Across the country, competition is stiff for the most dilapidated bridge, tunnel or train system.
But a plan for a pair of new passenger tunnels under the Hudson River, called Gateway, surely ranks one, two and three in terms of urgent rail projects.
Passenger traffic under the Hudson River — and by association a hefty chunk of the nation’s economy — relies on a couple of broken-down, century-old tunnels strained to capacity. They serve Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains that at rush hour have come to resemble the Marx Brothers’ stateroom scene.
This became obvious after Hurricane Sandy socked the existing tunnels. Engineers realized both tunnels urgently needed repairs to avoid Railmageddon. Built on silt, they move with the tide. People who have inspected them tell me they’ve seen pools of water. Today the tunnels barely manage 24 trains at peak hours. Closing one for long-term repairs, experts say, will reduce the hourly number to six trains, an 80 percent drop, which, as Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, put it the other day, would be “a catastrophe for the Northeast,” with implications that “register on” the national gross domestic product.
Gateway, which has been pushed by the Obama administration, calls for two new passenger rail tunnels feeding into Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, the nation’s busiest and most disgusting transit hub, not to mention a potential fire trap. In 2010, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey killed a plan called ARC to add tunnels. Despite federal assurances to the contrary, he claimed potential cost overruns could leave his state holding the bag. Instead, Governor Christie directed money already set aside for the tunnels (including billions from the Port Authority) to roadway projects. Considering the Hudson is a chokepoint for passenger rail traffic all the way from Boston to Washington and even beyond, that move left the whole Eastern Seaboard transportation network in a highly precarious position.
New tunnels would handle increased demand and cut travel time. A Regional Plan Association study showed property values for New Jersey houses within a half-mile of a train station rising $3,000 for every single minute knocked off commuting time. The benefits accrued out to two miles, potentially adding up to $18 billion — billions more than Gateway’s current $15 billion projected tab. That’s not counting benefits for farther-flung commuters: Philadelphia’s mayor is a fan of Gateway for good reason.
New Yorkers would profit as much as anyone. The city needs better access to more affordable areas of the region where skilled employees can live; it shouldn’t lose human capital to other parts of the country because squabbling public officials dawdle for decades over a tunnel plan.
But new tunnels aren’t enough. Gateway without a better Penn Station to serve more riders and a booming west side of Manhattan would be tantamount to buying a big fancy garden hose without swapping out the rusty little bucket the water pours into. Efforts to move Amtrak into Moynihan Station (the James A. Farley Post Office), across the street from Penn Station, help a little. Amtrak is, itself, just a drop in the bucket, in terms of ridership, accounting for maybe 5 percent of the passengers who use the station.
The Port Authority’s stegosaurus-skeleton of a Path Station shortly opening in Lower Manhattan — a $4 billion shopping mall and ego trip by its designer, Santiago Calatrava — may suggest otherwise, but upgraded rail service and improved public space in the form of safe, efficient and dignified transit hubs go hand in hand. They’re both environmental and social justice no-brainers. The old tunnel plan, quashed by Governor Christie, skirted Penn Station, which posed problems. Gateway solves them by feeding into what would become new tracks terminating on the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 30th Streets. Penn Station would expand, in other words, to create Penn South. There are proposals to continue the tunnels on to Grand Central, relieving jammed train traffic and overcrowded platforms at Penn. Experts I’ve spoken with say, ideally, Gateway would provide stops at Penn and also Grand Central.
What Gateway can’t solve is Madison Square Garden. This month marks two years since the New York City Council denied the Garden a special permit to operate in perpetuity on top of Penn Station. The council granted the Garden’s owners, the Dolan family, a 10-year permit extension, hoping a deadline might spur interested parties like New York State, Metro North and New Jersey Transit, and the Dolans themselves, to move the aging arena, making it easier to improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of daily travelers trapped underneath it.
Rumor has it that Vornado, the giant real estate developer, which owns property around Penn Station, is preparing to revive a late-Bloomberg-era proposal to partially close off 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues to car traffic, giving the street over to pedestrians and upgrading access to the station, bringing more light and air down into it. That might be a useful step forward, as would turning backroom Amtrak office space now inside the station over to passengers, opening up cramped and confusing concourses.
But an unmoved Garden would still blight the neighborhood and impede the arrival of a safer, truly better station. While its owners aren’t yet budging, even as Barclays Center in Brooklyn makes the Garden look like a relic, the Dolans are business people. They answer to stockholders, who ought to entertain any proposal to move to a great new location if the price were right.
How about free? For a competition the Municipal Art Society organized a couple of years ago, SHoP Architects, designers of Barclays Center, proposed that the Dolans get a free arena on the site of the giant Morgan mail-sorting center, next to Hudson Yards and the High Line, a stone’s throw from what would become Penn South. An interested developer like, say, Related, which owns Hudson Yards, would pay to build the arena in return for the right to develop all of the 4.5 million square feet of air rights at the Morgan site.
The plan would require the Post Office to get on board, which it has shown no willingness to do; some federal bigwig like Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, would need to help press the case. The scheme would also make some very rich people richer by taking over public property, so it’s no surprise that Related has stirred this pot. Yielding any public land for private development raises red flags. It needs to prove its public worth.
At the same time, a facility on a prime piece of Midtown real estate that now delivers Kmart fliers by snail mail would in effect make way for a 21st-century Penn Station, a hub finally deserving of the public’s investment in new tunnels — and befitting a great city. There are other intriguing ideas worth pursuing. But right now, this one has the best shot.