Guest Opinion: New York Needs Through-Running… and So Does President Biden

November 6, 2023: President Joseph R. Biden announces $16.4 Billion for northeast corridor rail projects. | Photo via White House/Amtrak

BY SAMUEL TURVEY | President Biden’s plan to build the new Gateway Tunnels under the Hudson River—an investment of $50 billion—would assure Greater New York a bold new future. And yet, it has been greeted with muted hosannas, at best. If the President were to press his staff for answers as to why, he probably would not be happy with what he learns.

While many fully grasp the vital importance of the Gateway Tunnel project, there is mounting concern over the Railroads’ (Amtrak, the MTA, and NJ Transit) plan to build an expansion south of the current Penn Station. This would require demolishing almost two square blocks of Midtown Manhattan in order to build new, wholly unnecessary terminal tracks and platforms underground from 31st Street to 30th Street. Likewise, many question the wisdom of spending billions of dollars on revamping the current Penn Station only for it to remain buried under Madison Square Garden. It is important that President Biden understand the disquiet these ill-conceived plans are creating in New York. He might also want to look into why Governor Hochul failed to mention Penn Station—part of the largest infrastructure project in state history—in her last two State of the State addresses.

The Gateway Tunnels should serve as the launch pad for a modernized commuter rail network based on through-running—the international standard in commuter railroading. The upshot would be unprecedentedly swift, safe, and convenient access to a new Penn Station that would bookend Grand Central. Reconfiguring the station’s track layout to seamlessly link New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester through Midtown—rather than have trains come to a dead halt at Penn Station only to return half-empty to where they came from—would correct our current system’s main disadvantage: Its lack of connectivity between lines. Through-running would bring the outer boroughs and metropolitan counties to downtown, and vice versa, just as the merger of the IRT, BMT, and IND subway lines stitched together our sprawling metropolis.

Instead, the Railroads and various state agencies have proposed to give themselves a piñata stuffed with billions of dollars of waste and excess. Their proposed Penn Station South would squander billions of dollars while the through-running proposals of ReThinkNYC and other advocacy groups would cost $10 billion less and would not require the demolition of much of the vicinity.

The President needs to realize that the Gateway Tunnel project has been hijacked by the Railroads and their state agency counterparts. A project intended to enhance connectivity over a vast area is at risk because of our Railroads’ seeming inability to cooperate. Rather than integrate transit operations as many of our peer cities at home and abroad manage to do, the Railroads are proposing a plan that would perpetuate our Balkanized commuter rail set-up to the detriment of the entire region. The Railroads would pull down much of the neighborhood, including what has become known as Block 780, but have yet to provide bona fide evidence to support this alleged need for the station’s southern expansion..

Initially, then Governor Cuomo, working principally with the Vornado Realty Trust (Vornado), hatched a plan to pull down much of the historic Penn Station district and erect supertall Class-A office towers on its ruins. Governor Hochul originally tweaked the plan but essentially left it in place. Steve Roth, chairperson of Vornado, had the temerity to call the affected parts of Midtown West targeted for demolition his shareholders’ “promised land.” The late Richard Ravitch, New York’s former Lieutenant Governor and head of the MTA, found this outrageous.  He said, “New Yorkers deserve a better Penn plan, one that puts transit improvements first and is not a trumped-up real estate scheme that could leave taxpayers on a very sharp hook for generations to come.” On another occasion, Ravitch denounced the deal as “a real estate give away.”

With the collapse of the commercial real estate market, Governor Hochul and Vornado have had to pull in their horns. The Penn Station neighborhood has been granted a reprieve—at least for now. The Railroads, however, have their own demolitions in mind owing to their plans to expand Penn Station to the south. The Penn Station neighborhood is being beaten over the head with both ends of the same stick—the developers and the Railroads. And too many in power seem to be ignoring Jane Jacobs’ axiom that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” —and not left to the mercy of powerful private interests in league with the government. Fortunately, there are more than a few Manhattan elected officials at the state and city level who are beacons of sanity in opposing the neighborhood demolition schemes of both the State and the Railroads.

Mercifully, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has not included funding for the southern expansion of Penn Station or the rehabilitation of the existing station in its recent funding outlays. It probably sees the folly, inequity and exorbitant cost in the scheme and wisely refuses to fund it. The FRA must be astonished over the Railroads’ recalcitrance in embracing an operating model—through-running—that is the world standard in commuter railroading, especially considering the FRA’s clearly stated view that through-running in the U.S. should be the rule, not the exception.

At present, Amtrak already runs trains through Penn Station many times a day and certainly must be aware of the FRA’s guidelines. Amtrak’s leadership has made a number of comments of late that suggest a possible thaw in its once-frosty view of through-running. But it remains to be seen if they have enough courage to change course. The MTA, judging by some of its recent pronouncements, seems content to leave the mess on the doorstep of Amtrak and NJ Transit and look the other way on through-running and Block 780. This isn’t teamwork and it’s not leadership: the MTA knows perfectly well that through-running would greatly increase the LIRR’s capacity into Penn Station and provide expanded connectivity to residents of and visitors to Greater New York. This is borne out by the in-depth analyses of ReThinkNYC and others.

This is a politically charged matter. The White House needs to know that the Railroads are bucking the FRA’s guidelines, which reflect an approach to railroading that has been embraced by many of the nation’s and the world’s leading cities. London, Hong Kong, Paris, and Tokyo have converted to through-running.  So have Philadelphia and Toronto. Los Angeles will soon follow suit. In every one of these instances the implementation of through-running has been “game changing” and “truly transformative.”

As New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson recently observed:

“…cities, like London, have modernized their networks, connecting not just the suburbs to the central city, but running trains through the central city and out the other side. Ideally, this is what we would want to do in New York…It makes logistical sense. But I don’t see how it happens politically.”

If President Biden had attended Gateway’s recent kick-off event and made a statement like the following, he might have sidetracked the Railroads’ chicanery and answered Mr. Davidson’s concern about through-running’s political feasibility:

“Thanks to the increased capacity the Gateway tunnels will enable into and through Penn Station, we are going to revolutionize travel in this region, transform your commutes into civilized experiences, expand your access to housing and make the job market accessible to job-seekers and workers throughout the region.  Your outlying counties in New Jersey, as well as Westchester, Fairfield, Nassau, and Suffolk will have a degree of connectivity similar to what the subway system provides to New York’s outer boroughs. One-fare-rides will become the norm. And you will be able to build a great station, a worthy successor to the late, great Pennsylvania Station—a station capable of bookending Grand Central, one that makes you want to take the train, not avoid it like the plague.”

Such a statement would have redounded to the President’s credit in a region of 20 million citizens that produces 10% of the nation’s GDP. Certainly, area residents would grasp the merit in making a major investment in critical infrastructure whereas they have no use for sweetheart deals for politically connected developers that demolish whole neighborhoods and do nothing to bring the region up economically. In rectifying our rail system’s spotty connectivity, through-running would be a boon to transit (and, therefore, economic) equity: Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Sunnyside, Jamaica, Mineola, Port Morris, Yonkers, White Plains, and Stamford, among other localities, would benefit greatly. And New York City would see an improvement in its quality of life through the economic, social, and environmental benefits that would flow from getting Penn Station right.

Through-running would have a transformative impact reminiscent of the one fomented by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s promotion of rural electrification in the 1930s. If President Biden wants the credit he deserves for funding the Gateway Tunnels, he should use the powers of his office to reorient the Railroads’ thinking on through-running. Just as FDR is remembered by posterity for his visionary TVA program, President Biden’s agency in bringing through-running to Penn Station would long stand as one of his signal accomplishments—one worthy of the moniker “Amtrak Joe.”

Samuel Turvey is Chairperson of ReThinkNYC—an organization dedicated to applying innovative thinking to the future of New York City and its greater region, focused on transportation infrastructure, land use, governance, and socio-economic issues. Sam is also Co-Coordinator of the Empire Station Coalition, a group of 15 civic groups, neighborhood associations, and think tanks. He is also Coordinator of the Penn Community Defense Fund. Sam is an attorney and longtime community activist and board member in the not-for-profit community. Sam is a native of Staten Island and has lived and worked in each of New York City’s five boroughs.


Chelsea Community News is an independent, hyperlocal news, arts, events, info, and opinion website made possible with the help of our awesome advertisers and the support of our readers. Our Promise: Never a paywall, no pop-up ads, all content is FREE. With that in mind, if circumstances allow, please consider taking part in our GoFundMe campaign (click here). To make a direct donation, give feedback, send a Letter to the Editor, or contact our founder/editor, send an email to Scott Stiffler, via

To join our subscriber list, click here. It’s a free service providing regular (weekly, at least) Enewsletters containing links to recently published content. Subscribers also will be sent email with “Sponsored Content” in the subject line. That means it’s an exclusive message from one of our advertisers, whose support, like yours, allows us to offer all content free of charge. 

You must be logged in to post a comment Login