The controversial $17 billion expansion of Penn Station — saving taxpayer money and three downtown blocks from demolition — can be avoided, but only if the MTA, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak agree to work together, a Post investigation has found.
The MTA and NJ Transit — which operate commuter rail lines in the region — have prepared plans that could collectively double the number of trains Penn Station can accommodate, which experts and activists said would alleviate the need for the new station.
“If you care about providing the best value for public money, you will prioritize cost-effective investments to increase productivity and improve the passenger experience at Penn Station first,” said Barry Caro, a longtime transportation activist and veteran political consultant.
“Instead, we have a plan that operates as if there is a blank check from Washington, and cost is no object when it is abundantly clear that is no longer the case, if it ever was,” he told The Washington Post.
Officials, from local governors to transportation chiefs, have argued that the massive planned “Pennsylvania Extension” is needed to handle the additional trains rolling in when the Hudson River tunnels under construction are finished.
The project — which involves demolishing part or all of the city's three complexes — had ballooned in size and cost even before it began, rising from an estimated $8.5 billion to $9.5 billion to a potential $16.7 billion for a two-level station with 12 tracks. Documents appear.
But a Washington Post investigation — which examined 1,000 pages of engineering reports and charts, many of which were never published — shows that when combined, the two plans hit the shelves, would likely hit the coveted 48-train mark and shave off about $10 billion. . Of the price.
Both plans were disqualified for failing to meet the 48 trains per hour standard when they were deemed isolated — as Amtrak and the other two giant transit companies pushed for the “Pennsylvania Expansion.”
The problem with the alternative proposals is the tense relationship between the MTA and NJT, as well as Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, according to interviews with experts, officials and activists.
The railroads pursued the planned, expensive expansion because each wanted space for its own independent operation inside Penn Station rather than having to cooperate more closely, a document showed.
A 2011 Amtrak presentation seen by The Post says a key feature of the “Pennsylvania Extension” project was “rail grants”[s]”Semi-autonomous operations” in the huge complex.
A much cheaper privatization option, which would dramatically re-engineer existing Penn Station to hit the 48-train mark, for less than $7 billion, is doable — but not without cooperation, experts said.
The combined proposals largely mirror the plan drawn up in 2022 by one of the region's oldest transport policy watchdogs, the Tripartite Transport Campaign.
“A new Penn Station that puts riders first and improves safety, reliability and service is possible with new, redesigned signals, tracks and platforms,” said Felicia Park Rodgers, Tri-State's senior infrastructure expert.
“We would like to see railroads working together to put the needs of passengers first,” she said. “They can put passengers' needs first and improve capacity over the long term without spending $17 billion — but they have to work together to do it. Amtrak has to come on board.”
Penn Station is owned and operated by Amtrak, though the NJT and MTA run hundreds of other trains through it, thanks to a quirk of history after the collapse of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The MTA did a significant amount of work on the controversial “Pennsylvania Extension” proposal, though officials there say it was at Amtrak's request, documents show.
“Perhaps the planning process should be done by the agencies that will use the complex the most,” suggested Yona Freimark, a senior researcher and expert on transportation projects at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “The MTA and New Jersey Transit are the primary users of the complex, not Amtrak.”
NJT expected that its proposals would increase the number of trains that could arrive through Penn Station and under the Hudson River to as many as 38 trains per hour.
It's a 170+ page title called “Penn Station Capacity Improvement Project” that calls for the following:
The 2020 document estimated that creating a new platform and expanding existing platforms would cost about $1 billion at the time, which would grow to $1.3 billion when adjusted for the inflation bubble in 2021 and 2022.
There was no official estimate of how much the switch work would cost, but NJT estimated it would be “relatively simple” compared to the platform work.
Combining it with a shelved MTA proposal would increase the station's current capacity to 50 trains per hour — more than the maximum that could fit in all four Hudson River tunnels.
This will upgrade signaling in the tunnels and station complex to allow trains to run more closely together and at higher speeds, much like improvements currently underway on the subway's lettered lines.
A 2020 analysis revealed that this would improve capacity throughout the station by four trains per hour.
Additionally, it will re-engineer the middle portion of Penn Station — tracks 5 through 16 — to replace many of the train's notoriously narrow platforms with ones wide enough to accommodate crowds.
It will save space by removing two tracks and reworking the support columns that support the station and Madison Square Garden, at an estimated cost of $3.5 billion to $3.9 billion, adjusted for inflation.
Wider platforms would reduce the amount of time trains spend at stations in two ways: allowing passengers to get on and off simultaneously; And ending the practice of reversing trains outside the station, which leads to traffic congestion.
Instead, trains will continue from Westchester and Long Island to New Jersey and vice versa; This is how Penn Station was originally designed to work. Passengers and travelers will benefit from having new direct service, for example, from the Bronx or Queens to Newark Airport.
The reconstruction and operational changes will allow the railroads to run up to eight additional trains per hour through Penn Station, according to a 2021 presentation to the Penn Station Board of Control.
However, it would require Amtrak and the two transit agencies to cooperate on schedules and infrastructure programs such as train orders and power system upgrades, which they were loathe to do.
“This is value mapping: We have these goals, and how do we get there. We can do that by building a big hole in the ground or we can do that by doing a bunch of It's the little things that get us where we want to go.” An on-page report examining MTA construction costs and design practices came out earlier this year.
In their statements, the three railroads — Amtrak, MTA and NJT — largely declined to comment on the details of The Post's findings.
“Amtrak and our partners will analyze these scenarios to see what can be accomplished successfully and safely,” said Jason Abrams, a spokesman for National Transport, which owns the station.
“The MTA’s focus is on fixing existing Penn Station for its 600,000 daily riders — and doing that work at the lowest cost,” John McCarthy, a senior executive at the agency, said in a statement. “This work is well underway, as evidenced by the new, brighter-lit, wider and modern Long Island Rail Road yard.”
NJT spokesman Jim Smith said in a statement that the Post's hypothesis was “flawed” because it was “[m]“Build assumptions simply by combining theoretical operational concepts with preliminary studies,” though the NJT analysis did just that.
“NJ TRANSIT remains committed to working with our transportation partners on a truly practical and implementable design that fully leverages the capabilities of the Gateway program to ensure we meet the demand for trans-Hudson travel for generations to come,” he added.
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