Yet modernization of the nation's busiest train station proved stunningly elusive until a recent infusion of federal stimulus cash for renovations and a new train hall known as Moynihan Station. More than 71 percent of the plan's entire first phase was paid for by the federal government—nearly $110 million in transportation funds, plus $83 million from the stimulus. That money was an enormous boon to a project that supporters hope will increase transit ridership and help revitalize the far West Side, allowing groundbreaking to finally take place in 2010. But it is also a striking reminder of how integral federal dollars can be to the city's major infrastructure projects, whose worthiness may be proportional to their staggering expense.
But even as New Yorkers may see the first phase of transit improvements taking shape—from Moynihan Station to the Second Avenue subway, from an extended No. 7 line to a link between the LIRR and Grand Central Terminal—the future of federal funding for these projects is very much at risk. The Republican-led House of Representatives has proposed significant cuts to transit, and the relevant portion of President Obama's American Jobs bill, which includes an extra $4 billion for high-speed rail, appears unlikely to gain approval. The upcoming election, which could swing the balance of power in Congress and the White House, casts a long shadow of uncertainty over future funding.
"The 2012 elections, both presidential and Congress, will decide the fate of infrastructure funding in the country, not just Moynihan," says Timothy Gilchrist, president of the Moynihan Station Development Corp.
A Long Ride
It's been nearly two decades since Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan first introduced the concept of an ambitious new terminal that would both streamline transportation and befit the city it serves. According to the Regional Plan Association (RPA), Moynihan sold newspapers and shined shoes as a boy in the former Penn Station, with its glass-and-steel train sheds and soaring main lobby inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The station was razed in 1963, and its replacement has long been decried by historians, architects, planners and politicians alike as inefficient, inhospitable and increasingly inadequate.
The current plan—scaled down and tweaked over the years since it was first floated—calls for the building of a new train hall for Amtrak in the James A. Farley Post Office building, on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets. This move, which is not currently funded, would cost an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion, according to the RPA. Amtrak could then separate its operations from the busy commuter lines at Penn and move forward with its master plan of increasing service and ridership. A new train hall would also help pave the way for high-speed rail along the Washington–New York–Boston line, which is now hindered by, among other obstacles, the fact that slower commuter trains share the same tracks.
"I don't think anybody could ever claim that the project is not worth it. Economically, it's just a question of finding the money up front," says Juliette Michaelson, director of strategic initiatives at the RPA. "New York State ought to participate. New York City ought to participate. But in these economic times, I can't really expect them to … There's still a several-hundred-million-dollar shortfall that needs to be filled in somehow."
The Farley renovation would follow the current work, which has a $267.7 million price tag and is scheduled to be completed by 2016 and includes asbestos removal, ventilation improvement, extension of the Long Island Rail Road concourse and building of new entrances from the Farley building into Penn Station.
Planners anticipate that the changes will ultimately improve commutes for hundreds of thousands by clearing platforms faster, increasing efficiency and the potential number of trains, allowing an additional 1,000 riders to pass through each day. "It's just going to make a better pedestrian environment for the tens of thousands of people coming out of Penn Station every hour," says Veronica Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group dedicated to reducing car dependency. "Right now people who are coming into Penn Station are struggling to get out or to get in. The infrastructure is definitely under strain."
Getting on Track
Perhaps the furthest-reaching implication could be improvements for Amtrak, which has a 30-year plan to introduce high-speed rail along the corridor, connecting New York to Washington in as little as two hours.
Nearly 8.4 million Amtrak riders passed through Penn Station in the most recent fiscal year, according to the railroad—and ridership along its Northeast Corridor is expected to grow at least 60 percent over the next two decades, Amtrak says.
Amtrak's improvements over the past decade have included the addition of the Acela Express, which travels between Washington, New York and Boston at speeds of 150 miles per hour and has helped propel a 37 percent increase in national ridership from 2000 to 2010. High-speed trains would travel at 220 mph.
"The current facility is operating at levels greater than at any point in its history, which can lead to passenger overcrowding when even small delays occur," an Amtrak spokesman, Clifford Cole, said in an email. "Failure to build Moynihan and achieve some or all of [its] benefits will require Amtrak and its commuter operating partners to seek alternatives (of which no other feasible concept has yet emerged)."
Easing intercity travel both provides economic opportunity in New York City and along the route and is likely to lessen congestion at the area's overextended airports by making travel by train for short distances more appealing than travel by air.