New York Post, April 28, 2017
Washington, DC’s Metro may have to give up its crown for having the most neglected rail system in the nation: Amtrak’s record at Penn Station now takes the prize.
There are lessons for Amtrak in how the Metro went from a bicentennial centerpiece to yet another woeful example of our national infrastructure. Chronic breakdowns, derailments and electrical failures led to station evacuations. Staff, seemingly indifferent to safety, ignored the red flags, putting the public at risk.
Sounds a lot like Penn Station now, doesn’t it? New disasters of epic proportions are coming virtually every week.
Over half a million commuters on three railroads, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit — and the busiest, the MTA-run Long Island Rail Road — are being penalized as a result.
And so is the economy of the entire Northeast — a region that generates 10 percent of the national GDP. New York state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli puts the loss of productivity from Penn’s dysfunctionality at $60 million a year, and that’s just on the east side of the Hudson.
What is particularly disturbing is that Amtrak knows and acknowledges that it has ignored Penn Station maintenance.
It is true that Amtrak, like Metro, has historically been starved for resources. Shame on Congress. But Amtrak deserves blame for closing its eyes to basic safety-related maintenance and upgrades at Penn, never mind the condition of the tunnels.
It’s time to put Penn Station and its infrastructure out of our collective misery and put in place a structure that will actually work to improve conditions for the commuting public. It’s time to turn the station and its infrastructure over to a private entity.
This restructured corporation would be funded by Penn’s tenants (the railroads and private real-estate tenants) with a bottom-line mission of ensuring that Penn Station is well funded to meet commuters’ needs. If it doesn’t, it will risk losing the railroad-provided income.
This entity will have an incentive to provide a clean, safe, efficient public space for its retailers in order to command top rental income. The result will be more reliable rail service, a better environment for everyone using the station, a strategic asset for the city — and accountability if things go wrong.
Some argue that such public-private partnerships sacrifice accountability for profits. But that doesn’t hold in a situation when three public entities are engaged in a public blame game while their commuters suffer.
Having an entity whose revenue will depend on the reliability of the train service passing through the station will clearly be an incentive to make safe, reliable service its top priority. This partnership would also be consistent with the White House’s view that a dose of business sense can go a long way to improving service from government agencies.
Clearly, the region can continue to rely on the existing patchwork management, with its indifference to necessary investment in vital infrastructure.
Whatever the new mechanism that takes over this transit hub, every commuter knows this much: It’s time to resolve the Penn Station debacle. Amtrak, NJT, the LIRR and their executives have lost the confidence of the riding public, harmed our regional economy and displayed a casual disregard for the nation’s busiest rail-transit address.
Once upon a time, a landmark Penn Station was demolished because of failed vision. Let’s not now destroy its role as the city’s most important transit hub by failing it once again.
Denise Richardson is executive director of the General Contractors Association of New York.
Published in the New York Post, April 28, 2017