New LIRR tracks mark ambitious ‘Empire Station’ plan

Screen time: Governor Andrew Cuomo lays out his Empire Station Complex plan Monday for the Association for a Better New York.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s annual “budget proposal” tour rolled on Monday, with a whopper of a plan for Long Island commuters.

Billed as “the 30th proposal” of the governor’s annual State of the State multibillion-dollar masterplan, the Empire Station Complex – unveiled by Cuomo during a speech before the nonprofit Association for a Better New York – would create a modern transit hub on Manhattan’s West Side.

The plan centers on the state’s acquisition of a full city block south of the current Penn Station, facilitating an ambitious construction effort that would build upon ongoing Penn Station renovations to create “an expanded, remodeled and interconnected train and subway complex,” the governor’s office said, with 40 percent more “track and train capacity.”

All told, the plan – which also folds in the nearly completed Moynihan Train Hall construction work – would ultimately add eight new tracks to what Cuomo’s office dubbed “the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere,” including some new tracks reserved exclusively for the Long Island Rail Road.

Andrew Cuomo: One-track mind on infrastructure.

Coming on a day when emergency track repairs once again altered LIRR rush-hour schedules in and out of Penn – including canceled morning and evening trains, diverted routes and stopgap shuttles, in effect through March – the Empire Station Complex proposal should come as welcome news to Long Island rail riders, a large percentage of the estimated 650,000-plus passengers who move daily through Penn Station.

That truly does rate the iconic train station as the busiest transit hub in the land, Cuomo noted Monday, outpacing the number of combined travelers moving daily through John. F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia a Newark Liberty International airports – and demanding an “interconnected, world-class” facility, according to the governor.

“For over a century, New York’s transportation infrastructure drove our growth, especially in New York City,” Cuomo told the AFBNY. “After decades of idle talk without any real action, we are once again investing in large public projects to support a stronger economy.”

This time, the target is Penn Station, which – even four years into the state’s $1.6 billion Penn-Farley Complex redevelopment project, first announced by the governor in 2016 – remains “one of the weakest links in our transit system,” Cuomo said Monday.

“This expansion in the block south of Penn, combined with the soon-to-be-completed Moynihan Train Hall and the transformation of the existing Penn facility, will … improve how more than half-a-million New Yorkers commute, travel and work every day,” the governor added.

Land grab: The state will be looking to acquire the entire block just south of Penn Station.

Critical components of the Empire Station Complex plan include acquiring the property immediately south of Penn Station – marking the first expansion of Penn Station’s foundational infrastructure since the station was completed in 1910 – and the conversion of the current Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden into a gleaming new station entrance.

The high-reaching plan could also serve as a development catalyst around the construction zone – Cuomo envisions a “new economic engine for the city and state,” complete with a “funding stream to help finance improvements to Penn.”

To make all that happen, Amtrak – a.k.a. the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the owner of the existing Penn Station – will participate in the project’s planning and financing phases, working hand-in-hand with project manager Empire State Development Corp., which has not yet put a total price tag on the project.

The partners will also enlist Manhattan-based architecture firm FXCollaborative to head up a multifaceted design team, while both the ESDC and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will work with local elected officials, community stakeholders, civic groups and affected property owners to smooth out the multiyear process.

Eric Gertler: Bold thinking.

The ambitious plan won’t be cheap, and it’s sure to create please-pardon-our-appearance headaches for LIRR passengers and other commuters. But it’s sorely needed, according to ESDC Acting Commissioner and President/CEO-designate Eric Gertler, who sees it as a vital complement to East Side Access, the Metro-North Penn Station Access project, the LIRR’s “third track” and other regional 21st century mass-transit improvements.

“It is no secret that New York outgrew Penn Station long ago,” Gertler said in a statement. “This bold plan will expand the number of train tracks available at Penn Station for the first time ever while further improving the passenger experience, enhancing commuter safety and transforming the underutilized area around Penn Station into a 21st century business-transit district.

“Without a doubt, this project will create jobs, boost our economy and improve our transit system,” Gertler added. “When combined with the soon-to-be-complete Moynihan Train Hall, the rehabilitated and expanded Penn Station will create the interconnected, modern station complex that New Yorkers deserve.”