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Amtrak awards contract to expand tracks at Penn Station

Almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done to address the chaos at Pennsylvania Station in New York, the nation’s busiest public transit hub. Now comes the hardest part of designing a solution that will avoid controversy.

Amtrak, the national railroad that owns the station and the tracks through it, is moving forward with a plan to expand the station at an estimated cost of $12 billion. This plan calls for the demolition of an entire block of Midtown that houses a 151-year-old church.

On Thursday, Amtrak awarded a contract to design the station expansion, which it says will take two years and up to $73 million.

But the effort comes just as a separate New York state plan to renovate the existing station has faced opposition from community leaders.

Amtrak’s expansion is part of a comprehensive rail infrastructure improvement program known as Gateway. Gateway’s centerpiece would be a new pair of single-lane tunnels under the Hudson River between Penn Station and New Jersey.

The new tunnels would complement a pair of parallel tunnels that were built more than 110 years ago and are still damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Eventually, Gateway could double the trans-Hudson capacity, with the goal of making the trip to town more efficient and reliable for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak train riders.

But Penn Station’s 21 tracks and platforms were already overloaded before the pandemic. For Gateway to fulfill its purpose, the station should have more lanes. Finding a place to put them in the middle of Manhattan is the challenge Amtrak gave to a group of companies led by Arup, an engineering and design firm.

“Already the station has operated at a level of intensity well beyond the level for which it was designed,” said Stephen J. Gardner, Amtrak’s chief executive. He added, “We’re going to double the width of the pipe, but Penn Station, as a bucket that receives water from the pipe, is already full.”

Any interruption of service at Penn would be delayed for at least a few years when construction on the expansion begins. The gateway is not expected to be completed for another decade.

As for the state renovation bill, it will be the subject of a hearing in Manhattan on Friday, during which state lawmakers will take testimony from state officials, supporters and opponents of the Governor Kathy Hochul’s plan to fund a redesign of the station by letting developers fill the neighborhood around it with office towers and other high-rise buildings. The state would use the payments from those developers to cover its share of the $7 billion cost of the station upgrade.

The renovation aims to replace Penn Station’s maze of cramped hallways that Ms. Hochul called a “hellhole” with a spacious, sunlit train room that she said would “elevate the human spirit.” But community leaders questioned whether the plan to have commercial developers pay for the renovation and subsequent expansion of the station was feasible.

Under the Hochul plan, the towers surrounding the station would largely be made up of office space, demand for which has fallen sharply during the pandemic. The towers would be built over the next 20 to 30 years.

A report released last month by the city’s independent budget office found the state provided too little information about the financing plan to determine whether it’s viable or whether ratepayers might be saddled with some costs. Those questions prompted three state senators from the city — Liz Krueger, Leroy Comrie and Luis R. Sepulveda — to convene Friday’s oversight hearing. Ms. Krueger and Mr. Comrie were among a group of 15 senators who sent a letter to state officials in March, demanding that they “sustain the Penn Station plan until these answers have been provided. “.

But Ms. Hochul instead lobbied for an acceleration of the station’s renovation. Last week, it announced the release of a request for proposals for the redesign, although that project was to follow the station’s Amtrak expansion.

Mr Gardner and Tony Coscia, chairman of Amtrak, said the designers of the expansion would consider a range of alternatives, including adding tracks south of Penn Station, under the West 30th Street block that is the longtime home of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church. “It’s something Amtrak has been discussing for a long time and we think it’s doable,” Gardner said.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation said it strongly opposes plans to “tear down multiple blocks” around Penn Station because they contained several structures, including the church, which were already on the National Register of Historic Preservation. historic places or were eligible. this.

Coordinating the various elements of Gateway and plans for Penn Station is complicated by the number of agencies involved. Amtrak owns most of the infrastructure, but Penn Station’s biggest users are Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit. The LIRR plans to begin diverting some of its service to Grand Central Terminal later this year; a few years later, another New York City commuter service, the Metro-North Railroad, plans to begin running trains to and from Penn.

Amtrak takes the initiative, in partnership with NJ Transit, to plan the expansion. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the LIRR and Metro-North, is overseeing the renovation.

“There are so many cooks in the kitchen and so many unanswered questions,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of Community Board 5’s land use committee and critic of Governor Hochul’s plan.

Amtrak officials hope to avoid the kind of community opposition that could derail the expansion plan. “We absolutely, fully need to disseminate and communicate all of the different options,” Gardner said, “to get an outcome that works for the community.”

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