Smith: How Bloomberg Could Finally Build Moynihan Station

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Bloomberg and Schumer in 2007. Photo: Getty Images

Somewhere, there’s a cornerstone for Moynihan Station. I’m not reaching for a metaphor: There is literally a hunk of marble, engraved with the names of politicians, ready to go. It was carved back in 2000 in anticipation of a ceremony declaring the start of construction to transform the grand old Farley post office on Eighth Avenue into a railroad showpiece called Moynihan Station in honor of the New York senator who’d had the brilliant idea in 1992. The ceremony never took place, of course; the station has never been built; thousands of people are instead still condemned to commute through cruddy Penn Station.

But here’s the metaphor, or the bad joke, that epitomizes the entire ridiculous, complicated saga: The cornerstone is lost. No one knows where it is.

It would be wildly premature to hire another stonecutter, but there is new hope that Moynihan Station will get underway. Senator Chuck Schumer, with the help of the recession, has reframed the project along its original lines: Creating a new transportation hub instead of redeveloping a vast stretch of Midtown West all at once by moving Madison Square Garden to Ninth Avenue, as private developers Vornado and Related Companies intended to do when they won bidding rights four years ago. “Vornado and Related can’t get financing for the larger project right now, and they don’t know where they’re putting the buildings,” a government official says. “Dealing with trying to move Madison Square Garden is an intractable mess, and ESDC [New York State’s development agency] is not capable of running such a project. So this simplifies things by putting the Port Authority in charge and making transportation the central part of the project again.”

Schumer has also come up with a plan to use $100 million in federal stimulus money to jump-start the project. The money helps (though only a little, with construction costs estimated to be more than $1 billion), but money has always been only a part of the puzzle. The project has a surplus of competing stakeholders — the city, the state, New Jersey, the private developers, the Postal Service, Amtrak, and for a while, Madison Square Garden, until the Dolans decided to stay put and renovate — but it has never had a leader with the power and focus to push everyone forward. Schumer needs to follow through by wrangling federal funding and beating the drum for a deal, but he wasn’t nominating himself for Moynihan Station czar. He has a few other things going on in Washington. Which means that the next move is up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The mayor played a pivotal role in ending the paralysis at another state-owned city site: the World Trade Center. After four years of frustration at the lack of action, Bloomberg helped end the stalemate by raising $350 million for the September 11 memorial and leveraging city bonds. Those tools don’t exist at Moynihan Station, and Bloomberg smartly avoids getting involved in issues where he can’t exert substantial control; he also has daunting budget problems of his own. “We’re very supportive of Senator Schumer’s idea, and $100 million is a great start,” a City Hall official says, warily. “But it’s still a complicated and expensive project, and the devil is in the details of how the other pieces would come together.”

So Moynihan Station would be tougher, in some ways, than the World Trade Center. There are plenty of rational reasons for it to stay stalled. Yet Bloomberg is the one person who could put the political dominoes in motion. David Paterson is hapless at economic development, and Jon Corzine doesn’t see enough benefit to New Jersey, so the governors — and the Port Authority they control, which would operate the new station — aren’t likely to act until Bloomberg and the city are aggressively behind the project. Amtrak, which would move from Penn to Moynihan, won’t commit until all three elected officials are onboard. “Amtrak is the trickiest part,” one Moynihan negotiation veteran says. “If it sees even a crack of daylight between the mayor, the governors, and the Port Authority, they’ll drive an Acela right through it and kill this chance.”

Fortunately, Bloomberg is a man who thinks big. The mayor has repeatedly proven his desire to push megaprojects — though he's been frustrated by the failure of some of the mega-est, including the West Side Stadium and Atlantic Yards. Here's his chance to push a project both huge and with indisputable merit to the public at large, while at the same time serving his own self-interest. Because even though Moynihan Station is legally the property of New York State, emotionally it’s owned by the city. If this thing finally happens, Schumer’s name should be in large letters on the new cornerstone. But Bloomberg would get credit from the city’s voters this fall, and he’d be on the fast track to a third-term legacy.