Expand Penn Station? Fight With Trump Stalls Tunnels to Get There

It was presented as a crowning vision for Pennsylvania Station, the busiest train hub in North America — a plan to significantly expand the terminal, including adding eight new tracks, by annexing a full Manhattan block and working to make the vast complex less stifling and more welcoming.

But the proposal laid out by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would do little to solve the New York region’s biggest transportation challenge: the deteriorating condition of the 110-year-old rail tunnels that more than 100,000 commuters rely on every weekday.

The $11.3 billion plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River before the old ones give out remains mired in a political standoff between President Trump and Democratic leaders on both sides of the river.

That plan, known as Gateway, is widely considered the most important infrastructure project in the country. But it requires federal funding and approvals that the Trump administration has shown little interest in providing.

In fact, the United States Department of Transportation has downgraded the urgency of the Gateway project from a medium-to-high priority to a medium-to-low priority — not high enough to qualify for federal funding.

Mr. Cuomo and his fellow Democratic governor in New Jersey, Philip D. Murphy, have accused Mr. Trump of putting politics ahead of a project they say is vital to the national economy.

“Gateway is 100 percent important for all trans-Hudson commuters,” said Brian Fritsch, manager of advocacy campaigns at the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group. The impasse in Washington, he added, was “an incredibly ridiculous but also very frustrating situation.”

Amtrak has warned that, within several years, it may have to shut down one of the existing tunnels to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

With just one track operating, trans-Hudson traffic would be reduced by 75 percent during peak hours, Amtrak said, triggering a crisis that the Regional Plan Association says could cost the national economy $16 billion.

Penn Station was designed to handle about 200,000 commuters. But now, more than 650,000 passengers pass through it each weekday, about 450,000 of them on trains operated by the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak. The rest ride the subway.

New York and New Jersey have pledged to provide half of the cost of building Gateway and have partnered with Amtrak, the national railroad, to do so. Amtrak owns Penn Station and much of the rail infrastructure in the region, including the old tunnels under the river.

The Trump administration’s unwillingness to match that commitment has exasperated elected officials from the two states.

“If the president were genuinely concerned with making progress on critical infrastructure, he would stop his damaging and dangerous blockade of the Gateway project,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

After repeated requests for comment, the Federal Transit Administration said in a statement that the Gateway project was not eligible for federal funding because it “did not meet the requirements in law.’’ The agency did not say what those requirements were.

Last year, the acting administrator, K. Jane Williams, said in a letter that officials overseeing the project had failed to prove that it could be finished “on time and on budget.”

Gateway is the second attempt, over more than two decades, at building new rail tunnels under the Hudson. The first, known as the ARC tunnel, had received a funding commitment from the federal government before Chris Christie, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, canceled that $8.7 billion project in 2010, saying it would cost his state too much.

Mr. Christie’s successor, Mr. Murphy, has championed Gateway as a critical solution to the daily crush of commuters trying to cross the Hudson to jobs in New York City. His state’s railroad, New Jersey Transit, is the country’s third busiest commuter rail, carrying about 200,000 passengers to and from Penn Station every weekday.

Many of those trains are so crowded that passengers are forced to stand in the aisles and vestibules. New rail tunnels would allow more trains to cross the river.

Officials at New Jersey Transit and in Mr. Murphy’s office declined to discuss Mr. Cuomo’s proposal in detail.

Matthew Saidel, a spokesman for Mr. Murphy, said in a statement that Mr. Murphy supported the plan. “Thousands of New Jersey commuters stand to benefit enormously from the increased platform and track capacity,” he said.

The idea of increasing capacity at Penn Station by adding to its 21 tracks was supposed to be a second phase of Gateway, coming after construction of the tunnels and a bridge and tracks that would connect to them was underway.

Mr. Cuomo said the station project could be self-funded in part through payments-in-lieu-of-taxes to Albany from new developments around the transportation hub — money that would otherwise go to the city.

Urban planners have pushed this funding model in recent years, but it has faced hurdles in New York because of antagonism between City Hall, which collects property taxes, and Albany, which oversees transportation projects.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supported the idea of expanding Penn Station’s capacity, but cautioned state officials against taking city dollars without consulting city officials.

“We have to understand what the specific plan is,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday. “If it is a plan that ignores the rights of a locality to make its own land-use decisions, I have a problem with it.”

Policy experts have also challenged the idea that the project can pay for itself, warning that it risks adding financial strain to New York State, which faces a $6 billion deficit, and questioning whether other transit projects, like fixing the subway, might better serve riders.

“Considering it won’t pay for itself, we have to ask is this our most important cross-Hudson priority? Probably not,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The expansion of the station was estimated to cost $5.9 billion. About $1 billion was expected to go toward buying the entire block south of the station, which extends from Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue between 30th Street and 31st Street.

Clearing that block and laying eight tracks and four platforms beneath it would take at least a few years. Among the properties standing in the way is Holy Cross-St. John the Baptist, a 150-year-old church owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Mr. Cuomo also mentioned the possibility of acquiring the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, which sits atop Penn Station.

In the meantime, train traffic at Penn Station is already due for major changes. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project is scheduled to be completed in 2022, allowing for a large share of Long Island Rail Road passengers to divert to Grand Central Terminal. The M.T.A. also plans to reroute some trains on its Metro-North Railroad through Queens and under the East River to Penn Station.

Some transportation experts praised the tracks proposal, saying that Penn Station needs to be improved one way or another.

“We shouldn’t be waiting on the Trump administration when we as a state can move forward with pieces that we can get done,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates public transit. “Penn Station is an incredibly important access point, and clearly we need to do something about it.”

The overseer of the Hudson River tunnel project, the Gateway Program Development Corporation, has not lost hope.

In the hopes of raising the project’s priority rating, the corporation submitted a revised financial plan to the Federal Transit Administration in late August that reduced by $1.4 billion the estimated cost of building tunnels and rehabilitating the old tunnels.

While transit advocates said that Mr. Cuomo’s interest in making Penn Station bigger and better was welcome, some expressed concern about the original goal of expansion — making room for more trains from New Jersey — getting lost along the way.

New Jersey officials, said Mr. Fritsch, the Regional Plan Association manager, “need to be loud and clear about what their needs are.”

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