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Gateway’s Penn Station quandary: The new tunnel only has a weak, inefficient connection to the train depot

Having experienced in person the commemoration yesterday morning on the Far West Side for the signing of the $6.88 billion federal grant for the Gateway rail tunnel, we want to offer high praise for the official of the bistate Gateway Development Commission who moved the event from the northern side of 30th St. between 11th and 12 Aves. to the southern side.

The difference was roasting governors and U.S. senators and other speakers and dozens of invited guests and the press in the full glare of the blazing heat wave sun and suffocating humidity on the north side of the street and the blessed shade (and even a bit of a breeze) afforded by a location across the street. The smart thinker was the same GDCer who suggested a while back that we listen to the Big Dig podcast we referred to in yesterday’s column. Thank you twice.

We mention the move because it entailed a change of plan. And that’s what is needed for many aspects of Gateway, which following the contract signing in the morning, closed on $4 billion in Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loans, which the Port Authority, New York and New Jersey will repay as their local share of the $16 billion new tunnel. The fixed interest rate from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau will be 4.48% on the RRIF loans. It’s a shame that the Biden administration and the two states couldn’t have gotten settled in early 2022, when that rate was closer to 2%.

Still, the money for this limited, Phase 1, project is in place, but GDC can’t use a penny of it until all five of its officers are in place, including a yet to be hired inspector general to keep watch on the $16 billion.

The weather-wise GDC official who moved the venue took issue with our writing yesterday that the new tunnel “doesn’t really go to Penn Station,” which another top GDC staffer echoed and Federal Transit Administration chief Veronica Vanterpool, who signed the $6.88 billion grant for the feds, said “don’t misled by false narratives about this project not going to Penn Station.” That was us. And the narrative isn’t false.

The new $16 billion tunnel is designed to bring as many as 24 NJTransit trains per hour to what is called Penn South, a dead-end terminal that would tear up Midtown’s Block 780 and will cost another $17 billion, money which doesn’t exist. Yes, there is also an inefficient backdoor connection of the new tubes into Penn proper. How inefficient? The new tunnel, primarily feeding into Penn South, cannot by itself even replicate the level of Penn service we have now. And when the new tunnel is complete, without Penn South, there will be zero increase in service.

Change the plan. Move the Manhattan landing of the new tunnel to focus on Penn proper. Forget Penn South and Block 780. Increase capacity immediately when the new tunnel opens. Save $17 billion. Spare the destruction of Block 780. That was what Bill Otterson, a resident of Block 780, who was denied entry to the event, meant when his pleading could be heard: “Don’t demolish my house! Amtrak, don’t demolish my house!”

Amtrak wants to exile NJT from Penn proper and NJT wants its own digs in Penn South. Don’t do it. Bring Gateway fully into Penn Station.


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