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An NYC think tank has a surprisingly simple solution for fixing Penn Station

By Clayton Guse
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Penn Station has hit a tipping point.

The transit hub has been thrust into the center of public conversation in New York after a pair of derailments in March and April caused hellish delays. Earlier this month, crews took the better part of a day to fix a sewage leak near the entrance to a pair of Long Island Rail Road tracks. The track work required to fix key issues at the station are expected to cause weeks of service disruption this summer. All the while, public and private officials are without an overall plan to bring Penn, which serves upwards of 600,000 commuters every day, into the 21st century.

But one New York think tank has put together a grandiose vision that could go a long way in solving the problems currently associated with Penn Station. Over the last year or so, ReThink Studio, a local group that takes critical looks at some of the largest urban planning issues facing the city, has been pushing a plan aptly dubbed "ReThink NYC."

The plan questions why commuter rail lines in the New York metropolitan area are built around the concept of ushering passengers in and out of Manhattan, and whether or not Penn Station really needs to be the city's key transit hub. A major part of the plan is to take NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, and combine them into what ReThink is calling a "Regional Unified Network," or RUN. 

Currently, morning rush hour NJ Transit trains heading to Penn Station either continue to a rail yard in Sunnyside, Queens to wait until evening rush hour, or provide service back to New Jersey. In both cases, they interfere with other inbound trains. Just the same, Long Island Rail Road trains heading into the station every morning either head to the West Side Rail Yards or change direction and provide outbound service, which often blocks other inbound trains. Throw Amtrak into the mix, and you have a mishmash of competing trains and a logistical nightmare.

ReThink posits that if Penn Station were thought of as more of a through station than a terminal—and if NJ Transit, LIRR and Metro-North became a single, unified service—then these problems would be fixed. In this vision, westbound LIRR trains could continue through to New Jersey on the northern half of Penn Station's tracks, and eastbound NJ Transit trains could continue through to Long Island on its southern half. 

In order to achieve this vision, a few major projects would need to be completed. First, the MTA would need to invest in new transit hubs outside of Manhattan, which would be constructed at the Sunnyside rail yard, Port Morris in the Bronx and Seacaucus in New Jersey. These stations would provide more transfer points between lines, connecting every suburban transit line in the area through five key hubs (add on Grand Central Terminal and Penn to the three previously mentioned).

Beyond that, the MTA would need to get serious about the Gateway Project, which would add two new train tunnels beneath the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. These would allow for a higher capacity of trains running through Penn Station and beyond. The Gateway Project currently calls for the construction of "Penn Station South," which would provide more tracks for the increased train traffic and would require the demolition of an occupied block of midtown Manhattan. By allowing trains to pass through Penn instead of terminating there, ReThink argues that the southern expansion of the station would be unnecessary. 

ReThink NYC paints the broad strokes of what could be an exciting solution to Penn Station's issues. The best part? It's surprisingly simple. But with a complicated network of interests and several politicians who could be more inclined to invest in a quick-fix solution to the problems, the plan could very well never see the light of day.

Penn Station became the nightmare that it is today because of short-sighted thinking by politicians and developers alike—ReThink's plan pushes for a shift in that paradigm.  

Check out a breakdown of ReThink's plan in the videos below.

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