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Andrew Cuomo

‘Master Builder’ Cuomo Pitches Old Proposal For New ‘Penn Station South’

12:01 AM EST on January 7, 2020

The proposed, and currently unnamed, Penn Station South. Area residents have some notes. Image: Governor’s Office

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The governor is pulling an old rabbit out of his hat.

New York's master builder governor on Monday pitched a tweaked version of an old plan to expand Penn Station's train capacity by acquiring a full city block between 30th and 31st streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues and building eight tracks below the expanded station south of Madison Square Garden.

The proposal [PDF] would bring the total number of train tracks at Penn Station to 29. The expansion would serve 175,000 commuters per day, the governor said.

The proposal is being pegged as a further improvement to Penn Station, which the governor has sought to renovate for years. In addition to the Moynihan Station on the west side of Eighth Avenue across from the Penn Station, which is scheduled to be completed in December, Penn South would give Midtown Manhattan a bolstered transit hub — which the grandiose governor dubbed the "Empire Station Complex."

If the state acquires the Theater at Madison Square Garden, it could create a grand entrance hall to Penn Station. Rendering: Governor's Office
If the state acquires the Theater at Madison Square Garden, it could create this entrance hall to Penn Station. Rendering: Governor's Office

The governor didn't give a pricetag for the Penn South project, but it could cost as much $8 billion, according to some estimates — a price greatly inflated by the need to pay fair market value for land seized by eminent domain. When Penn South was originally proposed in 2014, the block, which is home to a parking lot, an Amtrak ventilation tower and several smaller properties, would have cost $404 million. But that cost quickly rose to $1.3 billion a year later, according to Railway Age. It may be even more now — especially if the governor follows through on talk about acquiring the Theater at Madison Square Garden, which would be converted into a grand entrance hall.

But price is no object when an entire region's growth — nay, it's survival, according to the governor — is at stake.

"Transportation systems drive or limit development," Cuomo's presentation said. "Law of the economic jungle: Grow or get left behind."

Versions of the plan date back to at least 2011, after then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed a pair of new rail tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station (a project known as "Access to the Region's Core"). Christie's ill-fated decision did not, of course, remove the need for more capacity, so Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Amtrak proposed a pair of tunnels called Gateway that would carry trains from New Jersey to a new Penn Station on the same block that Cuomo highlighted on Monday.

Currently, the Trump administration has shown no interest in funding Gateway, but Cuomo didn't see that as a reason to delay building what is necessary on this side of the river.

"If Gateway ever developed ... [Penn South] could accommodate it and facilitate it. But it is not contingent upon it," Cuomo said at a lunch hosted by the Association for a Better New York, a real-estate industry group.

The plan doesn't go as far as advocates wanted a decade ago, when the Regional Plan Association, for example, suggested that the Penn South tunnels be extended to the Sunnyside rail yard in Queens so that service could run through Manhattan instead of terminating at it. Still, on Monday, the RPA endorsed the Cuomo proposal, calling it "a great step for the future prosperity of the entire metropolitan region."

The Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance also endorsed the Cuomo proposal, albeit if the plan could include reduced fares for intracity LIRR travel.

Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council, called the plan "exciting," but pressed the governor for more details and additional service to go along with the additional capacity.

And Transportation Alternatives' Executive Director Danny Harris said that the focus on the busiest rail hub in the Western world was also an opportunity for the city and state to "remake the area surrounding Penn Station into a place that prioritizes people, not traffic."

Harris's wish was Cuomo's command.

The overall goal, the presentation said, is to "remember [the] purpose: get out of cars and into better mass transit."

Cuomo's mantra.
Cuomo's mantra.

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