Our new $212 billion state budget includes $1.3 billion toward Gov. Cuomo’s proposed $16 billion Empire Station Complex. It is just the first installment or down payment. The funds are supposed to pay for additional new Penn Station transit improvements. It will be years before the environmental review process, along with design and engineering are completed and any construction contracts can be awarded to support future transit improvements.
There remains a fatal financial flaw for the overall funding package. This $16 billion project, just like the Port Authority’s $10 billion, new 42nd Street Midtown Manhattan bus terminal, are both counting on the sale of air rights as a source for billions to help defray construction costs. There is a glut of surplus office space in Hudson Yards west of Penn Station and other Manhattan neighborhoods. When leases are up, as a result of COVID-19 many companies are moving into smaller spaces. Others are subleasing excess space. The Penn Empire Station Complex and Port Authority Bus Terminal projects are both located on the west side of Midtown Manhattan only eight blocks from each other. They will be competing against each other for future tenants.
If the air right sales generate less than the anticipated revenue, the shortfall could be in the billions. This deficit will have to be made up by the project sponsor, the Empire State Development Corp. The agency will look toward the states of New York and New Jersey, the MTA and NJ Transit for a financial bailout. This means higher MTA and Port Authority bridge tolls, fare increases for NJ Transit, LIRR and NYC Transit subway riders, along with other tax increases and user fees.
Gov. Cuomo attempts to portray himself as the second coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Master Builder Robert Moses. He is not an engineer, businessperson, transportation expert or daily commuter. He has never built a business from scratch or created a significant number of new good paying jobs on his own.
Many LIRR commuters believe bringing the 110-year-old East River Tunnels (two of which suffered significant damage from 2012 Superstorm Sandy) up to a state of good repair is a higher priority. Cuomo’s $16 billion Penn Station Empire Station Complex does nothing to end the periodic cancellation and combination of LIRR trains due to signal, power, derailments and other East River tunnel problems.
They would also welcome reopening of the old Hilton Corridor, also known as Gimbels Passageway, which led to 34th Street underground. Until the early 1980s, both LIRR and NJ Transit riders exiting east at Penn Station had a direct underground passageway known as the Hilton Corridor. It was also known as the Gimbels Passageway. Gimbels was Macy’s chief competitor at Herald Square. This provided a simple indoor connection to the 34th Street Herald Square IND and BMT subway, along with Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) station complex.
Both passageways were closed many decades ago by NYC Transit and the LIRR, due to security issues. If reopened today, commuters would have easy connections to the Broadway N, R, Q, W and 6th Avenue B, D, F M subway lines along with the PATH system – rather than walking outside on the street exposed to both inclement weather and heavy vehicular traffic. By using either the subway or walking, riders would have direct access via these subway lines to Manhattan Midtown and the East Side along with the Broadway, 6th Avenue, 42nd, 53rd, 59th or 63rd Street corridors, served by numerous subway lines and stations.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office.