Nearly everyone agrees that something needs to be done to resolve the chaos at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, the nation’s busiest transit hub. Now comes the hard part of coming up with a solution that avoids controversy.
Amtrak, the state railroad that owns the station and the tracks that run through it, is moving forward with a plan to expand the station at an estimated cost of $12 billion. That plan calls for the demolition of an entire block of Midtown, which is home to a 151-year-old church.
Amtrak on Thursday awarded a contract to design the station expansion, which is expected to cost two years and a whopping $73 million.
But that effort comes just as a separate New York state plan to renovate the existing station has met opposition from community leaders.
The Amtrak expansion is part of a comprehensive program of rail infrastructure improvements known as Gateway. Gateway’s centerpiece would be a new pair of single-track tunnels under the Hudson River between Penn Station and New Jersey.
The new tunnels will complement a parallel pair of tunnels built more than 110 years ago that were still damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Ultimately, Gateway could double the capacity for trans-Hudson, with the goal of commuting to the city more efficient and reliable for riders of New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains.
But Penn Station’s 21 tracks and platforms were already overloaded before the pandemic. For Gateway to fulfill its purpose, the station would need to have more tracks. Finding a place to place them in the middle of Manhattan is the challenge Amtrak has presented to a group of companies led by Arup, an engineering and design firm.
“The station is already operating at an intensity level well above the level it was supposed to support,” said Stephen J. Gardner, Amtrak’s CEO. He added: “We are going to double the width of the pipe, but Penn Station, like the bucket receiving the water from the pipe, is already full.”
Any service interruption at Penn would last at least a few years when construction on the extension would begin. Gateway is not expected to be completed for another decade.
As for the state’s renovation project, it will be the focus of a hearing in Manhattan on Friday, at which state lawmakers will take testimony from state officials, proponents and opponents of government Kathy Hochul’s plan to fund an overhaul of the station. by letting developers fill the neighborhood around it with office towers and other tall buildings. The state would use payments from those developers to cover its share of the $7 billion cost of improving the station.
The renovation aims to replace Penn Station’s warren of cramped corridors, which Ms. Hochul called a “hell hole,” with a spacious, sun-drenched train concourse that she said would “uplift the human spirit.” But community leaders have questioned the feasibility of making commercial developers pay for the station’s renovation and subsequent expansion.
According to the Hochul plan, the towers around the station would largely consist of office space, the demand of which has fallen sharply during the pandemic. The towers would be built over the next 20 to 30 years.
A report released last month by the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that the state had provided too little information about the financing plan to determine whether it is viable, or whether taxpayers might be saddled with some of the costs. Those questions prompted three city senators — Liz Krueger, Leroy Comrie and Luis R. Sepulveda — to convene Friday’s supervisory hearing. Ms. Krueger and Mr. Comrie were among a group of 15 senators who sent a letter to state officials in March demanding that they “pause the Penn Station plan until these answers are given.”
But Ms Hochul has instead pushed for an acceleration of the station’s renovation. Last week, she announced the release of a request for proposals for the redesign, though that project was slated to follow the station’s Amtrak expansion.
Mr Gardner and Tony Coscia, chairman of Amtrak, said the expansion’s designers would consider a range of alternatives, including adding tracks on the south side of Penn Station, below the West 30th Street block, St. John’s old home. the Baptist Roman Catholic Church. “That’s one that Amtrak has been talking about for a long time and that we think is feasible,” said Mr. gardner.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation said it strongly opposed the plan to “demolish several city blocks around Penn Station because they contain several buildings, including the church, which are either already on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible to be renovated.” to be placed on it.
Coordinating the various parts of Gateway and plans for Penn Station is complicated by the number of agencies involved. Amtrak owns most of the infrastructure, but the largest users of Penn Station are the Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit. The LIRR plans to reroute some of its services to Grand Central Terminal later this year; a few years later, another New York commuter service, the Metro-North Railroad, plans to run some trains to and from Penn.
Amtrak, in partnership with NJ Transit, is taking the lead in planning the expansion. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the LIRR and Metro-North, is overseeing the renovation.
“There are just so many chefs in the kitchen and so many questions left unanswered,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, the chair of Community Board 5’s land use committee and a critic of Governor Hochul’s plan.
Amtrak officials hope to avoid the kind of community opposition that could derail the expansion plan. “We must absolutely, fully promote and communicate all the different options,” said Mr. Gardner, “to get a result that works for the community.”