May 28, 2004
Amtrak Is Slow to Embrace New Station
By MICHAEL LUO and CHARLES V. BAGLI
After years of delays, plans for a grand, new Pennsylvania Station built within the city's main post office building are being muddied by demands from Amtrak, the intended tenant, that it be allowed to use the space without paying any rent.
Amtrak was supposed to anchor the soaring, glass-enclosed complex in the landmark James A. Farley post office building between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets in Manhattan. But over the last few months, Amtrak has been weighing whether it should even continue to take part in the project, given its financial problems, said Clifford Black, a spokesman for the railroad. The railroad had said previously that it would not pay anything for the renovation of the station. And now Amtrak notes that it already has a sweet rent deal.
"We own Pennsylvania Station, and we pay no rent," Mr. Black said of the current station below Madison Square Garden. "We wouldn't want to incur new rent."
In another potential complication, if Amtrak does move ahead with the project, it will move only part of its operation across the street into the new station, Mr. Black said. Until now, the plan was for Amtrak to move its main ticketing and waiting areas to the Farley building and keep only a small presence in the current Penn Station, said Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for railroad development for the Federal Railroad Administration, which has been active in the planning of the new station. But, citing concerns about inadequate access to platforms under the Farley building and passenger preferences for easier access to the commuter railroads to New Jersey and Long Island, Mr. Black said that at this point, Amtrak would probably split its ticketing windows and waiting areas evenly between the current Penn Station and the new one.
This would not thrill the boutique stores and restaurants that were supposed to take space in the rest of the building, since they would be drawing customers from Amtrak trains and those passing through to and from Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit trains.
The new station, if built, would be named after Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the project's biggest advocates, who died last year.
Empire State Development Corporation officials, who are overseeing the project through its subsidiary, the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, accused Amtrak of wanting to renege on a 1999 memorandum of understanding on the project, essentially a promise that it would contribute to the costs.
"We're disappointed that Amtrak isn't meeting the commitments they made in the 1999 M.O.U.," said Charles A. Gargano, chairman of the development corporation. "We want to be flexible and work with Amtrak. We know the Northeast corridor is one of the strongest sectors in their system. We feel it would be in their interest to participate in the development of Moynihan Station as an important gateway to New York."
According to Mr. Gargano, Amtrak had committed to paying about $3.9 million a year for the space. He also suggested that Amtrak could lease its current space below Madison Square Garden for more money than that.
Mr. Black denied that Amtrak had reneged on anything. The agreement was contingent on a lease being completed in 1999, he said, making it moot at this point. He also said that agreement said nothing about a specific rent amount.
Development corporation officials are now exploring whether New Jersey Transit - which has seen its number of riders climb in recent years and its space in Penn Station grow more crowded - might be able to use the space, although no deal has been struck yet, Mr. Gargano said.
Until recently, little thought had been given to New Jersey Transit's access to the new station, said George D. Warrington, New Jersey Transit's executive director. It recently spent $200 million to upgrade its current space in Penn Station, and for many of its customers, access to jobs on the East Side make its current situation closer to Seventh Avenue more convenient.
Mr. Warrington said he has asked his staff to begin exploring options for how the commuter railroad might use the new station. Right now, its tracks on the southern side of Penn Station do not even run under the Farley building. But the railroad is planning to at least extend its platforms under Farley, in conjunction with its ambitions to dig a new passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River, he said.
As for Long Island Rail Road, which sends the most passengers into the current Penn Station of the three railroads that use it, officials there said they have no interest in taking Amtrak's place in the Farley building. The Long Island also recently spent money to improve its space in the current Penn Station and build its own entrance. More important, the way its tracks, on the northern side of the station, are set up, Long Island passengers would have to take a circuitous route to get in and out of Farley.
Some theorize that Amtrak may simply be bluffing to get a better rent deal and that the agreement is not in any danger after all.
This is the latest twist in the new station's saga. Ideas for the project began in 1993, but completion dates have come and gone. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Postal Service threatened the project when it decided that it needed to stay in the Farley building because one of its main centers in Lower Manhattan was severely damaged in the terrorist attack. In October 2002, however, the state intervened, and the post office agreed to sell the Farley building and vacate most of it.
Despite the current questions, the development corporation has been pushing forward with plans to redesign the project. It will seek bids from potential developers in September and award the project by the end of the year, Mr. Gargano said. The cost, now estimated at $1 billion, has been inching upward, especially after the project grew when the post office agreed to give up most of the building. Most of the money for construction has already been set aside from federal and state sources.
The project had been applauded by preservationists, who see it as a chance to right a wrong. The Farley building, with its imposing row of Corinthian columns, was designed by McKim, Mead & White, the same firm that did the original Pennsylvania Station across Eighth Avenue, destroyed 40 years ago and arguably the city's greatest lost landmark.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company