Is Everybody Aboard For Penn Station?

Over an Irish coffee at O’Neill’s pub on Third Avenue, where she and proprietor Ciaran Staunton exchange laments over the Mayor’s smoking ban, Maura Moynihan digs into a bag of memories and pulls out a few of her favorite quotes. Such as:

“Oh, for the days when Boss Croker built the I.R.T. as a favor to a friend!”

Or: “Where else but in New York could you tear down a beautiful Beaux-Arts building and find another one across the street?”

And finally: “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were. Surely ours must be open and fearless in the face of those who hide in darkness.”

The quotes are from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, late a Senator from New York and forever Ms. Moynihan’s beloved father. You might remember that some years ago, Senator Moynihan suggested and funded a civic act of contrition to atone for a sin committed 40 years ago: the destruction of the old Penn Station. By converting the Farley Post Office building into a new Penn Station, replacing the pit across the street that bears the Penn Station name but none of its majesty, the city would not only redeem itself-it would demonstrate that it still had the will and genius to think and build on a grand scale.

Everybody applauded this wonderful idea, and very soon there were news conferences and wonderful-looking models and artists’ renderings of this soaring new railroad station that would replace the pit. But then the men who hide in darkness presented themselves in the most hideous way possible, and suddenly the rebuilding of downtown became the city’s first priority.

Maura Moynihan understands why her father’s dream has been postponed-the new station was to have opened last year, according to the original conversion plan-and why so little seems to have been done on Eighth Avenue. “If anybody can be blamed for the slow pace at Penn Station, it’s Osama bin Laden,” she says. “Our energy and focus, appropriately, went to Ground Zero after 9/11.”

But now, she points out, “Ground Zero is moving along. So let’s build Moynihan Station.”

That’s what the old post office will be called-Moynihan Station, named for the visionary who spent a good portion of his final term, and final years, lamenting New York’s inability to carry out great public-works projects. On a fine April morning eight years ago, the Senator told me that he was in “despair” because New York had not taken full advantage of his landmark public-works bill, the famous Intermodel Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, better known as ICETEA. The legislation, which allowed federal highway funds to be used for mass-transit projects for the first (and, it turned out, the only) time, might have been written for New York’s benefit. As a matter of fact, it was. But states like New Jersey were cashing in with new projects, while New York wanted to use the cash to pay for improvements to the existing infrastructure-not a particularly glorious way to spend found money.

“You have to consider the possibility that a certain kind of civic entropy has developed, and it won’t go away,” the Senator said during that 1996 interview. “It had been my hope that we would do something with this money that we would be remembered for.”

Maura Moynihan has precisely the same hopes for the millions of dollars in federal funds that already have been appropriated for the transformation of the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station. Having committed so much of her father’s wisdom to memory, however, she fears that this grand project may yet fall victim to inertia or disinterest. With that in mind, she has founded an advocacy group called the Citizens Committee for Moynihan Station. It took a group of aroused citizens to save Grand Central Terminal from the old Penn Station’s fate. It may take a similar group to make sure that Moynihan Station doesn’t become a casualty of “civic entropy.”

“Most people think the station project is in the works,” Ms. Moynihan said. “But nothing is happening. Construction hasn’t even begun.” According to most recent estimates, work will begin in the fall and will take four years. More than a decade will have passed between the Senator’s idea and its execution. The George Washington Bridge, as the Senator was fond of pointing out, took four years to build, from the groundbreaking in 1927 to completion in 1931.

At this point, though, Ms. Moynihan is not so concerned about timetables. She knows that everything changed as a result of 9/11. Her concern is the idea itself, not simply the work schedule. “Let’s rectify the crime of the destruction of the original Penn Station,” she said. “Let’s believe in public-works projects again.”

Those are Ms. Moynihan’s quotes. But they certainly sound like something her father might have said.