Atlantic Cities

Can Amtrak Afford Its New NYC Home?

Can Amtrak Afford Its New NYC Home?
Courtesy of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation

The shortcomings of New York's Penn Station are clear all year round, but they come into view most painfully during the holiday rush. At the current Penn Station, intercity passengers traveling on Amtrak pack into the same inadequately sized waiting area with New Jersey Transit commuters, hoping to get a jump on the track announcements. Travelers arriving at the station must push through the crowds to reach a street exit or weave through the station's catacombs to find a subway connection. According to a 2010 report by the state of New York [PDF], Penn Station is the "busiest, most congested, passenger transportation facility in North America" on a daily basis — with a greater traffic flow than all three of New York City's airports combined.

The situation is expected to improve considerably with the construction of the new Moynihan Station. The project — named for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, its original proponent — has been in the works since the early 1990s. Moynihan Station will occupy part of the massive Farley Post Office building just across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station. Once completed the station will be the new intercity rail hub for New York and the fulcrum of travel in the lucrative Northeast Corridor. The only problem is that Amtrak now says it can't afford to leave Penn Station unless it can occupy Moynihan "effectively rent-free," reports Bloomberg.

Moynihan Station is being built in two phases. The first phase will provide better egress for passengers arriving into New York. That phase, which is almost fully funded, began in October of 2010 and is scheduled for completion in 2016. It will certainly alleviate some of the crowding. Right now passengers exit Amtrak trains on platforms below the Farley building but must walk a ways to exit at Penn Station. The first phase will poke 19 direct new access points onto the street level, and "will significantly ameliorate platform and access congestion throughout the Penn Station complex as a whole," according to the 2010 report.

It's the second phase that will result in Amtrak's main passenger facility leaving Penn Station. That phase — still unfunded and expected to cost about $1 billion — would create an impressive new railroad hall and shift all intercity travel into Moynihan Station, separating it entirely from commuter traffic. The station is critical to expanded rail traffic along the Northeast Corridor and would serve as an anchor to high-speed rail travel in the Northeast; at the present time Penn Station is operating over capacity.

But Amtrak can't occupy the new Moynihan Station if the move results in anything but a "modest increase" in operating costs, an Amtrak official told Bloomberg earlier this month. While Amtrak had a record ridership of more than 30 million passengers [PDF] in 2011 — with ridership in the Northeast leading the way — the federally funded passenger service remains on shaky fiscal ground. In fiscal 2010, for instance, Amtrak posted a net loss of roughly $1.3 billion [PDF]. Amtrak also had its 2012 funding cut and saw President Obama's high-speed rail program, through which the Moynihan Station could potentially get financial support, receive no funding at all.

The rent discussion may become moot if officials can't raise the money for the second phase of Moynihan. Some money could come through the Port Authority, which is overseeing the project, but so far other fundraising efforts have fallen flat. In April New York Governor Andrew Cuomo requested about $50 million in federal funding to pay for design plans, but was rejected. 

Images courtesy of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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