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A Rosy Development at Penn Station

MSG pulling out, the economic downturn, the transportation crisis, the possibility of the Port Authority taking over, ARC – those of us following Moynihan Station have been battered with some heavy and complicated news recently.

So while the complexities of the project are getting worked out, it’s nice to see some progress in at least one important area: toilets. Specifically, we are referring to this week’s announcement that a $5 million renovation of LIRR’s Penn Station bathroom facilities is, according to Newsday, “in the can.” Steve Ritea reported that “LIRR officials were flush with excitement about the project”:

In recent years, concern about a lack of stalls in the ladies' room, as well as complaints of odor, sent the bathrooms' image down the drain.

The renovation will expand the number of toilets in the ladies' room from 17 to 25 and increase the number of sinks from eight to 19. The number of toilets in the men's room will drop from seven to six, but men will gain two sinks, bringing the total to 10. That restroom will retain 10 urinals.

Our customers deserve state-of-the-art accommodations at Penn Station and our restroom facilities are clearly in need of updating," LIRR President Helena Williams said. "If the riding public can bear with us during construction, we promise major improvements and a maintenance program that ensures their comfort."

After the renovation, the restrooms will ventilate to the street for the first time. They have ventilated onto the LIRR's underground tracks since being built in that location in 1994.

The renovated restrooms will feature mosaic glass tile walls, epoxy terrazzo floors and metal panel ceilings, as well as automated toilets, faucets and soap dispensers, the LIRR said.

In all seriousness, it sounds like a much needed and long overdue improvement for LIRR riders – and let’s hope that it’s not the only one!

Read “LIRR Flush with Excitement Over Restroom Expansion,” by Steve Ritea for Newsday

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A New Director for the Port Authority

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Anthony Coscia, expressed interest in taking over the Moynihan Station project - an idea proposed by Senator Schumer a few weeks back. "We believe the Port Authority is well positioned to help (the) Moynihan Station project move from architectural drawings to construction. We have financial capacity and technical know-how, and we have a proud history of building major transportation projects in the region," Coscia said.

Today, the New York Times reports that Christopher O. Ward, currently the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York (member of the Friends of Moynihan Station), will likely replace Anthony E. Shorris as executive director of the Port Authority. A bit of background on Ward from the Times:

Mr. Ward was tapped in 2002 by a newly elected Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to become the city’s commissioner of environmental protection, a job he held for about three years. Mr. Ward is currently the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York, a trade group…In his previous tenure at the Port Authority, Mr. Ward was involved in devising the Port’s master plans for New York Harbor.

We will certainly have more information and analysis of the possibility of PANYNJ taking over the project as it develops.

Read “Port Authority Chief Resigns,” by Ken Belson and Danny Hakim for The New York Times

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Observer Recounts the History of Moynihan's Dream

In today’s New York Observer, Eliot Brown traces the history of Moynihan Station – a project that has “undergone a familiar, frustrating rhythm of fits and starts since the early 1990s" – from conception to its current status.

“Its level of complication, amount of funds, emotion, everything, is 10 times a greater level than anything else that I’ve dealt with,” said David Childs, the Skidmore Owings & Merrill partner who designed the Farley building renovation. “You’ve got to get every single one of those players, plus money, to agree at the exact same second to do it, and that’s what’s hard to get.”

The defining nature of the Moynihan Station project up until now—its inability to get off the drawing boards—is tinged with irony, especially given its name. Senator Moynihan, his friends and associates say, was constantly focused on getting projects built and avoiding the never-ending preparations that often characterize large infrastructure projects. For those projects he was involved in, the senator badgered his staff with directives to get shovels in the ground, former staffers say.

“In an odd way, it is the proof of everything Moynihan tried to teach us,” William T. Cunningham, a former chief of staff for Moynihan, said of the project’s inability to proceed. “He taught us that things weren’t getting done; the city [and state and federal government] didn’t have the same energy and drive to get things done.

“He would appreciate the irony while ruing the outcome.”

Read “How Daniel Moynihan’s Dream Became a Hangover,” by Eliot Brown for The New York Observer

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Income Tax Day at Farley! A Call for Photos

According to a survey by TurboTax, New York ranks #2 in the nation in the number of last-minute tax filers (Chicago is #1). Each year the Farley Post Office holds an unofficial celebration of the city’s culture of procrastination as last-minute filers, protesters, and even the Singing CPA convene on its steps and in the lobby.

This year “dozens of Uncle Sams” will hand out “tens of thousands of crunchy Pretzel Crisps (fat free, cholesterol free pretzel crackers) — providing consumers with a stress-relieving crunch to help them make it through the day.” And, as usual, the Singing CPA will serenade tax filers with hits from his recently released his third album from 11pm to midnight.

If you find yourself at Farley on Tuesday take some pictures and submit them to our Flickr pool or send them to khughes@mas.org.

Read about why historic tax credits should be used for redeveloping the Farley Building.

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With West Side Projects in “Disarray,” a Growing Chorus Wants Focus on Moynihan Station

Today, Charles Bagli of the New York Times reports that West Side redevelopment plans are in disarray because of “the economic downturn, logistical problems and, critics say, design flaws.” However, “many urban planners, architects, community leaders and developers say the downturn may have a silver lining, providing an opportunity for the city to rethink and reconfigure sweeping proposals many of them had doubts about all along.”

“We clearly can’t afford to do everything,” said Robert D. Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group. “The moment has arrived where we have to be really clear on what we want to build and how we’re going to pay for it.”

Mr. Yaro and others, including Lynne B. Sagalyn, a professor of real estate at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, have argued that the administration and its former development czar, Daniel L. Doctoroff, were mistaken to expect commercial development to leap from Eighth Avenue to the railyards. They contend commercial development has always moved parcel by parcel, block by block.

For that reason, the local community board, the Regional Plan Association and many developers contend that the city and state should focus their West Side development efforts on the Penn Station area and the adjacent office district, which would require substantial government assistance in the form of grants, tax credits and zoning changes.

“The railyards will be much more valuable when the commercial district creeps up to it from the east,” said Anna Hayes Levin, a member of Community Board 4’s land use committee. “No one will go there now to be an outpost.”

A separate article in today’s New York Sun reports Lieber is “convinced that the city will be able to lure Madison Square Garden back to the table for the redevelopment of Penn Station.”

Mr. Bagli will be moderating a MAS panel on May 13th entitled “Moynihan Station: What Needs to Happen Next.”

Read “West Side Redevelopment Plans in Disarray,” by Charles Bagli in The New York Times

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Podcast: Shifting the Costs of Public Transit

During the MAS panel on Wednesday evening, Don Phillips predicted that California would be first state to develop high-speed rail. “They are ten years ahead of us in most things, including rail,” he said.

The lack of federal support for rail has been a consistent theme in our recent coverage, but across the country “smart cities and states” are getting creative in how they fund rail - including California.

So how is California doing it? Planetizen has a brand new podcast on how California is “shifting the costs of public transit to drivers.” Sound familiar?

Greenhouse gases – those pollutants that are being blamed for heating up the planet and destroying the environment – are increasingly on the minds of politicians. Outlawing them isn’t a realistic option, and entirely removing them from the atmosphere is impossible. So, many lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases people produce. A major source of these greenhouse gas emissions is the automobile, and cities across the country and around the world are coming around to the idea that cutting the amount of greenhouse gas emissions means cutting the amount of cars on the road. For many, this means improving public transit. But while the idea of improving public transit is easy to think, funding those improvements is not so easy to actually do.

So some municipalities are looking at new and innovative approaches to raising the massive funding required to run and improve public transit systems. These new approaches all revolve around a central idea: tack on some extra fees or taxes to everyday activities like driving and shopping and use that money to pay for transit and other transportation projects. From road tolling to congestion pricing to increases in sales taxes, lawmakers are getting creative in their attempts to generate funding and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In California, a bill in the state assembly is seeking to create the option for Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to place a new fee before voters that would help fund the county’s public transportation system as well as programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Assemblymember Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat and author of Assembly Bill 2558, says voters are ready to pay the price their driving habits are costing the environment.

Check it out here

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MAS Panel Recap: What if They Gave a Crisis...

Doors opening on a moving train? Train cars decoupling mid-trip? According to an article in today’s New York Times, New Jersey Transit is stretched so thin to keep up with record demand that many experts are wondering if it is cutting corners on maintenance.

That is pretty much the state of the nation’s transportation infrastructure according to two experts who spoke at the MAS last night in the first of our programs on Moynihan Station.

“We are in the midst of a transportation crisis in this country,” said Don Phillips, a journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune. “But we’re like the frog in the pan of water; we’re content to sit in the water as the heat is gradually turned up – and before we know it we’ll be boiled.”

Phillips provided a global overview of the transportation crisis and discussed how Europe, Asia, and even Mexico are placing massive investments in their infrastructure. France, for instance, is building rail tunnels “like crazy” for trains that, in some cases, will be carrying trucks. Iran is on a rail building boom. And Mexico is building a huge new port and rail network to compete with the Port of Los Angeles.

But “we have no vision at all,” said Phillips. “All we can say now is no new taxes.” He blamed the federal government for not spending a dime on passenger rail, but explained that some states and cities are getting around the problem to build small intercity networks. We have previously covered Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to draw attention to the infrastructure crisis through his new group, Building America's Future.

“People would rather ride a train than fly,” he said. “We are in a Golden Age for passenger rail with nothing to do about it.”

Walter Zullig, legal consultant and counsel emeritus, Metro-North Railroad, followed Phillips by pointing out that each commuter rail in the city, LIRR, Metro-North, and NJ Transit, is experiencing all time high numbers of daily riders. Amtrak continues to break records – even turning some people away – despite the fact it cannot afford any new equipment. “I don’t know how they do it,” he said.

Zullig then provided an overview of the major metropolitan region rail projects: LIRR East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, 7 line extension, ARC, Tappan Zee Bridge, and Moynihan Station.

Zullig noted that regardless of “what happens upstairs” in the Moynihan Station there is an urgent need for track and platform improvements.

Regarding ARC, the trans-Hudson tunnel project and new station in Macy’s basement, Zullig said it would be “highly desirable” to bring the tunnels into Penn Station. Making the connection to Grand Central is “complicated building but could be done,” said Zullig. Many listeners learned a new term when one audience member accused New Jersey of lacking the “testicular capacity” to do just that.

Asked to identify the main obstacles to achieving a world-class train network in the New York region, Zullig echoed Phillips by identifying the negligence of the federal government. “They have abdicated their responsibility,” he said. “To say that states should take over the Northeast Corridor is ludicrous.”

If the transportation crisis is upon us what can we do about it?

“The biggest opportunity for rail is the environmental considerations, especially as energy prices continue to climb,” said Zullig. “Education about the benefits of rail – in terms of energy, air quality, quality of life – can go a long way. We need to create a ground swell of public demand. Then the politicians would be forced to listen.”

“It’s a matter of turning around the public attitude - and sometimes it takes a crisis,” said Zullig. He pointed to the example of Grand Central and described how the surrounding neighborhood was once a badly polluted and dangerous slum when the tracks were open to the air. But after a couple of really awful accidents occurred Penn Central stepped in and rebuilt the station. “Now look at it – they made a beautiful neighborhood out of what was a dump.”

Our next Moynihan Station event features Jill Jonnes, the author of Conquering Gotham. April 23rd at 6:30. Click here for more information.

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Paterson Reiterates Support for Moynihan Station, Calls for Panel on MTA Budget

Yesterday, in remarks before the Association for a Better New York Governor Paterson expressed strong support for Moynihan Station. The state has “to develop the far west side of this area, creating a third downtown center in the downstate region, with the development of the Hudson Yards and the establishment of Moynihan Station,” he said.

Just one day after the Mayor’s congestion pricing plan faltered in Albany, Paterson announced a “blue ribbon panel,” led by former MTA Chair Richard Ravitch, to “ameliorate the hole in our capital budget.” He said the panel will examine three main issues:

One is how to balance the subsidizing of the MTA Capital Plan, through the subscription of those who use the services and a broad balance of taxes for businesses and the rest of the public.

Secondly, what we want to look at are the elements of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan that all of us like, and that perhaps we can still weave them into the process

And finally, we have to get the MTA out of its habit, which is 25 years old, of refinancing and basically covering debt with excessive borrowing. By 1998, in this country the five largest borrowers were the State of California, the State of New York, the City of New York, the State of Massachusetts and the MTA. The MTA doesn’t even have a Governor and they are the fifth largest debtor in the entire country. That has to be changed.

In conclusion, Governor Paterson evoked New York’s history for encouragement about thinking and building big in tough economic times:

Finally, I just want to address the issue that I’m sure many people have, that how can we be talking about all of these creative projects at a time when we have fiscal deficit. It is actually I think the paradigm that most separates the foreparents of the State of New York and the City of New York from others, that even in the midst of crisis they fought, they suffered and they paid for it, but they went ahead and what they won was the greatest city in the world, developed from the dreams and aspiration of people who looked doubt in the face and went forward anyway. It is really amazing that six of the nine years that they were starting to establish the economic development, between 1820 and 1840, their budgets were in deficit. On January 20, 1930, right at the outset of the Depression, they put a shovel in the ground to build the Empire State Building. By March 1, 1931, it was built and it was open. Thirteen months. This was done by people we knew.

In 1939, still reeling from the Depression, on November 1st, John D. Rockefeller hammered the final nail into the construction at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, and introduced the public to Rockefeller Center. We can prevail during these particular times. No one knew this better than Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he said in the early 1930s that out of crisis, out of tribulation, out of disaster human kind raises itself to share what is a greater vision, what is a greater ability and what is a more pure purpose. We can do this if we engage that new spirit of cooperation, and work toward a common goal. And if we work hard enough there will be a time when people will stand on this stage at another ABNY breakfast and talk about how the New York at the turn of the century endured its financial problems. And if we try hard enough, we may be able to look back in just a very few years and be very proud of the work we’ve done.

Read the complete speech here

Or watch a video!


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NYT Covers Penn Station Tunnels Anniversary and ARC

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an excellent story to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the completion of the first rail tunnels under the Hudson.

Similar to a New Penn Station post from last month, the focus is on the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, an ambitious plan by NJ Transit and the Port Authority to build a second set of trans-Hudson rail tunnels. The original set of tunnels reached peak capacity in 2003, which makes ARC an “urgent necessity” according to transportation officials.

Here is a summary of the plan:

If federal approval is given this summer and grants are secured later this year, construction will begin in early 2009 and take eight years. Contractors will deploy boring machines the length of football fields to drill through granite, schist and other materials, use laser-guided satellite signals to pinpoint their location, and carve a path under 34th Street so wide that commuters will be able to walk underground to 14 subway lines, and to PATH, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road trains.

The article features an exceptional and informative interactive graphic and analysis of the tunnel boring techniques 100 years vs. today.

The sophisticated machinery dwarfs the equipment used a century ago, when legions of sandhogs, or underground construction workers, risked their lives toiling in high-pressurized chambers slopping silt into carts that were hauled away by mules. But in other ways, the techniques for boring through hard rock and under riverbeds and serpentine city streets remain remarkably similar.

It also includes the views of some critics, the substance of which we have previously covered on this blog:

These days, critics complain that the project would cost billions of dollars more than is currently projected and would overburden already crowded Midtown streets. Others say that the project is not ambitious enough, and that it should be extended to Grand Central Terminal [see”The Mother of all Train Station Connections]. And critics say that the new annex would be too far underground and not part of other plans to redevelop the area around Pennsylvania Station.

“Having New Jersey Transit unilaterally place its commuters in a dead-end dungeon, we lose mobility,” said Albert L. Papp Jr., secretary of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “For billions of dollars, we lose access to Penn Station and don’t get access to Grand Central Terminal.”

Later this month we will welcome Jill Jonnes, the author of Conquering Gotham, to the MAS for a lecture and discussion about how lessons from the construction of the first Penn Station can inform the building of Moynihan Station, ARC, and other major civic projects.

Learning From The Past: The Struggle to Build Penn Station

Wednesday, April 23, 6:30–8:00 p.m., at the Municipal Art Society
Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels, wanted to write about “an American success, about a monumental project that everyone would be familiar with.” That she has done. As Gilbert Taylor wrote in a Book List review, “…New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was the visible manifestation of a titanic subterranean project. Its sweeping story…comes together marvelously in Jonnes’s admiring history of the undertaking.” Jonnes’s presentation will include compelling historic images not featured in her book, which closes with the hope that Moynihan Station will be “…a return to the grandeur of the past.

Presented in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center Books. Signed copies will be available at the bookstore following the presentation.
$15, $12 MAS members. Reservations and prepayment required. Purchase tickets online or call 212 935 2075

Read “Tunnel Milestone, and More to Come,” by Ken Belson for The New York Times

Read “ARC: 100 Years Later, An Attempt to Re-Conquer Gotham”

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Smart Cities and States and the Future of Rail Travel

Don Phillips is a renowned transportation reporter who has written for the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune. He will be joining our panel discussion on Wednesday evening: “Re-Discovering Rail: The Smart, Green Alternative.”

We recently read an essay Phillips wrote for the book Modern Trains and Splendid Stations: Architecture, Design, and Rail Travel in the Twenty-First Century. In it Phillips looks back on the twentieth century and identifies three “distinct eras of political decision-making about passenger rail travel” and concludes that “the history of the passenger train in the twentieth century makes a persuasive argument that it will be around at the end of the twenty-first.”

The first era was characterized by tight regulation of the railroads, which began during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. [The struggles of Penn RR president Alexander Cassatt against Roosevelt’s trustbusters is recounted in Conquering Gotham]

The second era began in the 1960s with a period of deregulation of all forms of transportation – except passenger rail:

Congress decided in 1970 that the only way to save the passenger train was to have the government take over. But that isn’t exactly what happened. Instead, Congress created Amtrak, which was based on a lie that everyone knew was a lie: Amtrak would operate a scaled-down passenger system efficiently and start turning a profit within two years.

Not only has Amtrak never turned a profit, but it has also absorbed more than $23 billion in federal funds over the past thirty years, and there is no promise of a future profit. During this time, Congress forced Amtrak to run trains into the districts of politically powerful members, voicing support for Amtrak while providing only enough money to keep trains limping along. Had it not been for dedicated officers and employees who believed in the passenger train, the service would have foundered. Therefore, the second era might be called “the era of political lies and incompetence.”

Phillips calls the third era “the era of smart states and cities.”

As the federal government sank into partisan bickering, the states began making decisions on transportation policy. Governors and mayors, unlike members of Congress, can’t simply wave a magic money wand and order trains to run even if they make no sense in economic terms. At the state and local level, the politicians face real problems, and they must find real solutions. Congestion has become their number-one problem, and it seems ever clearer that the train is one of the solutions.

He cites examples of the "smart states and cities" phenomenon in Washington state, California, and the mid-Atlantic states. Despite the dearth of federal support, the politics of congestion, economics, climate change, energy prices and other factors are enhancing the value of passenger rail projects.

What does this environment mean for Moynihan Station? How can smart cities and states work with private interests to realize big projects? And what are the prospects for more federal funding?

Come learn more on Wednesday evening.


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