The New Suburbanist: End commuter agony at Penn Station

Paul Glader

Transportation systems such as roads, buses, bike paths and railroads are the veins, arteries and capillaries that pump lifeblood (people and money) into our urban and suburban organisms.

So our blood pressure boils when we read the news that a major artery is getting clogged.

Some of us have endured rush hour evenings recently where 78 trains were canceled, delaying plans. We’ve seen bomb scares causing dangerous stampedes at Penn Station. We’ve been told to expect delays “indefinitely.”

We are told that one in four trains heading to Penn Station this Summer will be canceled in July and August because of decades of underinvestment and mismanagement of Penn Station and New York area commuter rail lines.

The busiest train station in the United States (Penn Station) is a sad testimony of American rail infrastructure.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing ahead with plans to upgrade Penn Station and other transit hubs in the metro area, we wait and see if these projects are managed with fiscal wisdom and turn out as politicians promise.

Cuomo has been a champion for infrastructure and transit investment in recent years, perhaps in hopes it will bolster his political future in 2020.

As we know, he’s proposed a $4 billion renovation of LaGuardia Airport and an AirTrain link from the LIRR to LaGuardia, a $2 billion third Long Island Rail line between Floral Park and Hicksville and an east side entry for LIRR to Grand Central Station.

Cuomo, this week, beseeched President Donald Trump to recognize the situation as an emergency and to fund these projects because Penn Station has reached a crisis status that will lead to “a summer of agony” for commuters.

Meanwhile, New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have recently asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, herself a product of Syosset schools, for major federal investment of up to $50 billion to fix crumbling rail infrastructure.

This all sounds correct. A pharmacy full of Band-Aids can’t fix the rail hub that is Penn Station. We need big fixes to our transit woes.

We can shutter filthy eateries inside the LIRR corridor and open Shake Shacks, drug stores or expanded Starbucks in their place, creating an illusion of progress. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can try to force Amtrak to privatize operations of Penn Station.

We can widen corridors and add LED screens that project rainbows and Enya music on commuters (the LED screens are part of Cuomo’s latest plan).

But it doesn’t fix the subterranean eyesore that has 650,000 daily passengers pass through its corridors each day that were designed to hold 200,000 people.

Once a grand structure of glass and steel, the original Penn Station (1910-1963) was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece.

City leaders decided to demolish the station in the early 1960s, selling the air rights to turn it into Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden with a smaller, compact station running underneath the current architectural disaster on 34th street.

“Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance,” The New York Times wrote in a 1962 editorial “Farewell to Penn Station.”

Jane Jacobs, Norman Mailer and others protested the demolition. But it was too little, too late.

Today inside Penn Station, narrow hallways dictate a claustrophobic, pushy dynamic.

The ceilings in the LIRR corridor are so low that Patrick Ewing would have to stoop to walk without cracking his skull.

Regular hobos with diseased feet traipse around in bathrobes, and sandals. NYPD officers and U.S. soldiers clutter the passageways as sentries, toting guns and wearing bulletproof vests, reminding us that we are one terrorist strike away from a catastrophe.

It all feels like a commercial for a bad shooter video game.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Cities that invest smartly in tracks, trains and stations will prevail. Long Island communities (such as Babylon / East Farmingdale) building mixed used residential and commercial developments near their stations will experience outsized rewards of rising real estate values and super-charged small business growth and other economic development.

Cities and towns that invest in multi-modal transit solutions such as bike paths and pedestrian-friendly areas will experience similar rewards.

At Penn Station, Gov. Cuomo, Amtrak, the Dolan family that owns Madison Square Garden and other stakeholders, should try to make history and redo Penn Station.

Instead of reaching for more Band Aids to prevent an impending heart attack, they should think in epochal dimensions.

New Yorkers and Long Islanders deserve a world-class train station and commuting experience in a city that claims to be a world-class city. And let’s do it before Penn Station has a heart attack.

Paul Glader is a professor of journalism, media and entrepreneurship at The King’s College in New York City, is a media scholar at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.

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Paul Glader

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