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Governor’s Penn Station Overhaul Plan Lacks Tunnel Vision

North River Tunnel
A portion of the North River Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey.
Photo: Chuck Gomez/AMTRAK

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Building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River has long been touted as essential to commuters’ sanity — and to New York and New Jersey’s economic well-being.

But with that push stalled over a funding fight with Washington, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a plan Monday that would add eight tracks to Penn Station and require razing an entire city block south of the transit hub — with barely a mention of the proposed Gateway tunnel.

“I’m not, as governor of New York, going to wait for the federal government to reverse themselves and decide they want to help New York or they want to fund Gateway,” Cuomo said at an Association for a Better New York gathering of business leaders. “I’ll keep fighting for it, but I’m not going to depend on it. We have to make our own future and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks about his Penn Station plan during an Association for a Better New York luncheon, Jan. 6, 2020.
Governor Andrew Cuomo's Office

Cuomo said adding eight tracks to the 21 already in place at Penn Station is “not contingent” on replacing the federally owned Hudson River rail tunnel that carries Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains.

He didn’t offer a timeline or put a price tag on his proposal for his “Empire Station Complex,” which would extend Penn Station south and boost its capacity by 40%, handling an additional 175,000 commuters daily.

Tunnel or Tracks First?

But some transportation experts and advocates said building a new rail tunnel as current 110-year-old tube crumbles should take precedence over new tracks.

“The tunnel is the critical piece of infrastructure,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Without a new tunnel and the rehab of the old one, the amount of capacity that this plan would add really isn’t as helpful.”

Penn Station
The entrance to Penn Station at West 31st Street, Jan. 6, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

“These are two projects that are important to each other and this is an important step for Penn Station,” said Brian Fritsch, campaign manager for the Build Gateway Now Coalition, which includes business, civic and labor groups on both sides of the river. “But for trans-Hudson capacity, Gateway is totally necessary.”

The Gateway program to connect New York and New Jersey through a new rail link in the Hudson River has been stalled over funding objections from President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the Federal Railroad Administration is nearly two years overdue in releasing an environmental impact statement on a new tunnel, a delay that advocates say brings failure of the existing passage even closer.

“It’s really ridiculous that it’s taken that long,” Fritsch said.

Avoiding More ‘Hell’

Cuomo has responded with a push to extend Penn Station south, an idea similar to one proposed in 2017 by the Regional Plan Association and already studied by Amtrak. That year, a series of derailments and emergency repairs led to what Cuomo dubbed the “summer of hell” at Penn Station.

“We believe the best alternative is to expand by acquiring the block south of Penn Station and increasing the footprint that way,” Cuomo said Monday.

Larry Penner, who worked for more than three decades at the Federal Transit Administration in development and oversight of capital projects, said the state’s Penn Station plan would cost billions of dollars in utilities relocation, land acquisition and construction.

Cuomo said the state is looking at buying out building owners with income generated from new commercial development expected in the area.

Properties that would be demolished under Cuomo’s plan include a parking garage, some bars and St. John the Baptist Church on West 30th Street.

“[We] look forward to discussing the proposal with the state and with the parish to learn more about their plans,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York.

‘Nothing is Safe’

Along West 31st Street, two business owners told THE CITY they were optimistic about remaining on the block for a while to come.

“I’m just absorbing it,” said Bruce Caulfield, co-owner of Tracks Raw Bar and Grill, which reopened on West 31st Street last year after having to move out of Penn Station because of construction of a new entrance.

Bruce Caulfield
Bruce Caulfield, co-owner of Tracks Raw Bar and Grill, which was forced out of Penn Station by ongoing renovations, may be looking at moving again if the transit hub expands south.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

“Hopefully it will be years before they even consider this block,” he added. “We just opened.”

At Irish pub Tir Na Nog, general manager Helen Woods said she’s “never surprised” at talk of overhauling the country’s busiest train station.

“The city is constantly changing,” she said. “It feels like nothing is safe.”

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