Moynihan Train Hall and our infrastructure problem

It looks great, but it doesn't do anything

Big civil engineering projects in the United States cost more than they do in most other developed countries, and this is especially true in the Greater New York City area and especially true of projects related to rail.

And last weekend, I went to my hometown of New York City for the first time since a (retrospectively poorly timed) visit in early March of 2020 and got to see one particularly vivid example of the kind of problems we have in this field — the new Moynihan Trail Hall at Penn Station.

What I’ve come to see after reporting on this subject for years is that when it comes to civil engineering project costs, you really need to consider two separate issues. One is the unit costs — is the amount you spent reasonable given the nature of the thing you decided to do? But the other is the scope of the projects that you decide to do — did you actually need to do the stuff that you did? I used to live in a house with a Subzero fridge. I have no reason to believe that the flipper who did the renovation overpaid for the fridge, at least in the sense that they didn’t pay more than anyone else would pay for a luxury fridge. But in my experience, said fridge had exactly zero functional advantages over a normal fridge.

Fridges really don’t have a lot of performance characteristics; they either keep the food cold or they don’t. The Subzero name sort of implies extraordinary performance in terms of making things unusually cold, but unless you’re storing mRNA vaccines, that’s not actually something you would want. And the reality is it chills your food to the exact same temperature as a normal fridge. You’re just paying extra because it looks cool. This is fine if you’re rich and you’re spending your own money, but the government should try to meet people’s actual transportation needs.

With Moynihan Train Hall, we spent $1.6 billion on a new train station that has zero functional attributes. It just looks a lot nicer than the old place to wait for trains. Which would be fine, I guess, if New York City had no infrastructure needs. But a place that really does have infrastructure needs shouldn’t be blowing huge sums of money on projects that don’t accomplish anything. But what’s really striking about Moynihan is that as best I can tell, local elites think it’s a huge success!

The sad story of Penn Station

To understand this misbegotten project, I think you have to go back to the fact that in the first half of the twentieth century, Penn Station was this really cool, grand-looking building. That’s how people built train stations in the heyday of American railroading, and the Pennsylvania Railroad in particular built very distinguished stations. If you check out Newark Penn Station or Baltimore Penn Station, you see that this was really how they did things, and naturally, the New York City station was a bigger deal than those two.

Then in the 1960s, as the American passenger rail industry was collapsing, and investment in America’s cities was simultaneously collapsing, and there was also a big fad for misguided urban renewal efforts, the station got torn down.

What replaced it is a building whose above-ground attributes are undistinguished and whose below-ground attributes are cramped and dingy.

Opposition to the Penn Station teardown and remorse that it happened are central to the origin story of the historic preservation movement. And even a preservation-hater like me has to concede that if preservationists actually focused their efforts on preserving specific grand buildings, that would probably be a good thing to do. At a minimum, I agree that tearing it down was a mistake. And I obviously agree that the traditional Penn Station concourse is an aesthetic travesty.

That being said, plenty of dingy transportation facilities are perfectly functional. In high school, I went every day to the 14th Street/Union Station stop on the subway to go uptown. That station is a catastrophe of low ceilings, bad lighting, weird passages, and giant rats. But it successfully serves tens of millions of passengers per year across 10 tracks and three levels, and these days (unlike a lot of stations) it’s even ADA compliant. If you were doing it all over again, of course it would be nice to build something nicer. But to spend tons of money building a whole new subway station where you already have one that works fine would be awfully strange. Why not spend the money on something that makes the subway better? And yet that’s what we did with (part of) Penn Station.

A Post Office renovation railroads didn’t want

As it happens, directly across 8th Avenue from Penn Station was a big Post Office building — the James A. Farley Building — that was built in a distinguished Beaux-Arts style. And former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to be a shoeshine boy in the old Penn Station. So going way back to the early 1990s, he started championing the idea of moving USPS out of the Farley building and turning it into a new train station.

In 1993 he and some architects unveiled a design plan, and he secured tens of millions of dollars of federal money to start planning work.

This is a very classic American way of doing big projects — tens of millions of dollars is simultaneously a lot of money and also not nearly enough money to execute the project. But it is enough to start paying various consultants and contractors and architects to get more people invested in the idea. Then, over the course of the 1990s, New York State chartered an entity called the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation which raised about $660 million over the decade to buy the building. In 1998, an agreement was reached: the plan was to spend $315 million on renovations, and the new train hall would open in 2002.

By February of 2002, the budget had expanded to $788 million. There were some delays due to 9/11, and then Amtrak said they didn’t want to pay the rent that New York was talking about charging. So there was a scramble to try to get New Jersey Transit to be the anchor tenant instead. But that wasn’t really working out for various reasons either. Then in 2009, Chuck Schumer successfully put humpty-dumpty back together again with a flurry of dealmaking. Amtrak agreed to be the tenant after all in exchange for New York agreeing to share some of the retail revenue with the railroad, and Schumer also ensured that tens of millions of dollars in federal ARRA funds would flow to the project.

There were a few more starts and stops after that, but it basically got done, albeit at something like four times the original projected construction cost plus the cost of buying the building.

But beyond the capital costs, note that it’s not really clear why this was being done at all. Amtrak had to have their arm twisted into agreeing to become a tenant! Why would you spend public funds on building a new train station that the railroads don’t want?

Architecture critics are excited

Obviously, the enthusiasm of the late Senator Moynihan is a key part of the story here. And even more so, Schumer’s decision to pick up the torch and build this monument to his former colleague has been a huge deal.

But the other thing is that Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’ architecture critic, is really excited about it:

The $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall opened at dawn on New Year’s morning — on budget, too, even a couple of months early. Instagram swooned. Tweeters channeled Stefon from “Saturday Night Live.”

In the midst of everything else, we needed this. New York needs this.

No, the huge, lofty train hall, with its soaring skylights, doesn’t magically resurrect the old Pennsylvania Station or extinguish the raging dumpster fire that is the current one. It leaves all sorts of herculean challenges and tasks around Penn Station unresolved. But it delivers on its promise, giving the city the uplifting gateway it deserves. When was the last time you could say something like that about a public works project?

As far as I know, Kimmelman is an excellent architecture critic. But you can tell he’s not much of a policy writer by the fact that he bizarrely describes this as an example of a project completed on budget and on time, which is true if and only if you ignore the many, many, many earlier iterations of the plan. Then throughout his rave review, he assesses the project in basically architecture critic terms. They spent a bunch of money to extend the train platforms west of their prior location, and then on top of those new platforms, they build a nice, classy-looking shopping mall.

But as Kimmelman is eager to point out, there actually isn’t that much shopping:

But Moynihan isn’t a shopping mall, at least it doesn’t look that way to me. The main hall seems clearly organized around passenger services and amenities. The Rockwell Group designed for it an attractive 320-seat waiting room with snaking walnut banquettes. I suspect there will be a call for even more seating, post-pandemic. The concourse is a place where people might just want to hang out. Public bathrooms are exceptionally nice. The Public Art Fund has contributed first-rate art installations by Kehinde Wiley, Elmgreen & Dragset and Stan Douglas. A midblock corridor, where mail trucks used to disgorge cargo, now leads to Amtrak’s almost comically handsome Acela lounge on a mezzanine overlooking the train hall, by FXCollaborative.

Obviously, if a city builds a giant new building and that city is lucky enough to still have a newspaper that employs an architecture critic, that’s a great subject for an architecture criticism piece.

But Kimmelman has been the Times’ lead voice on this project for a long time:

Now a rational analysis of this situation would start with the fact that you can’t bring back the old Penn Station. And conversely, the handsome-looking Farley Building is already there and already protected by historic designation. Under the new plan, much of the Farley Building has been converted into office space for Facebook. Taking the nice-looking exterior of the Farley Building and turning it into something that is partially office space and partially a place that’s more open to the public than a mail sorting facility doesn’t require turning it into a train station. You could have turned it over to a commercial real estate company to make it a food hall or anything else in the world.

But Kimmelman has this quasi-mystical view that the city was punished for the sin of demolishing Penn Station with the depredations of the 1970s and 1980s.

Realistically, we know that’s not true. Every northeastern city was hit by the same trends of suburbanization, racial tensions, lead-induced crime, crack cocaine, and Reagan-era withdrawal of federal support for cities. Baltimore and Newark suffered much worse from these trends than New York did, despite their historic train stations. But Kimmelman was so hung up on expiating the sin that he wanted all kinds of policy issues to revolve around this.

Before the Farley plan was resuscitated, he wanted to cancel Madison Square Garden’s lease and move the arena to the location of the Javits Center so that a new headhouse could be built for Penn Station. But having a sports arena co-located with a major transit hub has functional benefits like people can ride mass transit to the games. He also came out swinging in favor of an egregiously expensive Hudson River tunnel project during the period when Amtrak didn’t want to lease the hypothetical new Farley space, because one side benefit of the tunnel is they would create new New Jersey transit tracks under the Farley Building and make them a logical tenant.

So the politicians are bought into this project that has no transportation benefit and that Amtrak doesn’t want, and the leading local media voice on this is an architecture critic who isn’t interested in transportation at all. This is too bad, because transportation is important!

Penn Station could be doing so much better

Right now, if you look on a map, it appears to be the case that you could take a commuter train from Short Hills on the NJ Transit Morristown Line into Penn Station and then keep riding out the other side and find yourself in Jamaica, Queens. The tracks do, after all, run from New Jersey into Manhattan and then out onto Long Island. And if you want to take an Amtrak train from Newark to Boston, that’s exactly how it works — the train goes from New Jersey through Penn Station then out the other side.

But in the real world, you absolutely cannot take a commuter rail train from Long Island to New Jersey or vice versa.

On a technical level, the reason you can’t do this is that New Jersey Transit uses overhead catenaries for electricity while the Long Island Rail Road’s electrified portion uses a third rail. That being said, in the grand scheme of expensive infrastructure projects, getting compatible electrification modes would not be that heavy a lift. And the transportation benefits of through-running would be large in the sense that many trips that are now incredibly inconvenient to make on mass transit could be made very simple. But there is actually a further benefit in that having the trains dwell on the tracks at Penn Station and then turn around constrains the capacity of the station. If the trains ran through, Penn could accommodate many more trains.

The real difficulty here is that to make it happen, you’d need to get two different agencies to cooperate.

Right now, the underlying organizational flaw of Penn Station is that three different railroads (LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak) use it, and they don’t like to share each other’s toys. You can’t access the NJ Transit tracks from the new Moynihan Hall and the agency is just cut out of the space entirely. If you get confused and enter the wrong building, you can’t find track listings or anything. You might as well have gone to a train station in London. Amtrak and the LIRR both use the Moynihan Hall, but they have their departures listed on separate boards — unlike at an airport, where all airlines’ departures are listed on one facility.

To make through-running happen, you’d need integration on a much deeper level — integration of schedules, fares, labor practices, etc. The upside to through-running is that for a modest sum of money, you could make transportation in Greater New York much better. But you’d need to do organizational spadework, you wouldn’t impress architecture critics, and you wouldn’t indulge a powerful senator’s nostalgia for a job he held in his youth.

I don’t see any method at all

Note that none of this has been about inflated costs. It’s possible that New York got a great deal on the Moynihan Hall project.

But I doubt it, because disinclination to think about the real value of projects tends to lead to inflated bills. An early Slow Boring post looked at the MBTA Green Line Extension in Boston where Version 1.0 of the project had an enormous price tag because the contractors had talked the agency into building large, elaborate stations rather than the very modest ones that characterize the existing portions of the Green Line. Ultimately this got rolled back and the project was done for less, but only because the governor was ready to pull the plug on the whole thing. The basic inclination of the decision-makers was to make the most awesome possible version of the project whether or not the specific awesome elements had any real transportation value.

What I’d like to say about Moynihan Hall is that New York got this cool building, but with the couple of billion dollars spent on it, they could have built useful stuff.

The punchline, though, is I’m actually not sure that’s true. The way these things come together is that someone secures a pot of federal money and then state (and in this case, local) money follows the federal cash in order to get the project done. Everything is thrown together on the fly, and the alternative to the state ponying up the cash is unpredictable at best.

At a high level, I think we need to get to a system that has a totally different structure than this. If you have a region that has real reliance on rail transportation and aspirations to improve it, then politicians should set some kind of quasi-fixed budget for projects without knowing exactly which projects will be built. Then a strong, relatively apolitical agency with in-house planning and project management capabilities needs to look at the funds available and decide which projects would be a good use of money. Then the idea should be to establish a strong track record of delivering good value, so then you ask elected officials to give you more money.

Here’s a photo I took for a coda:

This is way nicer than the central hall at Penn Station. But the equivalent space at Penn is dominated by a great big sign that says when trains are leaving and which track they’ve been assigned here. Here we have a much nicer view, but we’ve actually lost the key functional attribute of the room. If they hadn’t bothered with all the train stuff and just used this gorgeous space as a mall or a food court, there’d be no problem. But it’s a train station!