Amtrak Buys Back in to Farley Station

Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

Amtrak reached a preliminary agreement to move to an annex of Pennsylvania Station planned for the James A. Farley Post Office Building, state, federal and railroad officials announced on Sunday.

It offers this detail behind the progress: “The breakthrough was made possible by the government’s agreeing to Amtrak’s request to share revenue from retail outlets in the expanded station and to make some design changes.” To place this into full context would require quite the essay, but please recall my first post on this topic – in August 2007 – when I noted Amtrak’s statement: “We were belatedly brought to the table in recent months.” The irony in that 2007 comment is that Amtrak had been involved in this effort for three years when I played a minute role in it in 1995, so any suggestion of Amtrak’s lack of involvement has always sounded hollow to me. It was David Gunn who torpedoed Amtrak’s role in the redevelopment, noting with some merit that Amtrak had no money to commit to such a plan. Former Amtrak President and then director of New Jersey Transit George Warrington stepped into the breach, claiming a flagship role which has become less and less appealing to NJT as they commit to the tunnel and associated station in the ARC project. (More on that here.)

Back in March, New York Magazine offered an update on the negotiations (post here) in which an unnamed source was quoted saying:

Amtrak, which would move from Penn to Moynihan, won’t commit until all three elected officials [Bloomberg, Paterson, and Corzine] are onboard. “Amtrak is the trickiest part,” one Moynihan negotiation veteran says. “If it sees even a crack of daylight between the mayor, the governors, and the Port Authority, they’ll drive an Acela right through it and kill this chance.”

Looking again at yesterday’s NYT article, with the above comment fresh in your mind, I cannot help but focus on this statement:

Senator Charles E. Schumer, who has been trying to resuscitate the project, said on Sunday that he and Gov. David A. Paterson had been negotiating with Amtrak for six months and had found the new Amtrak chief, Joseph H. Boardman, formerly the New York State transportation commissioner, “far more helpful” than his predecessor.

Looking back at the last time Schumer made waves over Farley, covered here, it seems his contention then was that Amtrak should be the source of substantial stimulus funds as part of the project. Since Gunn’s time, Amtrak’s contention has been that Amtrak would not be a part of the project. I can only assume that the quid pro quo for Amtrak to secure a share of the retail revenue in exchange for contributing stimulus funds towards the project. Curious, is it not, how easily the New York politicians found it to work with Amtrak’s new New York president to spend Federal dollars on a New York project that will not improve the speed of any of Amtrak’s trains? (Admittedly, it should increase capacity in New York, but that is not nearly as beneficial to Amtrak as it is to NJT and LIRR.) I’m sure there are many Amtrak riders far from the NEC who could have found different ways to spend that money, but no one asked them.

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Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for Federal rail funds

In today’s Boston Globe, Alan Wirzbicki writes an article entitled Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for federal rail funds. The point he makes is that other regions of the United States, such as the Southeast, the Midwest, and the Northwest, have spent more time, money, and effort in recent years preparing the plans, and associated political links, for high-speed rail than the Northeast has. Thus those regions are better positioned to receive Federal stimulus funds, which can be seen as ironic given the Northeast’s premier place as the home of America’s fastest trains since the advent of the Metroliner, if not before. (I am sure some kind foamer can nail that down for me.)

The article notes that President Bush encouraged the states to band together to improve the Northeast Corridor, and the states intentionally refused to cooperate with that to dodge having the financial burden of the NEC placed upon them. While that strategy may have made sense at the time, it may turn out to have been a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

In the absence of a more comprehensive plan, the article notes various efforts to propose local corridors as candidates for funding. Corridors like Boston to Brunswick, Maine (population 21,000), Boston to Concord, New Hampshire (population 41,000), or better still Boston to Hartford, Connecticut (population 125,000) via the Inland Route. While I am sure those plans would serve valuable local needs, akin to the existing Downeaster from Boston to Portland, it is ludicrous that when the nation is discussing a new generation of high-speed rail corridors that the New England response is to put forward routes that are 138, 70, and 100 miles long respectively. The obvious place to invest is the spine, from Boston to Washington. If you are brave and visionary, you might even say from Portland to Charlotte, but the costs skyrocket as one contemplates the North-South Rail Link in Boston and electrification south of D.C.

As I have mentioned before, the Northeast will continue to be underserved by the Northeast Corridor until they take over control, responsibility, and the cost for operating this national asset.

Rather than waste time and money flirting with private industry, a more sensible approach to me would be to form a multi-state agency, akin to a port authority, of the following states: NC, VA, DC, MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, NH, and ME. Have them pool their interests and accept a gradual and proportionate reduction in Federal highway funds over a 20 year period as they invest their own money in the NEC, which they would acquire from Amtrak. Initially, I imagine they would lease access to the NEC to their commuter agencies and to Amtrak, but one could imagine them absorbing those roles themselves. The greatest problem the NEC has had for the last 35 years is the fact that any political support of improvements there came with the quid pro quo of political support for long-distance trains all across America. This has forced Amtrak to underinvest in the NEC while it kept the rest of the country mollified. To free the NEC to achieve its maximum economic utilization, one does not need magic private enterprise fairy dust – one needs to be free to invest the necessary capital in the NEC without having to keep off-corridor constituencies happy.

I truly believe that the coastal states in such a compact would see substantial improvements in train service that would permit reductions in fares, vastly increased numbers of passenger miles, the adoption of newer equipment that would permit faster trips with more modern amenities and the most progressive safety standards. Highway congestion and its associated costs would go down, the cities along the corridor would see their competitiveness rise as reduced travel times expanded both business and leisure markets. This would have substantial environmental benefits, from decreased fuel consumption and pollution to improved quality of life.

When one thinks of the unused capacity that exists in the NEC now, this is one of the most cost-effective steps the Northeast can take to make itself more competitive as a region. Instead of seeing the railroad as pure cost, these states need to see it as the backbone for their communities and, ultimately, their economy.

A post for another day: the political anthill associated with combining the operations and the crews of the various state commuter agencies with the interstate trains.

Hat tip: Trains for America

Should have built it sixteen years ago

A further update to one of the stories I follow around here – New York’s slow, halting efforts to renovate the Farley Post Office into a ‘new’ Penn Station.

The New York Observer reports today:

Plans to expand Pennsylvania Station across the street into the Farley Post Office face fresh hurdles, as a new cost estimate for the project, known as Moynihan Station, leaves a funding gap of up to $1 billion. … The Port Authority of New York and New Jerseycompleted a preliminary cost analysis of an expansion, coming up with a price tag of $1.4 billion… more than twice the construction cost estimate given in 2006, though it includes new underground components that were not previously includeIn the works since it was pushed by Senator Daniel Moynihan in 1992, the planned station has proved repeatedly to be a textbook case of the inability to execute large-scale public projects in New York City. There has long been support from civic groups and key politicians — four governors and three mayors have endorsed it — and even full funding has been lined up on previous occasions (though costs rose). But each plan has successively faltered before a shovel even hit the ground.

If they had committed to the plan as it existed in 1994, at twice the estimate as it stood then, they would have come out ahead and had a fabulous station to serve the city for more than a dozen years. Instead, people continue to scurry through the existing Penn Station, which now serves 600,000 passengers per workday for Amtrak, LIRR, and NJT. What a mess.

penn_station3The irony here is that plans for the original Penn Station were announced by Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt (brother of the painter Mary Cassatt) in December 1901, construction of the tunnels began in June 1903, and the station itself was underway in May 1904. Train service began in November 1910. The $114 million the project cost all come from the Pennsylvania Railroad alone (in 2007 dollars, that represents a $2.5 billion dollar expenditure – such things occurred in an era before corporate taxation.) Depending on the milestones then, the original Penn Station – from train yards to tunnels to the station itself – took nine years from plan to operation. I cannot help but think Cassatt would marvel at modern New York’s inability to get its act together.

The project that dare not speak its name…

[I realize it has been a long quiet time around here. I apologize for that. Life is busy, but even more than that, I am of a mixed mind what I want to do with this site. While I ponder that thought, I cannot help but pass on a link to one of the stories I follow around here – New York’s slow, halting efforts to renovate the Farley Post Office into a ‘new’ Penn Station.]

farley_thumbBack in March, the Farley station issue cropped up again as Sen. Schumer suggested Amtrak be compelled, er, encouraged to chip in $100 million in stimulus funds towards the station (which it backed out of when Amtrak was under David Gunn‘s direction, allowing NJT to enter the scene under another former Amtrak president, the late George Warrington), rather than fund the station out of the $21 billion in stimulus funds being directed towards the state of New York. I have not heard another peep about that idea since then, so I was curious to see the following item on the blog of WNYC radio. I am leaving their aside in, as I would have made the same snark, but WNYC has saved me the trouble.

The chiefs of economic development for the city and the state spoke before construction industry executives this morning, trying to reassure them that all was well even in these hard times… New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, one of the moderators, brought up another hibernating project: Moynihan Station – which was first conceived in the early 1990s as a renovation of the Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue, exploded in scope, and has since returned to smaller, but indeterminate, shape. (Bagli called it the project that “none dare call its name.”)

Marisa Lago, the state economic development chief, threw cold water on Senator Schumer’s idea to convince Amtrak to devote $100 million of its stimulus funding to the station, saying officials had not figured out what part of Moynihan could qualify as “shovel ready.”

There you have it: More than 15 years, and three-and-a-half environmental reviews later, Moynihan Station still isn’t shovel ready.

Wilmington train station to receive $21 million rehab with stimulus funds

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From the Amtrak release detailing how it will program the stimulus funding it will recieve:

Restoration of the Wilmington, Delaware station – $21 million. With $21 million in Recovery Act funding, plus additional funding from the State of Delaware and other sources, Amtrak will make restorations to Wilmington, Delaware’s historic century-old Victorian trainstation. The project will incorporate the rebuilding and restoration of the interior of the station buildings, improvements to make the buildings entirely accessible for those with disabilities, restoration of the building’s terracotta façade, and the replacement of the track and supporting infrastructure which runs through the station. In addition to increasing comfort and convenience for passengers using Amtrak’s eleventh busiest station, the project includes the construction of a third high-level platform, which will significantly increase the capacity of the station. Amtrak estimates that the project will result in 168 person-years of work for those directly employed in the restoration of the station.

Many aspects of this station need substantial work, and are longe overdue. This is great to see. I am sure the Friends of the Furness Railroad District are delighted with this turn of events. Having said that, some good questions have been raised about some fairly bleak appearing proposals Amtrak has put forward for the interior. Here’s hoping that can be avoided.

wilmington

Schumer pokes at the Moynihan Station mess

I have previsouly covered New York’s laborious efforts to convert the James Farley Post Office, across the street from Penn Station, into a new passenger station that would serve as an homage to the original Penn Station. It is a great idea, and somehow only in America could an idea like this, with so much support, manage to languish for so long. To get a sense of where this has been, please see the articles found here.

New York’s Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer gave an interview this weekend in which he offered his opinion that $100 million of stimulus funds should be directed towards finally getting this project underway. As much as I am inclined to agree with him, I find it ironic that he wants to see that money come out of the $1.3 billion set aside for Amtrak or the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail, and not out of the $21 billion earmarked for the state of New York. Go figure. Curiously, his desire to see Amtrak as the central tenant in the new station ignores the fact that Amtrak, under David Gunn, told New York to take a hike, permitting New Jersey Transit, under former Amtrak President the late George Warrington, to sweep in and secure for itself the central position.

Articles here and here.

[As an aside, NJT hopes to build new tunnels into Manhattan from New Jersey (the first in over 100 years) and plans to do so in a very odd way that seems designed to limit future flexibility. Perhaps the whole Hudson tunnel, New York passenger station, Amtrak/NJT ruckus can be solved but I continue to suggest one not hold one’s breath.]