How Daniel Moynihan’s Dream Became a Hangover

Sometime around late 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan caught wind of a plan being studied by Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service to expand Pennsylvania Station into the neighboring Farley Post Office. The two agencies envisioned an expanded rail station with a sense of grandeur, as Penn Station’s train platforms ran under the column-lined post office.

New York’s senior senator, a Manhattan native, was sold on the concept almost immediately; he placed the estimated $315 million project at the top of his agenda. From then until his death, in 2003, he became the project’s biggest advocate as he pieced together the support of local politicians, fought for funding in Congress, and brought in President Clinton for the push. Now, still just a concept, the plan bears his name.

More than any other major project in the city, the plan for Moynihan Station has been wholly immune to success, caught up in a shifting tangle of stakeholders. The plan has undergone a familiar, frustrating rhythm of fits and starts since the early 1990s, as any near-final agreement has proved to be a house of cards that collapses as plans change for any one actor.

There has been no shortage of optimistic statements throughout:

“There’s no stopping us now,” Moynihan said in 1995.

“We are definitely going to move forward,” New York State development czar Charles Gargano said in 1999. “Construction will start this year,” he said again in 2006.

“We are very close,” Governor Spitzer said this past February.

All predictions proved for naught, and now, with key stakeholder Madison Square Garden’s announcement last month that it would stay in place and renovate, the most recent iteration has lost much of its momentum. While the private developers on the project—Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies—and city and state officials still hold out hope that the Garden could be brought back to the table, many involved with discussions concede that such a move would be a reach.

Discussions continue—Garden executives met with the city and the state last week, according to two people briefed on the meetings—though many say it would be difficult to secure, or outline, sources for well over a billion dollars of public funding with the Garden officially withdrawn from the project.

Time and again, the tripping point has been Moynihan Station’s bloated size and reach, especially with respect to the countless government agencies involved, as the agendas, priorities and funding levels across the public sector do not stay stable long enough for anyone to piece the project together and start construction. The political cycles, with leadership changes in Congress, Albany and City Hall always on the horizon, have seemed to prove too short to accommodate a project of this size.

“It was one of those jigsaw puzzles with 1,000 pieces,” said Tony Bullock, Moynihan’s chief of staff in the final years of the senator’s career. “It was like someone took 30 or 40 pieces away so you could never finish it.”

To name a few of the stakeholders: the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority, the mayor’s office, the Empire State Development Corporation. Tack onto that some of the private actors—James Dolan of Madison Square Garden, Steven Roth of Vornado, Stephen Ross of Related—and the half-dozen members of Congress who have tried to secure funding for the plan, and it gets rather difficult to fit everyone in the same room, let alone reach a consensus on anything.

Mr. Spitzer was the latest to fall victim to this unstable coalition of agencies, as the Garden ultimately pulled out of the project just after he resigned. The governor had been desperately trying to save the project in his final weeks and cobble together, in the very least, an outline of where the public funding would come from in order to settle the uncertainty of the Garden.

Indeed, during the same mid-February trip to Washington on which he met with alleged prostitute Ashley Dupré, he had meetings on Capitol Hill about federal funding for Moynihan Station, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. A few weeks later, the Friday before The New York Times broke news of his prostitution troubles, one of Mr. Spitzer’s final meetings as governor was with Senator Charles Schumer about the station, among other topics.

If the Garden does stay put, thereby scuttling plans to move it to the Farley building and redo Penn Station, the stakeholders seem committed to some sort of scaled-back plan, perhaps one closer in scale to Moynihan’s original vision (the plan involving the Garden came in at an estimated $14 billion, including surrounding development).

In retrospect, had Mr. Spitzer and his development deputy, Patrick Foye, been able to pull together the plan in just over a year, the act would have defied the project’s entire sluggish history.

How Daniel Moynihan’s Dream Became a Hangover