only unprecedented collaboration of government agencies can make possible the fable’s happy day in which the Beauty (Grand Central) marries (through-routes) the former Beast (Penn transformed into her Prince.) But, a new agency will have to groom the Beast for this story to have a happy ending.
It wouldnt have the cathedral ceilings of the original with MSG on top, but a 2-story ceiling would be perfectly fine. There is a perfectly fine station (probably a lot nicer than the East Side Access station under GCT) that can serve the necessary demand just waiting to uncovered if we move the Theater at Madison Square Garden (not the arena) and some offices and start knocking out walls. Funny, cause it was an unprecedented collaboration of government agencies that destroyed the old Penn Station. The author and others have to realize that NY’s car oriented suburbs have little interest in supporting transit. Before new investments are made- cities and towns along the commuter rail lines (Newark, Trenton, Yonkers, New Rochelle Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford etc…)must rediscover how rail can benefit their economies. If all of this investment results in just a string of huge park & ride lots and garages- there is no real ROI for these cities. Regional government involvement would be a disaster (most NY suburbs are still car oriented), but some type of working council linking the interests of cities along the rail lines would be a great idea. Right now, State and federal agencies design the stations and lock in huge garages that undermine the economies of these places. In fact, your idea is so good that it may even transcend the need to have separate (but adjoining) stations! Denver could be an interesting subject, particularly if its governance emerges well and without ridiculous cost-overruns. Once that value proposition is widely appreciated, the council can at least advocate against the anti-urban station designs and park & ride lots setting the stage for value capture.
Any redesign of Penn Station has to be just part of a series of TOD reforms that maximize the value of existing infrastructure. Remember that just filling the trains in both directions will create a huge leap in capacity.
I can’t help but think that a governance of the station by all stake-holders wouldn’t be better. It would seem that having Madison Square Garden right on top of the station would be a tremendous asset. Seems like the Penn Central Station would have little interest in what’s happening above the ground. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the LIRR is not the most customer friendliest of organizations. Agree that further fragmentation of the NYC rail network among 3(!) separate stations is completely backwards and slavishly complies to the current broken American system of segregated transit agency fiefdoms. If stakeholders (the 3 agencies and the public) were to form a Board, they would be ignoring the states who, of course, have significant authority and could stop the whole matter.
However if the public and the Board were to put pressure on NY and NJ so they turned the other way (which is not asking a lot since the two states essentially have ignored this Penn Problem), then the Board at least could explore options and run public campaigns and it might stimulate some real solutions. Great transit systems are not just about the great central stations but about how systems interact and how the more minor feeder stations are used.
How can improved rail links & design revive places like Newark, Bridgeport & Stamford?
It’s pretty amazing how the whole thing works out when you think of how many trains move through the area. In the abstract, you are correct: the stations and concourses should not be separate as all transit systems should integrate.
My guess, however, is that the metropolis does not get a new station until the two states create an uber-authority better than they got now.


Unfortunately, I read only half-way thru the list of fast-food joints before I associated the smell of grease that triggered a nausea similar to when I waited for the train to Long Island. Also, I didn’t spend time looking closely, but the proposal to divide service looks like it will waste all or most of 3 huge blocks in the center of Manhattan.
IMHO, until the larger management issues are dealt with, the best solution is to do nothing. Well Robert, too many people and their awful habits pretty much define a place like Manhatten. On a serious note… Let me conclude my work this year on Penn with two key points of the The Big Picture. Clearly, the density and a lot of trains are what the whole thing is about in the first place. I do tend to agree that Penn Station probably needs to be a single use facility (Shopping & Restaurants are part of that) or one in which transportation dominates. Balancing development in both directions, smooths out peak surge problems and radically improves the economics of transit by keeping trains full.
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When checked, Shutterstock's safe search screens restricted content and excludes it from your search results. Epoch-making innovation and entrepreneurial risk built tunnels under the Hudson River and directly connected America’s main metropolis to the other commercial centers of a vast, resourceful economy that emerged via the advantages of a great rail network.
This article provides this early step: analyze the Penn Problem frankly and suggest why current agencies cannot develop solutions. Instead of recounting those stories, this article focuses on defending its key suggestion: if a new strategy for ownership is not clarified within a few years, then a new authority must be created to resolve the Penn Problem.
Amtrak customers have a reception area, a coach-class waiting room with chairs and escalators down to platforms having a decent width.
Entitled “Penn 2023”, the Alliance analyzes the problem well, then seeks to solve the ownership problem by proposing that Amtrak have a separate building called Penn Station South (below). Most boil down to an impossible situation: Penn has too many passengers coming into too small a site and no current authority can sort out the resulting chaos of tracks and concourses. Furthermore, the tracks should be managed by an uber-authority responsible for through-routing. He has been replaced by a new mayor with an agenda of redistributing wealth – and not to suburban rail commuters.
Since the sign does not even acknowledge the PA as ‘de facto’ developer, it helps confirm the PA has no believable plan for this complicated real estate deal.
Federal money paid for 85% of Phase 1; yet no agency used this free money to produce leverage for Phase 2 funding. First, this is the largest station in the western world and requires lots more money than a subway station.
But, municipal bond markets are nervous about ominous clouds of pensions and insolvency nationwide.
Knowing there is not enough money to finish the suburban stations, landowners around Penn won’t invest enough either; further reducing value capture’s contribution.
Simultaneous with those changes, the transit agency cannot just put a pretty hat on top of 100 year-old platforms. The metropolis’ polyglot of outdated authorities took over failed railroads and, now, have failed even to maintain the old system in good repair. New York area transit investments have been off-the-charts expensive compared to what global centers in Asia and Europe buy. The subway part of this same tunnel was started in the late 1960s that finally connected to its system in 2001. Chances improve when there is a credible agency that serves riders and taxpayers alike with a whole new discipline of managing finances and timelines. But in future years, hopefully 2015, I will explore how regional politics is a prerequisite for sustainable transit.
The photos at the start of the article make a compelling case that these concourses should be combined into a single large concourse, LIKE THE ORIGINAL PENN STATION. It does not require moving the Garden and especially does not require demolishing a block of midtown to build another station.
Posts in this series would probably benefit from some sort of executive summary or roadmap at the beginning to help the reader understand where you’re headed.
Most cities have barely started the conversation about rail and transit oriented development.
The trick is to show these communities how their rail links are the key to unlocking billions of dollars in land value. From what I can tell it’s a very nice building, maybe the most valuable in all of Manhattan. Integration of platform areas and underground space, as well as the Gateway Tunnel, is the only way to realize the benefits of through-routing, fare integration, and easy transfers.
This is reasonable in reality: Amtrak has different needs, more money and more authority (legal and tacit). New York and New Jersey share a metropolis and integrating their DOTs’ concourses and tracks becomes a fundamental necessity.
I guess the way to start shaping that council is for the RPA to take their leadership to the next level.
Both reinforce my conclusion that there simply too many trains and people converge on Penn Station.
One is central stations are microcosms for how transportation systems need multiple measurements (economic and fiscal) to evolve towards sustainability. The purpose of the scorecard (the link at the top of the article) is to explore those multiple measurements so that other cities can at least be aware of whether their investment in a central station will take their overall transportation in a sustainable direction.


The current site is oriented around Madison Square Garden, with everything else crammed under and around it. I don’t really see these multi use cities along the train lines competing with Manhattan as much as complementing it.
Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an opinion-leading urban analyst, writer, and speaker on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century. Penn Station celebrated that achievement by evoking Rome’s style from that previous great Republic. We start that step and put Penn in the context of this series by comparing its scorecard to New York’s success story. Instead of the original, elegant Penn Station, commuters today get a transit rat-hole because government failed to protect a pivotal public asset. Almost one-third of passengers on the Northeast Corridor trains also qualify for the very comfortable LoungeAcela to wait, work or sleep in.
Advocates for better transit must ask: what kind of “deal” are governments giving citizens to reward their doing the right thing and minimizing car usage? Like Penn, Chicago’s Union Station primarily served inter-city travel in the first half of the 20th Century. But as a positive step, the Alliance is to be commended for implicitly addressing the core problem of ownership by drawing three separate terminals and spreading the congestion.
What’s more, the PA increasingly is seen as a patronage dump that cannot fulfill its original mission of building infrastructure. As is true nationwide, metropolitan New York’s dependency on Uncle Sam has no future as a strategy for transit capital. The scheme’s short explanation is transit raises the value of real estate (more true in Manhattan than elsewhere). Worse for the City, it already was a struggle to get nearby landowners to agree to the value capture for a subway. Three new stations should have a complete update to 21st century transit standards that include through-routing, easy transfers, and tightly integrated mobility systems. Without money to first fix the systems New Yorkers already got, it is highly unlikely new stations will get built.
For example, MTA’s East Side Access project at Grand Central was to cost $2.2 billion in the 1999 federal budget. Even as somebody who spends a significant fraction of each day slogging through pretty dense reading, I sometimes get a little lost trying to figure out the elements of your analysis and how they relate to one another. Since Public-Private Partnerships seem to be mostly a non-starter for the public, I think your idea has great potential. In the case of Penn, I read between-the-lines that Amtrak is fed-up dealing with two rival states. When each has a Governor willing to risk solving Penn’s problems, workable proposals should be made. This shifts from today’s reliance on fragmented governments (who lack coordination to solve the Problem) and, instead, uses the private sector to decentralize the region into mixed-use multi-centers. Updates to Penn’s commuter concourses and platforms since have been too little, too late, too costly and would never work well anyway. This historical concoction traps many central stations, particularly Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station. While this Corridor by far is Amtrak’s most important, Amtrak still only has less than 10% of Penn’s non-subway passengers on an average weekday.
Trapped in the middle waiting for a mid-day track announcement, I see why New Yorkers have so much practice complaining.For the other 90%, Penn Station treats commuter rail passengers as if there were a cattle class. Similar to the original Penn, Union Station’s air rights were sold hastily in the 1960s to appease Penn Central’s creditors. At various times and planning stages, Amtrak has been in-and-out of the proposal to convert the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station (building 3 in the drawing above). The Alliance sent a message last year when it convinced the City Council to limit MSG’s permit to ten more years, hence “2023” in the study’s title. In turn, increased building values will generate higher property taxes that the transit agency can borrow against to build now.
Both Governors are looking for their path to the White House, while eyeing the other as a possible rival. You’re doing interesting work, so making easier to digest strikes me as a win for everyone. Un-trapping both using today’s tangled agencies will take decades of dedicated civic effort to change how transportation is organized and invested in. NJ Transit and LIRR commuters get packed into stand-up concourses (no chairs) and anxiously await their track to be announced. Some $267 million was spent in planning and preliminary construction, about 85% paid by Uncle Sam. Today, Penn appears to this outsider as a hot potato passed between creaky agencies, each unable to advocate a future vision.
Worse, this exorbitant price tag does not even buy a through-route, suburbia’s track of the future. Seems like the board of directors would include LIRR, NJRR, Amtrak, City of New York, and users of the station.
Twice as many riders pass through Penn today than was the intended capacity of its 1964 design. Not unlike a prod, the board flashes which track and there is crush down into a narrow platform to get a seat next to someone who is not an obvious complainer. Penn’s “curse” is that good money gets wasted because its updates cannot solve the core problem of poor design and poor governance.



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