Train Station Running Late

On September 14, 2001, not long after putting down his ground-zero bullhorn, President George W. Bush had a quieter conversation with Governor George Pataki. The two men were discussing ways to show that New York was undaunted and vital and to give the city’s economy a boost. A public construction project would be ideal. Were there any good ideas, Bush asked, already in the pipeline?

Sure, Pataki said: converting the old Farley post-office building on Eighth Avenue into a new Penn Station. The money was largely in place and everyone was in favor of it, Pataki told the president; the only hurdle was persuading the Postal Service to vacate the historic landmark. “Yes,” Bush answered. “Let’s do it.”

Which made him the second consecutive president to support the plan. Bill Clinton came to the city in May 1999 for a celebratory press conference in which he endorsed spending federal money to make it happen. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has always favored the project. The state’s two current U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, regularly proclaim their love for the station. Heck, the line of elected advocates stretches back nearly uninterrupted all the way to 1993, when the legendary Daniel Patrick Moynihan began maneuvering money for the project into a series of federal appropriations for what, after his death, has come to be called Moynihan Station.But walk over to Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street and up those grand marble steps. You can buy stamps from a couple of lonely mail clerks. In December, the worthy “Operation Santa Claus” sets up shop in an alcove off the lobby. Otherwise the building’s 1.4 million square feet are occupied by pigeons and wishful thinking. Across the street, below Madison Square Garden, 550,000 passengers a day continue to sweat, swear, and collide as they try to escape the depressing maze that is Penn Station.

Moynihan Station is the middle child of New York City development projects. Ground zero, which will always claim the greatest emotional attachment, is the firstborn. The West Side stadium, which can do no wrong in the eyes of its indulgent parents, is the favored baby of the family. Moynihan Station—earnestly playing by the rules, reluctant to complain—has been rewarded for its obedience by being ignored.

Last year, congressional Republicans took a run at rescinding money allocated to Moynihan Station. Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Congressman Jerry Nadler successfully beat back that challenge. Now the buzzards are circling again. The ballooning federal deficit has fueled a congressional scramble for any stray dollars; money that’s been sitting around unspent for more than a decade makes a tempting target. As does any money associated with Amtrak, which Republicans are trying to kill on ideological grounds.

Unlike ground zero or the West Side stadium, though, that’s as close as Moynihan Station has ever come to serious opposition. And still it can’t get built. One problem is that the station has suffered from the lack of a passionate, single-minded champion since the death of Senator Moynihan in 2003. Charles Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, which controls the site, gets some praise from train-station proponents, but Gargano has been busy elsewhere. To run the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, which has day-to-day responsibility for building the facility, the governor selected a 45-year-old failed actor whose chief talent appears to be raising money for Pataki’s electoral campaigns.

Yet the person who may end up rescuing the train station has an even more unlikely résumé. She’s lived in India for much of her adult life, working with refugees. She’s also been a clothing designer and a comedienne. She’s completing a novel that will be published by Judith Regan. Still, this irrepressible 47-year-old divorced mom possesses one unbeatable qualification. She is Senator Moynihan’s only daughter, Maura.

“All these little games and eddies and detours in the torrent that is New York politics distract people from the real goal, which is building the station,” she says. “This project benefits all New Yorkers, and I want them to feel as frightened as I am. If the state and city continue to dawdle, this chance will be gone.”

For the past two years, Moynihan has been gently nagging politicians, trying to inject a sense of urgency into the project. In many respects, the train station couldn’t be better connected: Former Moynihan aides Bill Cunningham, Kevin Sheekey, Doug Schoen, and Ken Gross all now work for Mayor Bloomberg. Yet when Maura Moynihan called Dan Doctoroff last year, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, Doctoroff—amazingly—told Moynihan he didn’t know much about the station’s prospects.

Recently, though, there’s been progress: Pataki and Gargano have struck deals to increase New Jersey Transit’s access to Moynihan Station, reducing the project’s reliance on Amtrak. Still, that progress highlights another absurdity: The current Penn Station handles ten times the number of passengers that are projected to pass through ground zero’s new PATH hub, yet the new downtown station has been awarded $2 billion in construction funding, while only $600 million is earmarked for Moynihan Station.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of converting the post office has swelled from $315 million in 1993 to $1 billion today. On May 2, Moynihan turned up the public-relations heat by throwing a station-boosting party inside the Farley building, attended by Bloomberg, Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Ray Kelly. At the end of May, Gargano’s agency, after years of promising to choose a private developer to build the train station, heard presentations from three final suitors: Mort Zuckerman’s Boston Properties, Tishman Speyer, and a partnership of Vornado (Steven Roth) and the Related Companies (Stephen Ross).

“I don’t care which developer it is, as long as they pick a developer!” Maura Moynihan shouts. “Any developer!”

“If the state and the city continue to dawdle,” says Maura Moynihan,“this chance will be gone.”

The deal, including air rights, could net the state $500 million. But it might cost the city something less quantifiable: The train station could become an afterthought. Three years ago, ESDC decided to buy the entire property between Eighth and Ninth Avenues from the Postal Service, instead of simply the portion planned for the train station. As real-estate prices have skyrocketed, so has the attraction of using the Ninth Avenue side of the site to make a killing. The developers are proposing a commercial or residential tower be built behind the train station. At least one of the proposals would shrink the spectacular public room atop the train station that has been the centerpiece of the redesign. “The train station is still the priority,” Gargano says. “We’ve made that clear to every developer. This is a very important project, and we’ve never given up on it.” He also promises a bold step forward, very soon: the selection of the winning developer “before the end of June. If we slip by a week, we slip.”

“I can be friends with anyone,” Maura Moynihan says, “as long as this station gets built.” Her approach is admirably pragmatic. Yet somewhere, perhaps in that great Senate cloakroom in the sky, Pat Moynihan must be sadly laughing at the foot-dragging politicians who have stalled his last great gift to the city.

Train Station Running Late