The Next Big Things

The physician,” Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” Well, sometimes. But this summer, we’ll start rectifying one of the worst decisions New York has ever made, when politicians and planners gather to announce the arrival of the new Penn Station.

For years, the new station, built in the shell of the James A. Farley Post Office Building at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, has been an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it pipe dream. It would be talked up for a while, then disappear. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, its tireless champion, would score some funding; Republicans in Congress would try to kill it. But it survived, and the new station – of which New York is offering New Yorkers their first glimpse – is scheduled to open in 2003. It’ll be worth the wait. “If you ever knew the original,” Moynihan crows, “you will be reborn to see what’s coming.”

Designed by a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team led by David Childs, the station looks spectacular: a graceful marriage of neoclassical tradition – the post office, like the magnificent, original Pennsylvania Station, is a McKim, Mead & White building – and the contemporary hankering for space, light, comfort, and amenities. Behind that huge façade facing Eighth Avenue, the building has an interior courtyard about five stories high. That courtyard will be covered with a sleek roof of glass and steel, soaring some 40 feet above

The passenger seating area – a nice homage to the original’s glass-and-steel vaults over the track beds. There will be an outsize message board offering not only train arrivals and departure schedules but a national weather map, a news ticker, stock quotes, and various other cyber-age features. The waiting area and a lower concourse will look down on the tracks themselves, so that, unusually for an American station, people will be able to see the trains come and go. The ticketing area, in another section of the complex, will repose under a breathtaking glass-and-steel spherical shell fanning across the sky. There will be small shops and newsstands off to the sides, and a restaurant and bar, but no shopping mall – the post office will still use some space in the building, and anyway, New York doesn’t need one more Eddie Bauer.

What it does need, though, is a grand national railroad station. When the old station was torn down, many New Yorkers felt personally violated. “A monumental act of vandalism … We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed,” editorialized the Times the week demolition began in October 1963. Architectural historian Vincent Scully, comparing the old station to the one we use now, once said, “One used to enter the city riding high like a god; one now scuttles in like a rat.” As other cities have refurbished and renovated their stations, New Yorkers have made do with a station that, aside from being an aesthetic blight, is cramped and not remotely up to the city’s needs.

We’ll get to the details of how the new station happened. But the renaissance of a Penn Station we can be proud of should be only the beginning. New York has let its public infrastructure fall apart for almost 40 years now, but the Penn Station project is a sign that we can build again. As great as it will be to have a new train station, the needs hardly stop there. And if ever the time was right to get to work, it’s right now. Crime is down, the city’s a better place than it’s been in years, the economy is booming, and the money is there. “I think there’s a feeling among a lot of people,” says builder Douglas Durst, “that things are about as good as they’re going to get in the city economically, and that now is the time to act on some of these things.”

It sure is. Maybe it’s the millennium, maybe it’s the Dow, but more and more of the people we pay to run things are waking up to how bad our so-called amenities are. The hideous train station is one example. The airports are another. Access to them, especially JFK, is a long-running joke. The subway system has seen tremendous improvements, but it, too, is woefully inadequate – there are actually 46 fewer miles of public track than there were 60 years ago, because the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines were torn down and nothing replaced them. The waterfront is a horror show. Highways are crumbling, groaning under a relentless burden of truck traffic that – and this is a problem not as readily apparent to the average person but every bit as in need of a cure – could be alleviated if we improved our rail-freight systems. New York may be the greatest city in the world, but in terms of its public infrastructure, it is not an exaggeration to say it’s one of the worst.

We rarely think or talk about this. We just accept the hassles and the crowds and the traffic as the price of living in New York, a sort of urban cover charge. We’ve also come to believe that we can’t build things anymore. That large public works have gone the way of Gimbel’s and the Automats, and that, what with the expense and the lawsuits and the inconvenience, building is impossible here.

It has been – but only here. New Yorkers assume every place in the world follows our example. But, fortunately for all those other places, they don’t. Other cities, cities just as physically old and bureaucratically sclerotic as this one, are somehow managing to do things. Boston is completing the Big Dig, as they call it, putting its main downtown arterial highway underground – true, the project is well over budget, but it will improve life for generations of Boston pedestrians and drivers. Washington is finishing its subway system; Los Angeles is continuing to build its. Abroad, Berlin is adding a new line, with the major excavation point at the foot of the Reichstag building. London, Paris, Madrid, and Zurich are all at work on rail-system expansions. Above ground, Chicago – a city whose passion for public works puts New York’s to shame – expanded its El service in the nineties, building a new line to Midway Airport, and, in a massive job finished in just about two years, moved a part of Lake Shore Drive, in the area south of Soldier Field.

Airport links? Think of Paris, where, for about $8, the RER will carry you from Charles de Gaulle to any of several central Paris locations in 30 to 40 minutes. Most cities have such systems, the jewel being London’s Heathrow Express, opened last year. For £10, passengers are whisked aboard luxurious trains from Paddington Station to the airport in fifteen minutes. And get this: They can receive their boarding passes at Paddington and check their bags to their flight destination.

Waterfront access? Go to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Fells Point; ride a bike along the Potomac in Washington, or the Charles in Boston and Cambridge, where idyllic paths run for miles and miles; in Philadelphia, visit the art museum and stroll down to the banks of the Schuylkill. New York has a few nice waterfront havens, and at least our planners have finally recognized that the water is a public amenity. Of course, virtually every other city was on to this in the late seventies.

Things weren’t always this bleak. New York became great in no small part because of what it built. “The biggest bridges and the deepest tunnels and the greatest water works and the best damn parks,” says Moynihan. “You name it, we did it. And others copied it.”

But we stopped. We came to view building as passé, or even counterproductive. The view took hold in the sixties for a variety of a reasons. First, Robert Moses’s hubris destroyed not only him but the grand public projects he stood for: “The reason there hasn’t been another Robert Moses,” says Albert Appleton of the Regional Plan Association, “is Robert Moses.” It wasn’t just that Moses remade the city, building the maze of highways that only served to encourage more people to drive and made traffic worse (not everything our predecessors built was ingenious); he also ended up leaving the public distrustful of large projects in general.

When Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, arguing for smaller-scale, organic urban environments, anti-Moses sentiment found its full-throated voice. At the same time, Tammany Hall went into decline – and whatever else Tammany did, it built, built, and built – and was replaced by a welfare-state liberalism that took money out of capital projects and put it into social-service programs.

By the early seventies, then, the ethos of building large public works that made New York the great city it became was turned on its head. Now community control became the watchword; community boards were created; new rules were written requiring any project to run a gauntlet of agency reviews and approval processes, and, as Appleton puts it, “no one had an interest in saying yes, and everyone had an interest in saying no.” The point was not to build but to block. “The way to political notoriety in those days,” says builder and civic leader Richard Ravitch, “was to represent the voice of some community or neighborhood and to stop some project from happening. It was culturally out of sorts to be for building things.” Then came the fiscal crisis, and all bets were off.

Now, finally, a consensus is emerging that the past 30 years’ conventional wisdom has to be changed. Governor Pataki, who’s thrown himself into the Penn Station project and proposed others, appears to understand it. So, obviously, does Moynihan, who’s been warning about such needs for years. Senator Chuck Schumer recently announced his support for a major subway expansion. Mayor Giuliani is a little too obsessed with stadiums, which have to rank toward the bottom of our public needs, but his administration is doing the right thing on other fronts, pushing the crucial cross-harbor rail-freight tunnel, for example.

All over the city, community groups and land-use mavens have drawn up plans – not pie-in-the-sky, we-don’t-care-what-it-costs plans but well-thought-out ideas for self-sustaining, mixed-use conversions of waterfront areas that are now little more than liability suits waiting to happen. Every one of the two dozen or so people I spoke with for this article – elected officials, appointed ones, builders, and other civic leaders – agreed that the time is right to make New York better, more comfortable, and more competitive.

“The fight for efficiency is on,” says the Cooper Union’s Fred Siegel, “and we have to join it or we’re going to lose out.” Adds Bill Stern, the state’s economic-development czar in the early Cuomo years: “We’re living off our inheritance. We’re living off the building of the first half of the century, and we’ve done very little.”

Well, the time has come to do a lot. Several major projects are currently being considered. Some, like Penn Station, are pretty much ready to roll. Others exist mainly on paper. These six are among the most important.


It’s worth taking a moment to examine how this one came together. Basically, the $500 million Penn Station redevelopment proves this point: The financing can always be found; it’s the will, or failure of will, to overcome bureaucratic inertia that keeps things from being built. Penn Station happened because Pat Moynihan and George Pataki wanted it to happen, and because they hired a third fellow to oversee the job who really knew what he was doing.

When Moynihan hired Harvard-trained architect Alex Washburn in 1994, Washburn jokes, he was probably the only architect among Capitol Hill’s 30,000-strong staff. That’s the particular kind of vision that only Moynihan has, and it helped get the Penn Station project moving. By 1996, Moynihan and Washburn agreed that the architect could accomplish more at the Empire State Development Corporation, the state’s economic-development arm headed by Charles Gargano. At first, Washburn says, the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation, a sub-entity of the ESDC formed by Moynihan and Pataki, “was just me and a telephone.” But within two months, Gargano got the ESDC board to devote $6.25 million to Penn Station. “A project like this comes along once in a hundred years,” Gargano says. “We weren’t going to miss it.”

Over the years, the redevelopment has come to rely on eight or ten different funding sources, including the city, the state, the New York State Thruway Authority, Amtrak, and a handful of others; the PSRC has funding agreements with each. The federal contributions – the first federal dollars, in 1994, were tucked into an earthquake-relief bill – take advantage of changes in the surface-transportation law that Moynihan helped push through.

Gargano envisions the new Penn Station as a model of the rail link of the future. The station’s plans anticipate capacity and ridership, he says, not for the next 5 or 10 years but for the next 30. He says that eventually, he imagines a link from Penn Station to JFK with the Paddington-esque check-in features that seem beyond comprehension to New Yorkers today.

Washburn has now spent many more years than he imagined being less architect than bureaucrat, lining up funding, negotiating with the Postal Service, dealing with the many agencies that had a piece of this pie. “It’s definitely a Balkan environment,” he says of New York. “I was amazed at how actively different agencies try not to interact with each other, and the lengths you have to go to break through the natural inclination not to deal with each other.” But he did what needed to be done, racing the clock and straining to meet Moynihan’s exacting standards. “He called me up not long ago,” Washburn says, “and he just said, ‘Alex? Tick … tock … tick … tock …’ ” All the early deadlines have been met. Now they just have to build it.


If you rely on the No. 6 train, you face the problem every morning. If you use, say, the 77th Street station, and you try to catch a downtown train around 8:30, you probably watch two or three jammed trains pass by before you can squeeze onto one. And if you live on, say, York Avenue, you experience this after you’ve walked more than half a mile to get to the station.

New York led America in subway construction in the early part of the century. Nearer our time, it led America in subway decrepitude, as the system became a ring of hell during the fiscal crisis. Twenty years and $20 billion later, under Richard Ravitch’s leadership, the system is vastly improved – new tracks, rehabbed stations, and the MetroCard system, along with the roaring economy, have brought people back. Ridership is up 21 percent since 1992. But capacity has not increased.

Plans have existed since the twenties to build a Second Avenue line. Construction began in 1972, and three short sections of the line were built; construction was abandoned when the project was stopped three years later because of the fiscal crisis. If the need was clear enough to the city elders in 1972, then it should be clearer still now. In one of those absurd New York anomalies, three lines serve the West Side – the IRT and the Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue lines – while only one serves the East Side, where population and commercial concentrations are far greater. The Lexington Avenue line is the most crowded line not only in the city but probably in the country and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere. Where standards call for about four to five square feet of space per passenger, Lex-line riders have roughly three square feet to call their own.

In January, the Regional Plan Association, the New York region’s leading planning organization, released its MetroLink proposal, a mightily ambitious plan to add nineteen miles, 35 stations, and nearly 1,000 new cars to the system. The centerpiece is a new Second Avenue line, running not just in Manhattan but all the way from Co-op City in the Bronx down to Wall Street and over to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The new subway, under the RPA plan, could also be used as an eventual link from Grand Central to JFK (a spur of the Second Avenue line would kick over to Grand Central).

It’s a huge plan with a huge price tag – almost $13 billion – and, for now, without definite financing. “We thought that if we put this out and proposed a way to pay for it – a new tax or something – the headlines would be planning group proposes new tax, and that would be the end of it,” says Jeff Zupan of the RPA. “So our strategy was, let’s get people excited about the idea, and then we’ll devise a way of financing it.” It may be working; Chuck Schumer is only the most prominent of several elected officials to sign on, and Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields is mounting an extensive postcard campaign.

The MTA has plans for a Second Avenue line, but to run only from 63rd Street to 125th Street. But the timetable is vague, and this wouldn’t serve people on the Lower East Side, arguably the most underserved neighborhood in Manhattan.

Another subway proposal, offered by Pataki, would bring LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal. This was a longtime pet project of former Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s, hatched in part to ease the lot of the 50,000 to 70,000 Long Islanders who commute to the East Side and who now have to go to Penn Station and walk east or take two subway trains or cab it.

It’s not a bad idea: Consider that people commute to three Manhattan destinations (east and west midtown, and downtown) from three directions (north, west, and east). That’s nine possible commutes, only four of which are efficiently served: north (Westchester) to the East Side via Metro-North; east (Long Island) to the West Side via the LIRR; west (New Jersey) to the West Side, and west to downtown, both via the path. Anything that will untie that knot is all to the good, but bringing the LIRR to Grand Central without building the Second Avenue line would, Zupan stresses, only make the situation on the Lex even worse than it is now.

The city has been cool to the RPA plan. Giuliani is apparently more interested in the West Side – specifically, extending the No. 7 train over beyond Tenth Avenue and down to the Javits Center. Some see this as a stalking horse for the mayor’s stadium dreams, but stadiums aside, this, too, is a good idea – the West Forties and Fifties are the next logical place for the growth of commercial office space – and city-planning director Joe Rose estimates that this could be done “for around $1 billion.”

The RPA will probably have to settle for less than it wants, but it’s right about the need. “We spent $20 billion since ‘82 to fix the subway, because it was a crisis,” Zupan says. “Here we have a different kind of crisis, a crisis of stagnation. We haven’t built and it’s too crowded, and people are going to vote with their feet.”


Next time you’re stuck out on the Van Wyck, take a look at how narrow the median strip is. It’s literally about as wide as a dining-room table. And that’s where the trouble started.

This didn’t just sort of happen. Robert Moses intentionally built the Van Wyck that way so there wouldn’t be room for a train to the plane. An unfortunate city planner named F. Dodd McHugh argued for buying an extra 50 feet of right-of-way to build a rail line. Moses refused, McHugh was demoted and humiliated, and the $30 million Van Wyck was a traffic nightmare from the moment it was opened in 1949. It was designed to carry 2,630 vehicles per hour but passed that mark almost immediately; today, that number is 6,250.

Technology has outfoxed Moses – it’s now possible to build a support on that narrow median that can bear the load of a rail system. This is precisely what the Port Authority, with the backing of the governor and the mayor, is trying now to build. It would be part of a larger $1.5 billion JFK transit project that would include – finally – an elevated loop that would make six stops around Kennedy’s terminals. The $600 million Van Wyck spur, to be financed primarily through $3 surcharges collected from passengers at the area’s three airports, would be a nice piece of historical revenge, except for the fact that the plan is deeply flawed.

To wit: It’s not a one-seat ride. The Van Wyck line would run only to Jamaica Station, where it would meet subway and LIRR lines. In other words, people would have to transfer to it from the E, J, and Z lines, which are not exactly your most convenient subways to begin with. If, for example, you were at Grand Central, you’d have to take the No. 7 over to Eighth Avenue, and then get on the E, and then, once you reached Jamaica Station, schlep to a different platform and get on the other train. All with luggage.

At least it’s something, whereas what we have now is nothing. But consider this: Right now, there is an unused rail line, just sitting there, already built, that could be the basis for a one-seat ride. Nelson Rockefeller proposed using this line, a branch of the LIRR that was closed down in the early sixties, as a train to the plane back in 1968. This route, the Rockaway cutoff, runs parallel to Woodhaven Boulevard up to Rego Park, where trains would meet the main LIRR lines and come into Manhattan. It died under Rocky because of intense opposition from Forest Hills residents. That opposition is just as strong today, meaning that the route, backed by the Committee for Better Transit and others, probably won’t happen.

So last week the City Planning Commission voted twelve to one to approve the right-of-way usage for the Van Wyck plan, even though virtually every commission member denounced it. The City Council could stop it, but Queens politicians and the construction trades are behind it. Proponents say that once the LIRR links to Grand Central mentioned above are completed, then work can commence to convert the Van Wyck spur into a one-seat ride. But that’s at least a decade, and quite a few ifs, away.


When the Manhattan street grid was laid out in 1811, says Kent Barwick, director of the Waterfront Project, skeptics looked at the plan and noticed something: no parks. “The planners’ defense was ‘The river is our park,’ ” Barwick says. “And for a few years, it was.”

But not for long. Once New York exploded as a commercial shipping center, the waterfront was for work, not play. Whereas Chicago made sure from very early on to dedicate the Lake Michigan waterfront to public use – public enjoyment of the waterfront as a principle of good governance dates to the Emperor Justinian, and is specifically mentioned in the Magna Carta – New York built almost no waterfront recreation area in midtown. Long after the commerce died, and after other cities reinvented their waterfronts, New York’s sat there, unusable. “This is one of the greatest man-made places on earth, ironically living side-by-side with one of the greatest ecosystems on earth,” Barwick says. “And we’re completely out of touch with it.”

Finally, things are happening. Most dramatic is the $350 million Hudson River Park project, which will unite the Battery and Riverside Park in an uninterrupted greenway. Of the 37 piers there, 13 will be dedicated to public uses, either passive (sunbathing, fishing) or active (cafés, ballfields). The West Side – er, Joe DiMaggio – Highway will be rebuilt, as is already happening downtown, and in between the road and the piers, there’ll be benches and bike paths and greenswards and trees. It’s happening under the leadership of Jim Ortenzio, whom Pataki appointed to head the project two years ago. Ortenzio runs things out of a rent-free trailer near Stuyvesant High School – having moved the Hudson River Park Trust out of Fifth Avenue office space that was costing $200,000 a year – and says Pataki keeps after him: “He calls me ten times a year, maybe once a month. ‘Jimmy, where’s the park?’ ” It’s not there yet – just a small piece, between Christopher and 12th Streets. But the whole thing is supposed to be done by 2005 – at a cost lower than that projected in 1990.

The Hudson plan is the most closely watched, but ideas are sprouting all over the city. Community boards in Brooklyn have presented detailed and intelligent plans for waterfront conversion in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and the area around the Navy Yard. Coney Island, where acres of land lie fallow, is the focus of various proposals – notably Bruce Ratner’s plan for a hockey-and-basketball arena – and Charles Gargano envisions a twenty-first-century boardwalk with echoes of the old glory days. Furthest along of all, though, is a Brooklyn Heights waterfront plan put out by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition, which would create parkland on piers one through five, just below the Brooklyn Bridge. Today, the piers are either empty or being used by businesses that could as easily be inland – a lumber company, storage. The new plans call for a hotel and a marina and a skating rink in addition to more passive uses. The idea’s been ten years in the making, but the governor and the Port Authority, two of the three key players here, have given strong signs recently that they’re supportive (the third is the mayor, who’s sent mixed signals), and the project could move forward within a year or two. “By and large,” says Councilman Ken Fisher, “the people who live in Brooklyn Heights don’t have to live there. A project like this can make people want to stay.”

Interesting ideas are afoot elsewhere – the Bronx’s Ferry Point Park is slated to become a Jack Nicklaus golf course that Barwick says could actually host a PGA tournament someday (in the Bronx!). Seeing waterfront projects through requires a higher-than-usual amount of patience and compromise. Parcels are owned by the city, the state, various private entities. Negotiating the thicket of interests – Ortenzio says he deals with 36 different environmental groups – will take time (and, of course, money). But the good news is that we’re finally thinking the right way.


An elevated highway near a waterfront chiefly accomplishes two things: It cuts people off from the water, and it hinders local development. In these respects, the Gowanus Expressway – the 55-year-old, four-mile stretch of the BQE roughly from 65th Street in Bay Ridge to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel’s feeder lanes – has run true to form. Residents of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, and Carroll Gardens can’t get near the water, Red Hook is completely closed off from its neighbors, and Third Avenue (directly under the expressway) is a parade of low-rent tire shops and parts stores.

So perhaps it’s a blessing that it’s falling apart. “It’s deteriorating at a more rapid rate than we can fix it,” says the state Department of Transportation’s Alexander Dudley, which operates the highway and has spent $60 million in “emergency renovations” over the past decade. Despite its drawbacks, the expressway is one of the city’s most crucial commercial arteries, carrying about 64 million vehicles a year. Which brings New York to decision time: How to replace it?

The obvious idea, and the one the state seems to favor, is simply to rehabilitate it. It wouldn’t cost that much, as these projects go – around $1 billion. There’s another thought, though, about what to do with the Gowanus: Bury it.

The plan, the brainchild of the RPA’s Albert Appleton, is to turn the Gowanus into an eight-lane, three-tube tunnel from somewhere near 65th Street to a point not far south of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. “A tunnel is the best solution,” Appleton says. “It would support the traffic, it would open up the waterfront, and there wouldn’t be a construction problem, since you could just use the existing highway until the tunnel is finished, and then tear it down.”

It’s a visionary solution that other cities have employed, notably Boston and Oslo, where 25 million vehicles a year raced through City Hall Square until that roadway was put underground in 1997. It would cost nearly $3 billion, according to RPA estimates, and according to the state, twice that. NYSDOT has hired a private firm to study both options, Dudley says, and remains open to the tunnel plan. Admittedly the tunnel is expensive, but over the long term, it’s clearly the better idea.


The basic proposal has been discussed at length in this magazine before (see “Port in a Storm,” by Michael Tomasky, July 29, 1996), but in brief: The shipping channels to Newark and Elizabeth, where the port is now, are too shallow for the super-large ships coming into use. Brooklyn’s channels are deeper and easier to reach, so those ships should dock in Brooklyn. The key to making this work is the proposed rail-freight tunnel that would run under New York harbor from Bay Ridge to either Staten Island or Bayonne, linking cargo delivered to Brooklyn to the nation’s commercial rail lines.

The Port Authority was supposed to build this tunnel in the twenties and never has. It’s basically against the idea, saying the tunnel would cost perhaps $3 billion, though proponents put the figure at more like $900 million. Mayor Giuliani has embraced the plan, which Congressman Jerry Nadler has been trumpeting for twenty years. The city’s Economic Development Corporation is completing a study of cost and logistics. “Technically, we don’t even have a proposal for a tunnel yet,” says EDC president Charles Millard. “We have a study asking ‘How do we best solve the problem?’ which is going to say, ‘Build a tunnel.’ “

What’s the point to you and me of backing a project none of us will ever use or probably even see? One word: Trucks. As in, far fewer of them on the roads.

Freight moves three ways: boat, rail, road. In New York, 96 percent of it moves by road. And our road network is – surprise – congested and obsolete. Commercial roadways are clogged beyond hope, and designed for thirties-style traffic; today, most have no shoulders, meaning one dead battery can delay tens of thousands of people and businesses.

Trucks, thousands of them a day, come to the city from the Jersey ports – some via the Staten Island Expressway, most over the George Washington Bridge. If, however, there were a rail tunnel from Jersey to Brooklyn, many of the goods carried by truck today could come through it. A city study estimates that the freight tunnel would take 800,000 trucks a year off the GWB. That’s a shorter wait at the bridge; an easing of the awful situation on the Cross Bronx, which has been traffic hell for years; and less air pollution. Of course, it’s less toll revenue as well – and remember that trucks don’t pay the standard $4 but pay per axle, meaning $8 or even $16 to cross the bridge. The Port Authority collects these tolls. Understand now why it opposes the tunnel?

Fine, you say, but wouldn’t the freight tunnel add traffic to the aching Gowanus, since it would be right there? The city has thought of that. The tunnel would come up to 65th Street in Bay Ridge. There’s an interborough rail line right there, which runs up into Queens and has connections to the Bronx. Cargo, then, could come into port at Brooklyn and move by rail, rather than truck, to within a few miles of its destination.

None of this will get every truck off the roads, of course – Manhattan has no active commercial rail lines, and it’s not as if we can build one along Fifth Avenue. It’ll take other ideas to unclog midtown. But various estimates suggest the freight tunnel could reduce truck traffic into the five boroughs by a fifth, maybe a quarter. The difference to residents of Staten Island and the Bronx, and everyone who drives, would be tremendous.

Public infrastructure doesn’t come cheap, and doing the work isn’t easy. But New York has spent too many years avoiding the issue – systems are strained, and residents are hassled and ill-served far beyond the point that even New Yorkers should have to put up with. Solutions aren’t complicated: Other cities have found answers to the very problems New York now faces. The projects were expensive and complex there, too, but they somehow got them done.

In Boston, people poke fun at the Big Dig’s cost overruns, just as New Yorkers of an earlier day thought a certain East River span had white elephant written all over it. But the Brooklyn Bridge has worked out fairly well, and Bostonians – and Londoners and Chicagoans and others – will reap the benefits of their projects for a hundred years or more. New York’s leaders have utterly lacked that kind of vision. “There is a consensus among everybody that this makes good sense,” says Richard Kahan, who was instrumental in building Battery Park City. “And yet we don’t have the leadership that’s willing to say, ‘We can’t have a tax cut this year because we have to build this or that.’ “

When the new Penn Station is unveiled this summer, we should applaud. It’s a beautiful project, and everyone involved in making it happen deserves our thanks. But we should also use it as the occasion to say, “Fine. So what’s next?”

The Next Big Things