Cuomo Bids to Yank Penn Station Repairs from Amtrak’s Control

Governor Andrew Cuomo at a May 23 press conference on the future of emergency repairs at Penn Station. | Jackson Chen.

BY JACKSON CHEN | Governor Andrew Cuomo believes his administration can do better than the federal government, so he is requesting that Amtrak hand over the critically needed Penn Station repair project to New York State.

The nation’s largest rail hub, which Cuomo likened to catacombs, is already running at double capacity, serving more than 600,000 passengers a day. Service out of Penn Station, shared by the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor, has been disrupted by two derailments and frequent track problems in recent weeks, angering riders.

Conditions on the city’s transit system — the subways, the LIRR, and Metro North — have reached crisis levels in the view of many elected officials and transportation experts.

Amtrak, which owns the station and is responsible for maintenance of the tracks, plans to embark on an emergency repair project beginning Fri., July 7 –– an effort the governor now wants to commandeer. Amtrak has said the repairs will take six weeks and reduce peak train service during that period by 20 percent, but Cuomo is skeptical of its ability to carry out the complicated project on time.

“Now, even if Amtrak could get this done in six weeks, if you reduce trains coming into Penn by 20 percent, it will be a summer of hell for commuters,” the governor said. “Amtrak has had a track record of coming with a schedule and the actuality has no connection whatsoever to a schedule.”

Instead, Cuomo’s Tues., May 23 proposal to the federal government would allow New York State to take over the repair project. The governor also wants to merge the Penn Station repairs with the nearby Moynihan Station and Gateway projects.

The Moynihan project will transform the landmarked James A. Farley Post Office Building into Manhattan’s new base for Amtrak trains, and the Gateway project will repair two deteriorated tunnels underneath the Hudson River and create a new tunnel to double the train capacity between New York and New Jersey.

Cuomo said since the state already has a hand in these two major projects, Amtrak should surrender the reins of the Penn Station repairs to Empire State Development, which he asserted would be able to coordinate all three projects.

“The best way to do this… is do it as one unified project under one project manager and have the entire project work together,” Cuomo said at a news conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown.

The governor said he has already spoken with legislative leaders in the city and in Albany who offered support for his proposal. State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer are among those who have spoken up favorably about the idea.

Nightmarish delays at Penn Station due to track problems prompted Governor Cuomo to seek a state solution. | Mary Altaffer/ AP

To further engage key stakeholders, Cuomo is assembling a task force to work with the federal government in seeking short-term and long-term solutions for the Penn Station, Gateway, and the Moynihan projects.

West Side Congressmember Jerry Nadler, who will be joining Cuomo’s task force, focused on the question of Washington’s willingness to provide adequate resources, saying in a written statement, “Amtrak’s main issue has been a lack of funding and the federal government has both a responsibility and an obligation to fund this vital transportation network, which is important not just to New York State but the entire Northeast Corridor.”

New York’s two US Senators – Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand – were even harsher about the federal government living up to its funding responsibilities, especially in light of the Trump administration budget released this week.

The two Democrats, in a written statement, pointed to the President’s proposed $760 million in cuts to Amtrak as an example of “doubling down on dilapidation.” Schumer added, “The President’s proposal to slash American infrastructure investments is a job-killing, 180-degree turn away from his repeated promise of a trillion dollar infrastructure plan. The fuzzy math and sleight of hand can’t hide the fact that the President’s $200 billion plan is more than wiped out by other cuts to key infrastructure programs.”

Gillibrand said, “The President’s budget cuts would only further delay long overdue repairs to make our transit systems more safe and reliable.”<strong> </strong>

Still, it seems that Cuomo has not given up entirely on Trump’s promise of better infrastructure throughout the nation.

“President Trump has talked about a trillion-dollar infrastructure program. What better single project can you have than this project?” the governor said.

Cuomo also acknowledged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s struggling performance with the subway system.

To spur creative outside-the-box ideas, the governor said he challenged the MTA to initiate an international competition to solicit solutions to what he described as the system’s three major challenges: more trains running, improved train cars, and a modern transit system overall. To provide some incentive, Cuomo said the state would offer a $1 million “Genius Transit Challenge” award for the winning solutions in each of the categories.

After hearing the MTA’s projected 40 to 50-year time frame to upgrade the subways’ signal system, Cuomo said he concluded government needs to begin exploring ideas from sources other than the usual industry experts.

“I will be dead in the next 40 years,” Cuomo said. “It cannot take 40 years to put in a new signal system. Ideas are out there, the technology is out there. We need to get those ideas and technology here.”