Penn Station debate offers lessons for Boston
New York City is having its own North-South Rail Link debate, just on a much bigger scale.
State and federal agencies in New York are pushing for a $20 billion Gateway Tunnel project that would add more tunnels under the Hudson River and new tracks at Penn Station. But a Manhattan think tank called ReThink Studio says some tweaks to the proposal could ease congestion at Penn Station and dramatically expand capacity.
Like North and South Stations in Boston, Penn Station is a terminating point for commuter rail. New Jersey Transit comes in from the west and the Long Island Rail Road from the east. Trains pull into Penn Station, unload their passengers, and typically have to go back the way they came. It’s a time-consuming process as arriving trains have to wait for departing trains to leave and then wait again as arriving passengers offload and departing passengers board.
The process is complicated by the fact that Penn Station is the busiest terminal in the United States, serving 650,000 passengers a day. Throw in a train derailment or two, as occurred in March and April, and you have all the ingredients for a hellish commute.
The think tank is proposing to pare back the number of tracks at Penn Station from 21 to 12, double the width of the platforms to 38 feet, and triple the number of stairs and escalators needed to move passengers up and out of the station. ReThink believes the changes would cut a train’s dwell time at Penn Station from the current 18 to 22 minutes down to 6 minutes. That would allow operators to run 92 trains through Penn Station in each direction during peak hours, a 50 percent increase.
There are many more elements to the New York plan, including new transportation hubs in the Bronx and Queens. But the basic debate in New York is eerily similar to the debate in Boston over whether to expand the number of tracks at South and North Stations or build a tunnel between the two stations to allow trains to pass through the city.
US Rep. Seth Moulton and former governor Michael Dukakis have led the charge in Boston for the North-South Rail Link, saying the connection could be transformative for the city and the region. Hard-core transportation officials in the Baker administration and the Legislature are skeptical, wary of the cost of building a tunnel under Boston.
The big difference is that New York has ReThink, a think tank that has captivated transportation wonks in the Big Apple with its detailed plans and its easy-to-follow videos explaining how a “through-running station” would improve mobility. By contrast, Boston has a couple pols talking up the benefits of a North-South Rail Link and a $1.5 to $2 million state feasibility study that is only now about to be awarded. I hate to say it, but Boston can learn a lot from New York City — again.
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