6.7.19

MAKE PENN STATION GREAT AGAIN?

The Federalist's Kyle Sammin brings politics through the North River tunnels.  "Reconstructing New York’s Penn Station in its original grandeur could be just the thing to reinvigorate conservatism in America’s cities and suburbs."

He starts with the tunnels.
One big expense is the North River tunnels. Opened in 1908, these tunnels built by the Pennsylvania Railroad connect New York with New Jersey and are the way into the city for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. Their capacity of 24 trains per hour is maxed out, and has been for years.

They are also nearing the end of their useful life. Without new tunnels being built, the existing tubes would need to be closed one at a time to be overhauled, cutting traffic in half at a time it should really be doubled. The situation would never be tolerated if the river-crossing in question were an interstate highway bridge.

The plan to double the tunnels’ capacity is very costly, and became a political football at the state and federal levels. The latest incarnation, called the Gateway Program, is predicted to cost nearly $15 billion.
Have we really been wrangling about these tunnels for almost a decade?

When those dashing commuters and incela rent-seekers get off the train, though, what greets them is not pretty.
New York spent $4 billion on the new World Trade Center subway station that opened in 2016, double the original planned cost. Penn Station’s projected costs are comparable.

So even if we treat that estimate skeptically and assume it doubles like other station’s costs did, it is still $6 or $7 billion for a station used by 600,000 passengers a day, compared to $4 billion for one used by just 46,000 a day. With the federal government scheduled to spend more than $4 trillion this year, even picking up the entire cost of the station in one year would result in it costing less than 0.2 percent of the federal budget. Sharing costs with the states and city and spreading it out over the years of construction reduces that figure even more.

Those who backed Trump for president tend to be fairly comfortable with federal spending and do not fixate on ideological distinctions between infrastructure for trains and infrastructure for cars. They look back fondly, as do many non-Trump voters, on a time when America built great things. The transcontinental railroads, the Hoover Dam, and Apollo space program all inspired Americans and showcased our national triumph.

The idea that we should make America great again inspired a lot of voters in 2016. That promise is not fulfilled by tax cuts—as welcome as they were—nor by tweaks to entitlement programs, however much those may be needed. Greatness is in what we do, not in what we cut.
Because I'm thinking about running transportation capital as if by a multidivisional firm, I'm more sympathetic to arguments that an improved Pennsylvania Station (complete with four tracks for passenger trains from Philadelphia all the way to New Haven) if bundled with more sensible pricing of the turnpikes, tunnels and bridges that also serve Manhattan; and it occurs to me that a station and associated tunnels are a capital investment, that is to say, an asset generating a stream of income for which a portfolio of government bonds makes sense.  We don't have to use railroad-style betterment accounting, which what that "picking up the cost of the station in one year" is.

It doesn't make sense for a station that was jammed during the Christmas holidays of World War II to be attempting to handle more passengers on a daily basis in a smaller space.

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