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Renovating Penn Station as an institution, not a building « City Block

Renovating Penn Station As An Institution, Not A Building « City Block

Beware nostalgia for the old Penn Station. While the railroad station s current iteration neither functions well nor provides an inspiring space, addressing these problems requires addressing the underlying issues of railroad governance, finance, and operations. Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlap aims to demolish the myth of Penn Station s demise as solely an act of civic vandalism. Penn Station s decline was a symptom of major shifts in transportation finance, travel patterns, and urban development. Railroads were accustomed to their monopoly position and regulated accordingly. With the rise of direct competitors for both intercity and commuter traffic from airlines and cars (both subsidized by the government), change was inevitable:

In The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, Lorraine B. Diehl[1] said the death knell first sounded in 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill to provide $1.5 billion in federal financing for new highways[2], including an interstate system.

It sounded again in 1947, when the Pennsy reported an operating loss for the first time in its long existence[3]. One month later, in March, a United Air Lines DC-6 reached La Guardia Airport only 6 hours 47 minutes[4] after it left Los Angeles.

It sounded again in 1949, when the railroads share of intercity passenger traffic fell[5] below 50 percent. And again in 1956, when construction of the interstates began[6] in earnest. And again in 1958, when National Airlines inaugurated domestic jet travel[7] with a run between New York and Miami that took just 2 hours 15 minutes.

Intercity travel and freight were the most profitable business lines for railroads. Commuter trains provided some feed for longer distance trains, but were an otherwise marginal business. In reality, the business was in decline well before 1944; Ridership for transit of all forms declined during the Great Depression[8] (along with the rapid expansion of suburbs and proliferation of the automobile), only propped up by travel restrictions during WWII.

Penn Station s edifice was torn down because the economic model of American railroads, predicated on their monopoly on metropolitan mobility, collapsed. Looking to monetize their assets, developing their lucrative real estate seemed obvious. For Penn Central, it wasn t enough to save the company. Still, the loss of the building draws most of our attention.

Even today, we tend to focus mostly on Penn Station as a place, rather than on the underlying tunnels, tracks, and organizations that operate them. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his reboot[9] of the longstanding plans[10] (with a throwback to Gov. Pataki and Pres. Bill Clinton[11]) to redevelop Penn Station, complete with a rebranding[12].

The full presentation slide deck[13] includes lots of flashy renderings of what s possible, building off of the same basic concepts as before[14]: relocating Amtrak functions to a new facility within the Farley Post Office building; removal of Madison Square Garden s theater and a complete redevelopment of Penn Station s concourses below.

There s a lot to be said in marshaling the political will to get something done. Cuomo s presentation doesn t shy away from that ambition. But ambition alone isn t enough. Given the challenges in executing complex projects, it s not surprising to see figures like Robert Moses viewed favorably. But are you executing the right projects?

Renovating Penn Station As An Institution, Not A Building « City Block

Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo s presentation, complete with Robert Moses. Not only does the focus on the building itself miss the real capacity challenges for Penn Station s infrastructure, it also elides over the very real challenges for operations and governance. Adrian Untermyer reminds us of the key governance challenges to success[15] for any plan:

In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest

Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It s unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut. Finding effective governance solutions for both the physical station as well as the underlying railroads that use it is a much bigger challenge. During the monopoly era, before the creation of either the MTA or Amtrak out of the remnants of Penn Central, that kind of vertical integration clarified things. Current governance is muddled[16].

Lack of integration and coordination among various stakeholders isn t a new problem. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC project, some advocates celebrated the demise[17] of a flawed project with the hope for a better one[18]. ARC s primary flaws stemmed from an inability for the key stakeholders to effectively coordinate investments. Instead of one railroad forcing coordination, Penn Station was a battle between three entities (Amtrak, NJ Transit, and NY s MTA each with different priorities and different leadership). The unwillingness to share turf isn t just a challenge for Penn Station, coordinating between two states and Amtrak; but even within the MTA. East Side Access, connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal is an extraordinarily expensive project[19], opting for a deep cavern terminal station under Manhattan instead of a potentially cheaper and more useful option[20] that would ve required better coordination and integration between the MTA s own commuter railroads. Instead of tackling this issues, the MTA opted for the more expensive solution. Integration isn t easy. The MTA s split personality for regional rail dates back to the differences between the PRR and NY Central railroads. The merged Penn Central couldn t integrate; it s not a surprise integration hasn t happened without some larger outside incentive to do so. The past decade of airline industry consolidation in the US shows how hard this can be, even with incentives.

The real challenge isn t in finding the right design for a new Penn Station, but in reforming the institutions that operate and govern our transit systems.


  1. ^ Lorraine B. Diehl (www.powwmedia.com)
  2. ^ $1.5 billion in federal financing for new highways (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  3. ^ operating loss for the first time in its long existence (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  4. ^ 6 hours 47 minutes (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  5. ^ railroads share of intercity passenger traffic fell (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  6. ^ construction of the interstates began (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  7. ^ National Airlines inaugurated domestic jet travel (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  8. ^ declined during the Great Depression (transportationfortomorrow.com)
  9. ^ unveiled his reboot (www.governor.ny.gov)
  10. ^ longstanding plans (www.wnyc.org)
  11. ^ Gov. Pataki and Pres. Bill Clinton (twitter.com)
  12. ^ complete with a rebranding (www.wsj.com)
  13. ^ full presentation slide deck (www.governor.ny.gov)
  14. ^ concepts as before (www.alexblock.net)
  15. ^ key governance challenges to success (www.gothamgazette.com)
  16. ^ Current governance is muddled (observer.com)
  17. ^ celebrated the demise (newyorkyimby.com)
  18. ^ a better one (www.rrwg.org)
  19. ^ extraordinarily expensive project (www.city-journal.org)
  20. ^ potentially cheaper and more useful option (www.irum.org)

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