In September 2008, Governor Paterson strode into a Friday luncheon of the New York Building Congress, and pledged he would succeed where the past three people with his job have failed: His administration would carry out the long-desired but ever-elusive plan to expand Pennsylvania Station.
Now, with little heard on the topic since, it seems his administration has chartered a course forward on the beleaguered civic project known as Moynihan Station, with the only navigable routes resting on the hope that President Obama will come to the rescue.
With no other money lying around to fill the $400 million-plus in funding gaps, the Paterson administration is pinning its aspirations on winning funding from the federal stimulus package in two separate rounds of applications, according to numerous people briefed on the matter. Tuesday, the state was expected to put in an application to Washington for about $100 million for belowground work, with plans in the works to later put in another big ask—perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars—in funds meant for high-speed rail.
Uncertainties abound, and the history of false starts with Moynihan suggest that the optimists are almost always disappointed (the project has been in varying degrees of “almost ready” since 1993). For one, there will be far less stimulus cash than there are hungry mouths to feed, and thus Moynihan will be pitted against rail and other transportation projects nationwide. Competition will be intense: Earlier this summer, the federal government saw $103 billion in preliminary requests for its $8 billion in high-speed rail stimulus money.
In Moynihan Station’s favor, the requests have the backing of Senator Charles Schumer, who urged stimulus money for the project in May, thereby bringing in a powerful voice of advocacy in the Democrat-controlled capital. Further—and improbably amid the recession, budget crises, and general disorder in Albany—many of the key barriers to starting work have begun to tumble, bringing new hope for the more than $1.1 billion project.
The first of those hurdles was the previously unresolved issue of a tenant in the expanded station, housed in the historic Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue. In Moynihan’s one-and-a-half decade history, Amtrak, then New Jersey Transit, and most recently “T.B.D.” were each slated to call the Farley building their home. But at least as of Sunday, Amtrak—which originally conceived of the idea of expanding Penn Station into the Farley Post Office back in the early 1990s before later backing out—publicly said it was back in, agreeing to move its operations across the street should a train station ever be built there.
THEN THERE IS, PERHAPS more significantly, a general shift in strategy by state officials, who now are telling others they intend to break the project up into “bite size chunks” in the words of one advocate. Since its inception, the project has faltered in large part due to its immense (and often growing) size, with whomever is in charge never able to clinch the deal despite having, at various times, all the funding lined up.
Now, those steering the project project want to separate out a first step: expanding a Long Island Railroad concourse under Eighth Avenue so it can be used by the other railroads and be accessible to the Farley building, along with over $100 million in ventilation work.
One official involved with the project called this approach moving beyond “the Big Bang theory,” the method of executing everything at once, which has failed so many times before.
Of course, there isn’t money lined up specifically for the underground work in the first phase, estimated to cost more than $150 million, though that, in the view of officials working on the project, is where the stimulus comes in.
The first place the state is looking, expected in an application Tuesday, is a program termed TIGER, a $1.5 billion pot of stimulus money doled out at the broad discretion of the Obama administration to transportation projects that can have a “significant impact” on a region or the nation. A selection of recipients of the money is expected by February.
Officials are planning a second application for a to-be-determined amount of money from the $8 billion set aside in the stimulus for high-speed rail projects. Earlier this summer, the Paterson administration wrote in a preliminary application that it wanted a total of $398 million for Moynihan from the high-speed rail pot, arguing that an expanded Penn Station would have to be a prerequisite to any expansion of high-speed rail in the Northeast. (After all, 70 percent of all intercity rail trips in the Northeast start or end in Penn Station, the state wrote in the application, where the only high-speed train service in the country currently runs.)
“Failing to implement the Moynihan Station project will condemn intercity rail passengers to a cramped and substandard rail terminal in New York City for the foreseeable future, and will act as a bar to the implementation of true high-speed rail service,” the state’s preliminary application says.
THERE ARE SOME OBVIOUS questions about this approach. Most notably, the planned improvements for Moynihan Station do very little to speed up train service—but the Obama administration has seemed really eager to show progress to that end in its pitch for its high-speed rail plan.
The Paterson administration declined to comment. But based on its preliminary application, officials seem to be hoping that the major aesthetic and symbolic improvements would, when coupled with efficiencies that come from a new platform and better circulation, be justification enough for the federal government. (The project, the state estimates in the application, would boost ridership by 5 percent.)
Never a project short on support from the civics, the new, more incremental approach has already won plaudits from those familiar with it, and many have signed a letter supporting the stimulus application.
“This comes back to the vision that Senator Moynihan had in the first place,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “It’s important that the public understand that this isn’t dead—that there is still a chance to do this, and that this is really crucial,” she added. “It’s going to improve everyone’s experience coming into and out of the city.”
But the ball, of course, is headed to the Obama administration’s court, where the city will soon find out just how its interests stack up.