Cuomo Will Build the Train Station New York Deserves, But Not the One It Needs Right Now

The joys of train travel in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to be known for building things in New York again. And if you go to La Guardia airport, which is one giant construction site, you can’t miss the message. That airport has long sucked, and the mess of construction has made it temporarily worse, but now two brand-new departure concourses are open, I’ve flown out of both of them, and I can finally envision what our new, non-horrible airport will be like in just a few short years. It’s one part of his infrastructure push that’s making at least my life a little better.

Other parts of the push I find more questionable. In a weird way, Cuomo is excessively focused on the art of the possible, building what he can without much apparent thought to whether he should.

The latest example came on Monday, when he announced a major undertaking to expand Penn Station southward. The project would entail acquiring a whole city block to add eight departure tracks and four platforms to the station. It would surely cost billions of dollars; land acquisition alone was estimated at about $1 billion for a previous incarnation of the project in 2015. And yet Cuomo did not announce any motion on the project that is ordinarily supposed to be paired with this one: the Gateway Tunnel, which would add two additional tracks connecting the station to New Jersey.

“I am not, as governor of New York, going to wait for the federal government to reverse themselves and decide they want to help New York or they want to fund Gateway,” Cuomo said Monday at an Association for a Better New York lunch. “I’ll keep fighting for it, but I am not going to depend on it.”

But the usefulness of the Penn Station South project depends on building Gateway. The existing tunnels under the Hudson are already at capacity; what’s the point of adding more station tracks when you don’t have the feeder tracks to serve them? Just because this might be an easier project for New York to finance and build doesn’t mean it’s worth doing in the absence of a key complementary component.

Similarly, Cuomo is fighting to ensure that the shiny new La Guardia airport will get rail access for the first time in its history of operation. Unfortunately, the AirTrain plan he has championed would run the wrong way: east, toward Flushing. That means for most riders, the new AirTrain will take longer than existing bus service to the airport. And unlike the JFK AirTrain, it won’t connect with the main line of the Long Island Rail Road; it will meet the Port Washington branch, which has service to Manhattan only every 30 minutes during the day and no service at all to most parts of Long Island.

Again, this routing is a matter of political expediency. Cuomo likes the backward AirTrain because it can be built entirely over a freeway to a transfer station in an industrial area, avoiding any political objections from neighborhood residents in Queens.

Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton says proposals to provide better transit connections and a more direct route — such as an AirTrain connection to Jackson Heights or Woodside — “would require construction in densely populated neighborhoods” and are thus “fatally flawed nonstarters that would impose an unacceptable burden on affected communities.” Of course, “don’t build in densely populated communities” does not seem to be a standard restricting other major Cuomo-era projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway or even Penn Station South. Useful transit goes where people are; that means you sometimes have to build in dense places.

If new construction in populated western Queens is a nonstarter, there is another option: improving the existing bus service, which again provides better connectivity and often better travel times than the proposed AirTrain. Better bus service especially deserves consideration because the AirTrain’s proposed cost keeps going up; originally, it was supposed to be $450 million, but you know how these things go; now it’s going to be $2 billion. But new bus service isn’t sexy and doesn’t provide the opportunity for ribbon-cuttings, so the Port Authority’s 2018 alternatives analysis considering access options to the airport included the conclusory criterion that the use of on-road vehicles for transit to the airport should be reduced, essentially deciding ex-ante that the recommended solution should have to be a train.

That the Port Authority gave unduly short shrift to the lowly bus leads me to a counterintuitive observation: A governor with a holistic focus on transit in the New York region should be looking first for ways to build less rather than building more. Especially when our capital costs are so unreasonably and persistently high, the first question should always be whether a capital project’s scope is larger than it needs to be. Cuomo seems to have understood this in one key instance: finding a way to simplify the Canarsie Tube rehabilitation project so a yearlong shutdown of the L train to Brooklyn was not necessary. But there are lots of other places where our regional transportation agencies should be asking themselves first if they can do more with the infrastructure they already have.

Consider Newark airport, which unlike La Guardia has an existing AirTrain connection to a station on New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor line. NJ Transit’s schedules are not coordinated to provide quality service to the airport; you can get stuck waiting as long as 40 minutes in the middle of the day for a train. So the Port Authority, which owns the airport, is looking at extending the PATH subway line, which it also owns, to serve the airport in addition to NJ Transit. Why not fix the NJ Transit service schedule instead of building a redundant, multibillion-dollar capital project? Because the various agencies that provide transit service in the New York area are completely incapable of productive cooperation.

Similarly, the supposed necessity of Penn Station South is a reflection of cooperation failures. Penn Station is one of the busiest train stations in the world, but Châtelet-Les Halles, a hub station of Paris’s RER commuter-rail system, serves approximately the same number of daily passengers despite having just eight tracks serving four platforms. Penn Station’s 21 existing tracks are insufficient for current service because the pattern of service is stupid: The station acts as a terminal, with trains ending their routes and turning around, even though it’s actually laid out as a through station. If trains proceeded directly through the station, starting in New Jersey and terminating on Long Island, they wouldn’t need to dwell so long on the tracks and they wouldn’t need to wait so long at switches to cross each other’s paths on the way in and out. This is the secret to success in Paris.

Obviously, if New York and New Jersey can’t even work together to get the service schedule at Newark airport’s train station right, it would be a tall order to integrate our interstate commuter-rail system in the way that Paris’s various lines were merged into the RER over the last few decades. But this is part of what is sad about New York’s transportation capital projects: Not only do we pay way more than we should, and not only do we find ourselves somehow unable to afford needed projects like the Gateway Tunnel, what we do build is often duplicate capacity aimed at ensuring siloed agencies don’t have to share facilities.

Penn Station needs expansion because the three railroads there have service patterns that get in each other’s way. Grand Central, which already has more tracks than any other train station in the world, is getting a new, multibillion-dollar terminal over 100 feet underground with eight more terminal tracks because the LIRR and Metro-North can’t share. We are possibly going to build a redundant transit station at Newark airport because these agencies can’t work together. And of course, when we do build megaprojects aimed at avoiding the need to share operating facilities, the agencies involved still end up needing to work together on the construction, and their coordination failures are one of the factors driving up capital-project prices.

Ill-considered, overly expensive projects still result in cranes and construction employment and the appearance of progress. Often, they result in shiny new buildings that are admittedly pleasant to be in. I am prepared to believe that Penn Station South, after many years and billions of dollars, could improve the experience of being inside Penn Station. But it wouldn’t do much to increase the ability of commuters to get in and out of midtown, which should be the key goal of transit projects in midtown. It is a strange priority, but at least it will allow Cuomo to leave another physical mark on the city.


Cuomo’s Penn Station Plan Is a Beautiful Boondoggle