Penn Station Is Getting a Private Operator. Why Not the Trump Organization?

Let’s just say it’s a bit of a fixer-upper.

After another week of delays at New York’s Penn Station, governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have come up with a plan to fix America’s busiest train station. Or something that looks like a plan, anyway.

In a joint statement released on Thursday, the governors called on Amtrak to install a private operator to care for its maligned transit hub. The passenger rail company’s CEO Charles Moorman told a committee of the New York State Assembly he was on board. “I’ve instructed my team to have Amtrak set up a new entity which will seek private sector partners to handle concourse operations, maintenance and deliver improvements,” he said.

Amtrak owns Penn Station, and as is often the case with inherited property, has struggled with its maintenance and management. My favorite anecdote about the station concerns the escalator to tracks 15 and 16, which sat broken for four years in the late 1970s because Amtrak and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which leases space in the station, could not agree on who should pay to fix it:

The escalator had already stopped working when Amtrak was granted ownership of Penn Station in 1976. The two agencies squabbled for several years over how the $82,000 repair cost should be divided. An initial agreement split the cost 82-18. Amtrak didn’t think that was fair. A subsequent study determined Amtrak should pay 85 percent. In January 1979, the two sides agreed on an 80-20 funding split.

On Friday, March 23, the escalator sprang to life. The next day it broke again.

In theory, a private operator could do some good. The original sin of Penn Station is that it is shared between three squabbling entities, Amtrak, the MTA, and New Jersey Transit. This is why the signs are so confusing, and it also accounts for some degree of the hub’s general dysfunction. The place is managed with the compartmentalized ethos of a group house.

On the other hand, adding a master supervisor is not going to change Penn’s fundamental problem, which is that the three train services do not cooperate on their core business. (Call me when you can ride directly from Newark to Jamaica.) Cuomo and Christie know this; but real change is hard, and making noise about management is easy. Which explains this latest grand fix, which probably wouldn’t fix much at all. It’s what Politico’s Dana Rubenstein calls the Cuomo aesthetic, which “prizes the superficial and expedient over the substantive and more strenuous.”

But let’s just go along with the scheme for a moment: What kind of company would be qualified to run Penn Station, now that we’ve grown tired of the (rather bad) service provided by America’s passenger rail company? Here are some ideas.

The SNCF

Pro: The French National Railway Corporation owns and manages France’s world-class rail network and train stations, and performs a host of related activities in France and abroad. Getting an operator with this kind of expertise at all levels of rail operations is our only hope.

Con: Nothing this good ever happens.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Pro: The agency is indirectly in charge of building Penn’s new Gateway tunnel, and already runs the region’s three major airports. The most common North American parallel to what Cuomo and Christie seek at Penn can probably be found in private airport operators, who generally do a good job interfacing between government, customers, businesses, and airlines. 

Con: The Port Authority is grossly overextended as a result of 50 years of mission creep. Its most recent accomplishments include authorizing some of the nation’s worst transit initiatives, including the PATH extension to Newark Airport, Gov. Cuomo’s train to connect LaGuardia Airport to the Mets’ baseball park in Northeastern Queens so that the team can use transit at the start of its road trips, and a $4 billion dish rack.

Sidewalk Labs

Pro: You know Gov. Cuomo in particular would be into the idea of turning over the city’s flagging transit hub to Alphabet-né-Google’s city-building start-up that "imagines, designs, tests, and builds urban innovations to help cities meet their biggest challenges.”

Con: Penn Station is desperately in need of nuts-and-bolts railroad management, not cutting-edge technology.

Related and Vornado

Pro: The New York mega-developers are already handling the transformation of the Farley Post Office, which sits across 9th Avenue from Penn Station, into Moynihan Station, an annex to Penn that will be slightly less convenient than the current station—though not for Related, whose mega-development at Hudson Yards sits just west of there. Bonus: Steve Roth, CEO of Vornado, is also one of the heads of President Trump’s “infrastructure advisory council,” whatever that is. Vornado also owns One Penn Plaza, which sits just north of the station. The more deeply invested Roth is in Penn Station, the more likely Trump pays attention to the pending demise of Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels.

Con: New York already has one "train station" that functions principally as an upscale mega-mall; we don’t need two. And neither of these companies know anything about trains.

The Trump Organization

Pro: If it’s attention from Washington we want, why not just go all out and get Don Jr. and Eric to try their hand at Penn? Sure, the family has a long history of failed business ventures in which the Trump Org. left a place worse than it found it, but in the case of decrepit Penn, that would be a challenge. And where there are Trumps, there’s the promise of sweet, sweet grift. A cheap Chinese mega-loan for renovating the station could be just around the corner.

Con: They are not good at what they do, and this isn’t even that.

James Dolan and the Madison Square Garden Company

Pro:

Con: Jesus, no.

Auntie Anne’s

Pro: Extensive familiarity with American transit hubs, good relationship with customers, delightful smells.

Con: No experience in the railroad industry, but maybe it takes a pretzel-maker to untangle this warren of a station and its broken track beds.

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