Organization Before Electronics Before Concrete

by Reihan Salam

Stephen Smith’s take on efforts to build a new Penn Station in New York city includes larger lessons on how we ought to approach infrastructure spending:

THE HEADFIRST rush to spend billions while squandering existing assets runs afoul of a basic German transit planning nostrum: organization before electronics before concrete. That is to say, though-running—which involves organizational reform and new electronics—is cheaper than the sort of multibillion dollar “concrete” projects that New York loves so much and should therefore be done first.

This is not to say that large capital projects won’t eventually be necessary, even after the existing service patterns are streamlined. But rather than focus on new station complexes, the railroads should look to a solution considered for the first Hudson River crossing that Governor Chris Christie ultimately killed: a tunnel between Penn Station and Grand Central.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak need a new tunnel beneath the Hudson, but they also need somewhere to put the trains once they reach Penn. A tunnel from Penn Station to Grand Central would achieve this while also allowing for through-running not only between New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, but also between Metro-North and job-rich suburbs like White Plains and Stamford, Conn. Not to mention giving Metro-North riders a one-seat ride to Penn Station, and New Jersey Transit riders a similar trip to Grand Central.

And not only would it be more useful, but it would also be cheaper—a report done by New Jersey Transit, the MTA and the Port Authority found the construction and operating costs to be less than the alternative of stub-ending the trains at a new station near Penn (a version of what Amtrak now wants to do at Penn Station South).

The fact that the cost of digging a tunnel beneath one of the densest parts of New York would be on par with that of building a new station might seem odd. But anyone who’s seen the astronomical cost overruns in station caverns for East Side Access and on the Second Avenue Subway (where for every dollar spent on tunnels, at least three are going toward stations) won’t be surprised.

New York’s transit agencies have not only shown no interest in this plan, they have also fought aggressively to prevent the release of the study that outlined it.

Yet somehow New York’s elected officials have allowed New York’s transit agencies to get away with suppressing this pretty important information, and influential New Yorkers have been suckered into chasing after a shiny new train station when spending the same amount on linking together the city’s existing assets would yield a much bigger return. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.