The Amtrak Office of Inspector General just released a report that revealed cost overruns and project delays for the $1.6 billion new Amtrak Moynihan Hall Penn Station, currently under construction. Gov. Cuomo will not be happy to learn that Amtrak may not meet his promised commitment to open by end of December 2020. The report title is “Governance: Early Planning and Oversight Deficiencies Led to Initial Program Failures and Continued Risks to the Moynihan Train Hall Program.” It can be accessed on the Amtrak OIG website and makes for interesting reading.
There have always been questions about the real value of this project for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and future Metro North Rail Road commuters who use Penn Station.
While working for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office, I attended several meetings on the original version of this project. No one remembers that in 1992, the estimated project cost was $315 million. Several years later, the cost grew to $500 million with a completion date slipping to some time later in the 1990s. That generation of Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit officials, along with project sponsors such as U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other public officials were not happy with both cost increases and project delays.
Fast forward to 25 years later. The current generation of transit agency officials and politicians have no memory of past history going back decades. Today’s sponsors of this project never want to talk about the fact that partial financing comes from a federal $550 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan. The loan is to be paid back by revenues generated from private sector investments with shortfalls covered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The Empire State Development Corp. is counting on the sale of air rights over the Farley Building as the source for its $570 million contribution toward the overall $1.6 billion cost. Suppose the sale generates less than anticipated. How would they make up the shortfall?
We have never seen the fine print justifying the $1.6 billion cost estimate. There has never been a detailed project schedule or budget shared with the public to justify the promised December 2020 completion date. The project doesn’t add any new track or platform capacity for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, LIRR or future Metro North Rail Road service. Many NJ Transit platforms and tracks will have no direct access to this new facility. New track and platform improvements are necessary to accommodate additional riders and trains during peak morning and afternoon rush hours.
Creation of the new Moynihan Hall station, ticket office and renovated platforms below the Farley Building between 8th and 9th avenues sounds great on paper. Most LIRR riders continue to purchase tickets via Mail & Ride, ticket vending machines or various Apps. In coming years, new fare collection technology will be coming on line. As a result, most staffed ticket windows and offices will go the way of the dinosaurs. These improvements will only benefit a minority of LIRR riders whose destinations are west of 8th Avenue or who utilize the 8th Avenue A, C and E subways.
A majority of riders exit to destinations east of 7th Avenue. This includes using the 1, 2 and 3 subways (some transferring at Times Square for either the shuttle or No. 7 subway to access Grand Central Terminal) or walking to Herald Square (to access the B, D, F, N, R, Q and W subway lines or PATH). LIRR trains arriving and departing from platform space farther west in Penn Station to access the new Moynihan Hall station will result in longer walks for a majority of riders coming east of 7th Avenue.
Many would argue that this is a waste of several hundred million dollars. Most LIRR riders would prefer that these funds be spent on clean safe bathrooms, along with basic track, interlockings and signal maintenance at Penn Station, East River Tunnels and Queens portals rather than a new ticket office and waiting area. What will happen when the growing NYC homeless population begins moving into the Moynhihan Hall Train Station?Better track, interlockings and signal maintenance scheduled on a more frequent regular basis might help avoid the increasing number of train delays and cancellations. LIRR riders would tell you that it is clearly a higher priority than a redundant second Penn Station ticket office and waiting room.
(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit bus and subway, Staten Island Rail Road, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).