Paterson Takes His Turn on Moynihan

brownpaterson Paterson Takes His Turn on MoynihanThe list of mayors, governors and U.S. senators who have championed and supported the plans to expand Pennsylvania Station across the street into the Farley Post Office is a lengthy one. Daniel Moynihan, David Dinkins, Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Charles Schumer, Eliot Spitzer.

The project, now named Moynihan Station, has existed on paper since the early 1990s, gradually morphing from one enthusiastic administration to the next as it has consistently eluded execution. 

Now Governor David Paterson, whose administration has generally been defined by cuts and parsimony amid anemic revenues, wants his own turn with the project, and last week he pledged to succeed where prior governors have failed.

His ultimate goal, he said, is “to make Moynihan Station the gateway to New York—to make Moynihan Station the engine that revitalizes the area around Penn Station and establishes a pathway to the development of the far West Side of New York.”

Although he has praised the concept of the project before, the governor seemed to be firmly attaching this project to whatever agenda he may have before the end of his term, in 2010. He outlined a vague path forward, turning the initiative into one defined by its transportation improvements and under the control of the Port Authority, with a disclaimer that a few key issues needed first to be worked out.

Consistent with the project’s history, the pledge represents another turn in the project’s direction under new leadership. In prior permutations, the focus has been on revenue for the Post Office; an expansion of the train hall; a medium-size real estate transaction; and a mega-land-swap and an economic development project of gigantic proportions. The most recent plan, which was pushed by the Spitzer administration and which unraveled in March, involved moving Madison Square Garden to the Farley building and thereby unleashing $14 billion in public and private development.

Now, the Paterson administration seems to be focusing on rail capacity; the platforms and tracks under Penn Station have room for no more trains at peak hours, given the way they are currently used, and the prior plans involved a much-needed expansion of pedestrian and waiting space, but did not address this issue.

The exact ways the state intends to address it are unclear at the moment, as the Paterson administration needs to continue talks with New Jersey officials, and plans will likely be better defined by the end of next month, when Mr. Paterson’s chief aide on the issue, Timothy Gilchrist, presents a new plan for the project.

As of now, the Paterson administration is strongly considering pushing forward on a few key steps related to the project over a short-, mid- and long-term time frame, according to numerous officials and others involved with the project.

The most defining feature of the preferred path would be the expansion of Penn Station’s tracks and platforms southward to the block between Seventh and Eighth avenues, from 30th to 31st streets, which could hold perhaps five or six new tracks. This would likely come as part of a larger renovation of Penn Station—not one nearly as grand as planned in the Spitzer-era plan, when Madison Square Garden’s removal would have permitted a complete overhaul—to increase pedestrian flow and possibly remove office space used by the railroads.

Such a step would be expensive—the state may have to condemn the block and hollow out a large space from above—and could be done in two stages, first by creating a cavern without any tracks, according to those officials and others familiar with plans.

Another element being examined by the Paterson administration would be coordinating train traffic with New Jersey Transit’s planned Access to the Region’s Core project, which would add a new set of tunnels under the Hudson River terminating at six new tracks just north of Penn Station. Should ARC be completed, discussions are under way to potentially get New Jersey Transit to cede some of its “slots” at Penn Station platforms, given its planned new capacity in the area.

The state still wants to expand the station into the Farley building, a move for which the state, city, Port Authority, and real estate developers Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies all previously committed funds, and that could conceivably be a first step as part of the larger project.

All the new talk seems to leave many new questions: Where will the needed money come from, for instance, and how can state officials give sufficient momentum, before the end of the governor’s term in 2010, to a project that has a history of defying efforts toward implementation?

The current iteration—with its transportation focus—seems to have many supporters in the world of government. Federal Transit Administration chief James Simpson is pushing coordination with the ARC project; the city supports the plan to expand tracks southward; Port Authority’s executive director, Chris Ward, has told advocates he is extremely supportive of the plan, and his agency has been working on it for months; the agency’s New Jersey-based chairman, Anthony Coscia, has voiced strong support generally for the project; and preservation groups are happy to see a plan that doesn’t bring Madison Square Garden to the entrance of the Farley building.

“I was very pleased,” Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, said of the governor’s speech. “We think it ought to be a priority.”

Speaking at the Building Congress luncheon Friday, Mr. Paterson himself brought up the project’s troubled history. “When I became governor, somebody told me that I’m the fourth governor to work on Moynihan Station,” he said. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of patience.”

However, his response to the issue seemed a bit quixotic for a project with such a sluggish past. “We’re going to respond,” he said. “And you know why we’re going to respond? Because there’s now a new sheriff in town.”

ebrown@observer.com