Penn Station

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I recently ran across an article on the sad state of the Hudson River tunnels that feed into Penn Station in mid town Manhattan. I felt it was alarming enough to be worthy of a quick review.

Here are some statistics and highlights from the article:

  • Penn Station services 430,000 passengers daily.  More than La Guardia, JFK, and Newark airports combined
  • The route into Penn Station from the south to the north travels through 2 tunnels beneath the Hudson River, both 107 years old
  • More than 200,000 people also use the subway stops that connect to Penn Station.  Amtrak shares the space with the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit.
  • There are more than 1300 arrivals and departures every weekday

Accounts from the article talk about riding in the caboose slowly through the tunnels observing just how bad the walls have decayed to the point of crumbling concrete.  There is visible damage from the aftermath of hurricane Sandy five years ago, where sulfites and chlorides have been eating away at the concrete.

My wife and I have taken Amtrak from New York’s Penn to Boston starting and have seen first hand the volume of people and the bee-hive of activity that place is on any given day.  It’s nuts-o.  Worse than Chicago’s O’Hare on a busy day in terms of chaos.

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As we learned from 9/11, the financial center of the country doesn’t react well to a crisis. Estimates by congress in 2008 projected that any disaster – natural, terrorist or decay of infrastructure that shuts down New York city would impact the U.S. economy by $100 Million per day.  The potential impact on the stock market measures in the Trillions.  The Amtrak into Penn Station is literally the artery of the U.S. Financial system.  A crucial piece of infrastructure that is crumbling as I write this.

There have been a few attempts to do something about Penn Station, but to date all of the efforts have run into unfortunate roadblocks.

  • In the late 1990s, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised $350 million to replace it with a new station next to it.  The effort fell apart after 9/11.
  • In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was on the verge of pushing through a multi-billion dollar plan to relocate Madison Square Garden, (which sits directly above Penn station and adds to the problem) and renovate Penn.  It collapsed after Spitzer’s political career tanked when he was caught patronizing prostitutes.
  • In 2009, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine put together a fully funded 8.7 billion project for new tunnels.  Chris Christie killed the project in order to keep gas prices low.

In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the region with 80 mph winds and the water rose higher than at any time in the city’s recorded history.  The Hudson River surged over the banks of Manhattan, poured into a submerged rail yard and flooded Penn Station’s tunnels.  A few days later, Amtrak pumped out 13 million gallons of seawater.

The electrical systems now malfunction on a fairly regular basis.  It’s projected that within 7 years, even with no natural disasters the tunnels will need to be taken out of service for 18 months of repairs.  The bridges and ferries have nowhere near the capacity to pick up the slack if a tunnel needs to be taken out of service.

  • In 2015, the governors of New York and New Jersey agreed to a deal on Gateway: The states would pay half the cost of building new tunnels to Penn, and the Obama administration pledged that the federal government would cover the other half.
  • During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump campaigned as the guy who would rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, promising $1 trillion to repair roads, bridges, and tunnels.  After he was elected he eliminated billions in funding for Gateway related projects in the 2018 budget and reneged on the commitment Obama made for the federal government to pay half.

As with many things in the US, we lack the vision it takes to prioritize modern infrastructure like London, Paris and Tokyo do.   The Trump administration brushed it off as a local problem.  But I wonder if those of us who will see our 401k values tank as the country’s financial center becomes paralyzed will feel the same way.  My guess is we’ll be begging for a bailout by the feds.  Anything to protect that coveted 401k, but not until I have to.

So far there have only been whispers about what Trump’s infrastructure plans might be, but the whispers have been pretty revealing: privatization.  Prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, air traffic control, you name it.  Everything is for sale and it’s all about profit… for someone anyway.  Nothing shall get in the way of the almighty dollar.  That is of course, until you clog the artery of the thing that is feeding you those almighty dollars.

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