Magazine

HISTORY DEPT.

This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful

The long, sordid history of New York’s Penn Station shows how progressives have made it too hard for the government to do big things—and why, believe it or not, Robert Caro is to blame.

an illustration of Penn Station with holiday travelers and the ghost of Robert Moses

At the northeastern corner of the underground maze that doubles as the Western Hemisphere’s most heavily trafficked transit hub, two frantic streams of pedestrians converge. Commuters—more than 8,000 of them heading in and out, every hour, during the morning rush—enter New York’s Pennsylvania Station from the blocks surrounding Macy’s department store and go down a crowded set of escalators off 34th Street. After arriving at the basement level, they merge with the hordes that exit New York’s subway, roughly 27 million passengers entering and leaving this one station each year. Together, the two torrents then enter the “barrel corridor,” a cavelike hallway lined with drug stores, coffee shops and rundown delis hocking “big boys,” the canisters of cheap beer popular with construction workers heading home to Long Island.

In May 2017, near the end of an ordinary Wednesday morning rush hour, a sewer pipe set above the barrel corridor burst open. Within minutes, streams of excrement poured through the station’s tiled ceiling. Sludge spread from a shabby McDonald’s at one end of the corridor to the Long Island Railroad ticket windows farther down. Armed with mops and buckets, janitors placed rolling dumpsters beneath the heaviest streams, but they couldn’t contain the flood. Unwitting commuters, their eyes cast at the downpour, traipsed through the mess, tracking it in all directions. A stench permeated the whole complex.

Vile as the sewage waterfall may have been, it was far from the most dangerous crisis to confront Penn Station commuters that spring. Six weeks earlier, and again in April, trains derailed in the tunnels a level below, injuring several passengers, and forcing the three railroads serving the station to cancel or delay dozens of departures. Inspectors eventually traced the problem to rotten ties, the wooden slats placed between metal railroad tracks. Inspectors had warned of the decay the year before, but executives had chosen to defer the repairs for what they deemed pressing priorities elsewhere.

Penn Station is the second most heavily trafficked transit hub in the world, trailing only Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. The station serves more daily passengers than the region’s three huge airports (Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark) combined. More people pass through Penn each weekday than live in the city of Baltimore. Anyone who has passed through Penn Station over the past half-century—or who passed through it this Thanksgiving weekend—knows that the nation’s busiest transit center is a national embarrassment, a hole in the ground where the food is ratty and the waiting rooms are sparse.

For more than a generation, New York’s most important gateway has been a grimy relic. Powerful figures in New York, Albany and Washington have plotted for more than three decades to redevelop the whole complex into a world-class facility. But time and again, their efforts have faltered. Today, after 30 years of talk, the station is poised for an upgrade, but the plans are less elaborate than the ones that were announced last decade. And even when the current work is complete, the station will require still more renovation just to be considered a modern facility.

I first encountered Penn Station as a college student in the mid-1990s. Back then, a stream of stories promised that the station was about to undergo a transformation. A decade and a half later, the station had barely changed at all. Having spent years in and around Democratic politics, I wanted to understand why going into Penn Station was like walking through a time warp.

So I began calling friends who’d had senior roles in state and federal government, and then sought out some on the long list of people who had spent a portion of their careers working on the project. No one had ever traced the full sweep of the efforts to remake the station, and why they always failed. Trying to make sense of the swirl, I built a timeline on a spreadsheet, which grew to nearly 600 entries. After years of research, a picture began to emerge—one that, beyond the scope of any given anecdote, told a dispiriting story about the futility of present-day American government, and reshaped my view of progressive politics.

The story of Penn Station’s halting redevelopment comes in three separate waves of effort that rose up to replace the current squalor—and then, in the first two cases, crumbled into nothing. Pundits and editorials have tended to blame a rotating cast of characters for the rot—the railroad that owns the station, the state bureaucracies that have neglected it, the private real estate interests that have hemmed it in. But Penn Station has actually languished at the hands of another simple reality: No one has the leverage to fix it. The sad state of America’s most important train station stems more from a failure of power than a failure of leadership. And shockingly enough, that’s not by mistake—it’s by design.

The roadblocks that prevent projects like Penn Station from quick completion were erected after a quiet but enormously consequential shift in progressive thinking—a transformation that began in the 1960s and still reverberates today. For the previous century, reformers ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson had sought to combat the pernicious influence of political machines and corporate trusts by consolidating public power in the hands of expert technocrats, men (and, to be clear, they were mostly white men) driven to pursue the broader public interest. But by the early 1970s, the old progressive vision had shattered. No single event may have pointed the new way more clearly than the publication, mere months before Richard Nixon’s resignation, of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

Caro’s 45-year-old masterpiece, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, is often billed as a biography of New York’s most important 20th-century builder, an unelected official who remade the city’s landscape between the mid-1920s and the late 1960s. But the 1,296-page book was also an indictment of government power that has since become a core tenet of progressive thinking. Since the 1970s, even as progressives have championed Big Government, they’ve worked tirelessly to put new checks on its power—to pull it away from imperious technocrats who might use government to bulldoze hapless communities. And it’s that impulse to protect the powerless from the abuse of public power that is most responsible for the morass that is Penn Station.

Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. New York has managed to rebuild when bridges and subways failed and, in the case of the World Trade Center, when buildings were destroyed by terrorists. A handful of new subway stops have opened on Second Avenue, and the 7 Line was extended into Manhattan’s Far West Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he’s rebuilding terminals at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. But those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands. The subway system is falling apart. Entire neighborhoods are transit deserts. Century-old tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey are beginning to fail.

Why aren’t there new subway lines connecting impoverished corners of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens? Why does freight traveling from New Jersey to Long Island travel by truck across Manhattan and not by rail? Why does the Port Authority Bus Terminal languish amid calls for an upgrade? Why does luxury housing sprout like weeds while institutions that serve the middle and working classes are left to languish? Why, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a letter to Gov. George Pataki in 1995, does it seem as though America has “lost the touch for famous things”?

Penn Station, like so much of the region’s infrastructure, remains in tatters today not because men like Robert Moses are no longer on the scene, but because the system in which Moses operated has been replaced by an entirely new, and remarkably dysfunctional, architecture. Beneath America’s deep frustration with government is something else: a deep-seated aversion to power. Progressives resolved decades ago to prevent the public from being bulldozed by another Robert Moses—and the project to diffuse power to the public has succeeded. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The left’s zeal to hamstring government has helped to burnish the right’s argument that government would mess up a one-car parade. The new protections erected to guard against Moses’ second coming have condemned new generations to live in civic infrastructure that is frozen in time.


‘The Largest Room in the World’

Earlier this year, a man known in New York real estate circles simply as Janno stood in front of a phalanx of cameras almost directly beneath the spot where sewage had poured out of the ceiling. He was there to announce that Penn Station would soon undergo its most significant modernization in more than a half-century. For the better part of the previous two decades, Janno Lieber had been a crucial point man during the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. Then, in 2017, Cuomo hired him as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief development officer. This past March, Lieber called a news conference to explain how New York state, though it didn’t own Penn Station, was prepared to invest $600 million in making the facility a “first-class transportation terminal of the 21st century.”

The announcement was welcome, but after years of unfulfilled promises to improve Penn, commuters could be forgiven for remaining skeptical. Twenty years earlier, before he’d taken his job at the World Trade Center, and just after a stint as the assistant secretary for transportation policy in the Clinton administration, Lieber had arrived back in New York as a consultant drafted by New York’s state government to help on a pressing local need—the reconstruction of Penn Station. Now, standing near one end of the barrel corridor , he was in the same place, tackling something like the same project.

When the original Penn Station opened in 1910, it represented an international triumph—the fourth-largest building on the face of the earth, trailing only St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Tuileries in Paris, and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Conceived by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead and White, a partner at the same architectural firm that designed the West Wing of the White House, the Boston Public Library and later the National Museum of American History, the building was intended to establish New York as a global metropolis on par with London and Paris. The main waiting area, inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, was described as “the largest room in the world.”

Constructed as the first leg of New York’s subway system was being dug and the first steel-framed skyscrapers were beginning to dot the city’s skyline, Penn Station was just one element of the private Pennsylvania Railroad’s ambitious endeavor to tunnel under the Hudson and East Rivers, allowing Manhattan-bound passengers from Long Island, New Jersey and all points west and south to arrive on the island of Manhattan without having to transfer onto a ferry. Railroad executives crowed that the project, taken as a whole, represented “a greater expenditure than was ever before incurred by a private corporation for a single undertaking.”

But Penn Station’s glory lasted barely more than half a century. The federal government’s decision in the 1950s to build an interstate highway system poached huge portions of the market for train travel. Many white, middle-class New Yorkers decamped for the suburbs, and they chose to drive their sedans and station wagons into Manhattan. An average of 341,000 daily passengers flowed through Penn Station in 1945. By 1960, that figured had been cut in half. After sinking $37 million into the station in 1963, executives for the railroad called “Pennsy” made the drastic decision to take a wrecking ball to McKim’s masterpiece to make room for a new arena, namely Madison Square Garden. It was that decision that relegated railroad passengers to the den of basement hallways the public endures today.

Demolishing the old Penn Station failed to staunch the Pennsy’s bleeding. After the railroad declared bankruptcy in the 1970s, Washington took control of its assets and established a government-subsidized corporation, Amtrak, to run a few of the old railroad industry’s routes. For years, the new subterranean Penn Station languished, a symbol of New York’s decline. Finally, after rehabilitating Washington’s Union Station in the late 1980s, Amtrak executives began to explore the possibility of overhauling the railroad’s New York hub. And when he caught wind of that budding possibility, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who by then had represented New York in the Senate for more than a decade, made it his mission to restore Penn Station to its former glory.

For Moynihan, Penn Station was something more than a transit hub. It was a symbol of New York’s failure to maintain its heritage and invest in its future. Having grown up in nearby Hell’s Kitchen, he’d shined shoes on the station’s now-obliterated white marble steps. Frequently citing Yale architecture professor Vincent Scully’s Penn Station-oriented quip—“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat”—Moynihan believed that grand public spaces were worthy of major public investments. He intended to rectify what he considered “the greatest act of civic vandalism in the city’s history.”

Because Madison Square Garden sat atop the existing station, Moynihan couldn’t reasonably hope to rebuild Charles McKim’s masterpiece. So he keyed in on the next best option: a proposal to convert the Farley Post Office Building across the street on Eighth Avenue into a new train hall. Designed by McKim’s architectural firm and fronted by a grand colonnade, by the late 1980s the building had fallen on hard times. Postal officials signaled that they were open to converting Farley’s eastern courtyard into a grand new train hall. When an initial design for installing a vast glass ceiling in the Farley Building’s eastern courtyard was released in 1993, one developer commented: “It makes so much sense, it's almost scary.” So with Moynihan’s encouragement, Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service entered into negotiations.


A Lost Decade

Normally, the cost of improving a train station is borne by the railroad that owns it. Nearly a century before, the Pennsylvania Railroad had paid virtually the full freight of building McKim’s masterpiece. But for the same reasons that the Pennsy went bankrupt—fares couldn’t cover the costs of operating the railroad—Amtrak was incapable of staying afloat, let alone financing a major station renovation, without government subsidies. That meant that if Moynihan was going to convert Farley into a train station, he would have to get the postal service to fork over the building, persuade Amtrak to move across the street, and find the money to put the whole deal together. Even for a powerful member of the Senate Finance Committee, it was a tall order.

Moynihan’s first step was to convince the State of New York that it should become the project’s bureaucratic champion. At a late-night dinner in Washington, Moynihan’s chief of staff, Bill Cunningham, persuaded Republican Gov. George Pataki’s economic czar, Charles Gargano, to establish the Penn Station Redevelopment Corporation, and later recommended that Alex Washburn, a young architect and urban planner on the senator’s staff, lead the new bureaucracy. Before Washburn left Washington for New York, Moynihan pulled him aside for some instructions. Whatever the bureaucratic hurdles, Moynihan warned, Washburn’s job was to make the move to Farley “inevitable.”

For the next several years, Washburn worked as a Democratic mole inside Pataki’s administration. In August 1994, after Moynihan prevailed on President Bill Clinton to put $100 million in the federal budget toward what was slated to be a $315 million project, the federal, city and state governments signed an agreement that envisioned Amtrak completing a new train hall in Farley by 1999, with each layer of government contributing some portion of the cost.

But money wasn’t the only issue. Amtrak and the postal service had to be persuaded to do the deal. Two generations earlier, Robert Moses would have been able to use the power he’d accrued to bend everyone on a project like this to his will. But Washburn could do little but suggest and cajole. What the young architect quickly realized was that, despite Moynihan’s enthusiasm, several players were purposefully dragging their feet.

While postal officials were careful never to challenge the senator directly, they made an art of running out the clock. As shown in reams of memos that Washburn preserved and then, decades later, saved from being washed away in Superstorm Sandy, the postal service successively cited concerns about the project’s environmental impacts, the landmark implications, how the train hall might affect the mail sorting that would continue on the backside of the building. At every turn, they voiced a new objection.

In 1997, after years of delay, Moynihan’s impatience reached a head. In Washburn’s telling, the senator demanded a “trick-or-treat” survey of the building. Rather than allow postal officials to conduct a tour, staff from the Penn Station Redevelopment Corporation would enter the building unannounced to knock on doors by chance to see how each room was being used. What they found shocked them. Rooms postal officials were refusing to relinquish were essentially abandoned. A huge workshop was being used to bang the dents out of mailboxes that postal officials were importing into Manhattan from around the region. Days later, the Daily News wrote in a scathing editorial, “Of the 115 loading-dock bays, nine are occupied by dumpsters or compactors, another nine by personal cars, and 20 more by tractor-trailers sitting there for at least 24 hours.” Yet the foot-dragging continued.

Finally, negotiators broached a broad agreement in 1998 to give Washburn’s outfit control of a third of Farley’s 1.4 million square feet. As Moynihan told a New York Times reporter at the time, when President Bill Clinton received word of the handshake deal on Air Force One, he barreled up to the senator, who had hitched a ride, and exclaimed, “The Post Office is yours!” The Times put the article on its front page: “Thirty-five years after the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan was leveled, federal officials announced an agreement yesterday to begin converting the landmark General Post Office building on Eighth Avenue into a new train station. They said work could start this summer.”

But it didn’t. Even with the Democratic president, the Republican governor and a powerful senator on board, still others began to balk. The Port Authority, the massive bureaucracy that controls the New York area’s ports, airports and several bridges, demanded that the Long Island Railroad provide a straight-shot route from Farley to Kennedy Airport—adding a whole new layer of complication. David Childs, the star architect hired to design the new station, temporarily stopped work out of concern that Washburn didn’t have enough funding to pay him.

Most worrying, and in spite of Pataki’s support, congressional Republicans began threatening to withdraw the funding that Moynihan had painstakingly inserted into the federal budget. The senator, feeling as though the project was perpetually on the chopping block, complained to Washburn that Farley was “a fat dolphin in a sea of sharks.” It was far from the first time that federal, state and local officials have fought over a project. As Robert Caro detailed in The Power Broker, Robert Moses himself battled with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over whether to connect Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan with a bridge or tunnel—and lost. But Penn Station was particularly vulnerable to Washington politics because the project’s gestation period had lasted so long.

Finally, in May 1999, Clinton and Moynihan joined a slate of local officials to unveil Childs’ design, replete with a huge glass canopy shaped like a potato chip as the new entrance. Like Moynihan, the critics were impressed. But even after the unveiling, a new hurdle emerged: the need for more money. The project’s cost had risen from $315 million to $763 million, largely because Washburn’s team had expanded the project’s scope to include the work required to prepare other parts of the building for commercial tenants. Republicans pounced, claiming that taxpayers around the country were being fleeced. The deal fell into turmoil.

During the final months of the Clinton administration—after Moynihan announced he was retiring and Washburn returned to the private sector—the state hired Janno Lieber (yes, that Janno Lieber) to close the deal. Lieber secured a low-interest federal loan, a prerequisite to getting construction underway. And then, just as the project looked fully baked a decade after Amtrak and the postal ervice had begun negotiations, a band of deranged fanatics steered two airplanes into New York’s Twin Towers.

After 9/11, New York’s priorities understandably changed overnight. Among the many consequences, the postal service’s other major sorting facility in Manhattan had been destroyed. That gave the postal service a new motive for pulling out of the deal. And in the harried days that followed, that’s exactly what officials announced it intended to do.

But when word of the postal service’s change of heart leaked to the Daily News, Pataki and Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg appealed directly to President George W. Bush. As one state official at the time recalled, the alacrity with which the postal executives caved seemed to indicate that someone high up in the White House had dressed them down. Having been chastised, the postal service immediately announced its willingness to turn over every inch of the building (save the small mail counter in front).

In October 2002, less than a half year before Moynihan died, a framework to move the project forward prompted the Times to publish yet another hopeful editorial, this one headlined, “ The Go-Ahead at Penn Station.” But with Washington, Albany and City Hall all concentrating their attention on the smoldering ruins at ground zero, Penn Station would have to wait its turn. As one senior congressional aide explained to me, it was all New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, could do simply to prevent federal funding for the project from being reassigned to something else.

In the first decade of the 20th century, it had taken New York a mere four years and seven months to build the first leg of the subway, running from City Hall to upper Manhattan. In more than double that time nearly 100 years later, the city had made next to no progress on Penn Station.


How Progressives Learned to Fear Power

Charles McKim’s Penn Station was not the only institution to be bulldozed during the 1960s. The old progressive vision, born from the notion that centralized public power should be used to pursue the greater public good, died as well.

Nearly 80 years earlier, a young professor at Bryn Mawr College named Woodrow Wilson had published an essay in Political Science Quarterly titled, “ The Study of Administration.” Written during a period defined by robber barons and political machines, Wilson argued that government should be considered a science—something too technical to be left to political hacks. And that became the old reform movement’s call to arms.

Through the decades that followed, progressive reformers like Jane Addams and Louis Brandeis argued that the interests of ordinary people would be served only if power were consolidated in the hands of high-minded experts. The way to make real progress was to pull power up and in. Progressives fought to establish blue ribbon commissions and public authorities, institutions like the Federal Reserve and the ever-expansive Interstate Commerce Commission. Each reform was designed to insulate technocrats from the meddling of small-minded legislators.

The upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s spurred many reformers to rethink the way forward. A new generation of reporters began unearthing the abuses wrought by the experts who now wielded so much power. In 1972, David Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, his stinging account of how intellectuals inside the Kennedy administration had steered the country into the quagmire of Vietnam. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and other journalists exposed the deep corruption inside the Nixon administration. And The Power Broker, published in 1974, burnished the same argument.

Caro documented in detail how Robert Moses’ wanton use of public power affected those who had no recourse but to endure his abuse. He had flattened whole neighborhoods in order to build highways. He had bulldozed crowded city blocks in the name of “slum clearance.” And the people whose lives he disrupted had no recourse—high-minded reforms had stolen their voice by pulling power away from the street. As The Power Broker illustrated, far from spreading opportunity, men like Robert Moses had used their power to do monstrous things.

If the progressive movement’s original project had been to use centralized authority to pursue the greater good, in the 1970s the left’s new mission was to prevent public power from trampling the powerless. And with that shift, The Power Broker’s indictment of government became a pillar of Democratic Party gospel.

In the decades since, that gospel has been used to justify a whole choirbook of incantations—efforts to require projects to mitigate even the slightest environmental effects, to preserve landmarked buildings no matter the cost, to democratize land use decisions so that not-in-my-backyard stakeholders can reject even projects of great public benefit, and much more. By many measures, the movement to devolve power has been wildly successful. But more than four decades later, the trade-offs have become more evident. Nowhere is the evidence starker than at Penn Station.

In New York, and in other cities, government power is now spread so thin that places once incapable of stopping bad projects now cannot get good projects off the ground. Today, neighborhoods use newly established checks on government to protect themselves from unwelcome interference, as illustrated recently by the success activists had in thwarting Amazon’s plan to site their second headquarters in Queens. For nearly 30 years, Penn Station’s redevelopment plans have been perpetually held hostage by a long litany of veto threats that rest on those same progressive reforms. And the hundreds of thousands of working- and middle-class commuters who funnel through the facility every day have been left to suffer through the paralysis.


The Garden

Teddy Roosevelt was president when the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, the “largest, richest, and best-operated” of the nation’s behemoth corporations, began digging its tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan. But in the decades after the Second World War, as the nation’s railroads began falling on hard times, government was often forced to step in, creating a peculiar dynamic. A state-run commuter service, the Long Island Railroad, is the federally owned facility’s most significant tenant—with New York state’s commuter line dwarfing the number of passengers that Amtrak ferries into Manhattan from more distant points of departure.

Left unresolved was the question of which struggling, publicly owned bureaucracy would be held responsible for the station’s upkeep. Even the most minor repairs can get caught in a net of Kafkaesque negotiations. In the mid-1970s, an escalator between tracks 15 and 16 ground to a stop. Engineers determined that the work would cost $82,000. For four years, executives at the two railroads stood at a stalemate, unable to resolve how to split the bill. Finally, Amtrak grudgingly agreed to cover 80 percent of the tab in March 1979, and maintenance workers were deployed to bring the escalator back into service. A day later, the newly repaired escalator broke again.

Now, by trying to move Manhattan’s preeminent train hall into the Farley Building, New York state was essentially asking a federally owned railroad (Amtrak) to abandon real estate it already owned (Penn Station) to lease space in a building (Farley) that the state of New York was planning to purchase from yet another federal agency (the U.S. Postal Service). And, as David Gunn, Amtrak’s then-CEO was quick to point out, Amtrak wasn’t even poised to get much more than a nicer waiting room out of the move—the project would not provide additional platform space or tunnels. To Gunn’s mind, the whole thing was a charade designed to satisfy Moynihan’s obsession with grand public architecture. He preferred to spend Amtrak’s limited budget on track and train maintenance.

In the wake of Moynihan’s death in 2003, Pataki was presented with a problem. If, as Gunn was threatening, Amtrak wasn’t even going to accept the state’s gift of a new station, Albany would have to finance an enormously expensive project with its own limited budget. And that spurred Pataki’s economic czar, Charles Gargano, to begin thinking more creatively. Someone was going to make money off the newsstands and restaurants that would populate the new train hall in Farley. Beyond that, a beautiful new train hall would enhance property values throughout the surrounding neighborhood. Maybe he could find a way to get a developer to pick up a significant portion of the tab.

In October 2004, Gargano solicited bids from builders interested in maintaining a new train hall in Farley. Several developers submitted proposals, but few insiders had any real doubts about who would win. The Vornado Real Estate Trust owned the Hotel Pennsylvania across Seventh Avenue; One Penn Plaza, the skyscraper connected below ground to the barrel corridor; and Two Penn Plaza, a midsized office building that shared the super-block above Penn Station with Madison Square Garden. Maybe more important, the company owned a whole range of low-level buildings that, given enough demand, could be replaced with skyscrapers. In other words, Vornado had the most to gain if Penn Station were rebuilt. And so it was prepared to offer the state the best deal.

Unfortunately from the state’s perspective, Vornado was far from the ideal partner. As one member of the Pataki administration would later explain to me, the company’s CEO, Steve Roth, had a reputation for sitting on properties indefinitely, using delay tactics to extract additional concessions from cities desperate to spark neighborhood development. Years earlier, Roth and a New York developer named Donald Trump had battled to control a block that had once housed Alexander’s, a shuttered low-end department store on the city’s East Side. After Ross prevailed, he let the site decay, explaining years later: “Why did I do nothing? Because I was thinking in my own awkward way that the more the building was a blight, the more the government would want this to be redeveloped, the more help they would give us when the time came.” Gargano didn’t want Penn Station to be caught in a similar fix.

Roth wasn’t the only real estate titan interested in the project. Led by billionaire owner Steve Ross, the Related Companies had just completed a wildly successful project to replace the dilapidated New York Coliseum on Columbus Circle with the new Time Warner Center. Ross approached Roth, making them a tandem known popularly as “The Two Steves,” and suggested that they do something similar in and around Penn.

In July 2005, Pataki announced that the state had designated Vornado and Related as the (now) $930 million project’s developers—and the terms were fairly sweet. While controlling Farley, the Two Steves wouldn’t be on the hook to pay Albany any rent until everything had come together. Once City Hall agreed to let the Two Steves redirect whatever property taxes the site owners owed to the design and construction costs, the plan seemed, once again, poised to move forward. As the New York Times explained that month in its latest hopeful-sounding headline: “Penn Station Project is a ‘Go’.”

A half-century earlier, when Robert Moses had been in his prime, New York state wouldn’t have needed to depend on private developers, if only because Moses would have had the authority to shape and finance the project to his own liking. (At the same time, Moses wouldn’t have invested in a train terminal because, as The Power Broker makes clear, he believed that cars were the future and trains were the past.)

But in the absence of anyone with anything similar to Moses’ power, the Two Steves faced the burden of clearing all the hurdles that had been erected in the power broker’s wake. Legislators had enacted new environmental regulations, established landmark standards, empowered community boards, created new review processes and more—all in an effort to diffuse power to protect the public interest. Years later, New York Magazine would dub Ross, who would go on to develop Hudson Yards, as Moses’ successor. But, as would become evident as Penn Station remained unreconstructed, the truth was that he wielded a fraction of Moses’ power.

The developers had grand ambitions. The area around Penn Station was, at the time, the only portion of midtown Manhattan without major skyscrapers. In exchange for rehabilitating the train station, the Two Steves intended to build a huge new commercial development in the surrounding blocks—something akin to Rockefeller Center, but bigger. There was a catch: To make the whole project work, they would have to move Madison Square Garden, now sitting in the spot where McKim’s Penn Station has once existed, to a new location. And that added a world of complexity.

Unlike Farley, which had been owned by the postal service, Madison Square Garden was a private business controlled by Jim Dolan, a businessman whose public reputation was, by mid-2005, to put it lightly, suboptimal. Fans complained then, as they do now, that he was running both the New York Knicks and New York Rangers into the ground. But political insiders also knew that Dolan had led the opposition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to erect a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, the linchpin of the city’s failed bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. His motives, many assumed, had been self-serving: He hadn’t wanted the new stadium to compete with MSG when the circus (or any other big event) came to town.

To kill the stadium proposal, Dolan had leaned into what many presumed was an unseemly bargain. He’d prevailed on State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—a longtime Rangers season ticket holder who would later go to prison for corruption—to scrap the deal by exercising his veto on an arcane body called the Public Authority Control Board. Little known, but immensely powerful, the PACB had been created in 1975, less than a year after The Power Broker was published, to put an additional check on bureaucrats who, in grand Moses tradition, had thrown taxpayer dollars around with very little accountability.

No one doubted that Dolan would demand a steep price for moving his prized arena from atop the western hemisphere’s most heavily trafficked transit hub. But many wondered whether any price would cover that privilege. The city and state had the option of condemning Madison Square Garden, seizing it in exchange for a fair market value through a process known as eminent domain. But that would cost taxpayers billions of dollars and leave the Knicks and Rangers without a place to play. No sane politician would choose to endure the fallout.

The Two Steves floated a workaround: What if, in return for relinquishing the Penn Station block, Dolan was to receive, for free, a brand-new Madison Square Garden atop the backside of the Farley Building? While initially cool to the idea, he eventually came around, concluding that receiving a modern arena with better amenities and more luxury seating at no cost was worth a one-block move. In February 2006, at a fashion industry event at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Plaza, Jim Dolan walked up to Gargano, Pataki’s economic czar, to say he was willing to do a deal at the right price. They signed a memorandum of understanding laying out, with only limited detail, how the arrangement would work.

In the months and years that followed, Dolan, the state, and the Two Steves chiseled the broad outlines of a massive agreement: Once MSG was moved atop Farley, the old Penn Station block would be razed, and buildings would go up around the neighborhood to create a footprint larger than Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building combined. The Two Steves would not just redevelop Farley, move Madison Square Garden, and build a spectacular new train hall. They would also build a series of skyscrapers in the surrounding neighborhood, including a new global headquarters for Merrill Lynch, a structure slated in early designs to be significantly taller than the Empire State Building.

But as the plans became more detailed, the negotiations became more contentious. Dolan, for example, insisted on the right to place well-lit signage in front of the Farley Building. Preservationists reacted in horror. The president of the Landmarks Conservancy compared the new arena to “Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to jam their feet into the glass slipper.” Amtrak, an organization that had become something of an afterthought in the scheme, brazenly insisted at one point that it might scuttle the deal almost out of pique. Because any single stakeholder could undermine the whole deal, the negotiations were fraught. And there wasn’t a Robert Moses to whip the stragglers into line.

Dolan’s demand put Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Pataki’s Democratic successor, in a particularly tenuous position. Spitzer fancied himself a “fucking steamroller,” capable of forcing others to heed his demands. But now construction of the $3 billion train station hinged on whether the new governor could get Dolan to accept a $1 billion arena at no charge. That might seem like a gift too good to turn down, but the gobsmacking dollar figure obscures the power dynamic: If Dolan walked away, the new Penn Station would be dead. He had the most powerful man in New York State over a barrel.

The governor and the sports mogul agreed to meet. But when Dolan and his entourage arrived at Spitzer’s Manhattan office, the governor’s staff had the executives, accustomed to VIP treatment, wait with the general public, rather than in a private conference room. As one insider explained to me, this was Spitzer’s attempt at a power play. It backfired.

When the governor’s staff eventually ushered Dolan into a conference room, the meeting quickly got heated. Spitzer pounded the table, demanding the arena owners accept the gift of a new arena, and rejected out of hand their request for signage in front of Farley’s colonnade. Dolan told the governor that removing a landmarked brick wall inside Farley—a wall preservationists were lobbying to preserve—was a “religious issue” for him. The governor stormed out, furious that such a massive undertaking could be held up over what seemed such a piddling concern. Neither side was willing to budge.

In the months that followed, the whole plan—the new arena, the new office towers, the new train hall, the revitalized section of Manhattan—fell apart. First, prosecutors discovered that Spitzer, while in Washington for meetings in search of additional federal funding for Farley’s renovation, had paid to transport a prostitute across state lines for a rendezvous at the Mayflower Hotel. He promptly resigned, leaving the state in hands of Lt. Gov. David Paterson.

Then, as one senior development executive tells it, Lisa Rosenblum, Madison Square Garden’s chief lobbyist, presented Dolan with a thick binder laying out the multitude of approvals the deal still needed to clear—many created in the wake of The Power Broker. Looking at the institutional barriers on paper and realizing simultaneously that the state hadn’t yet set aside sufficient money to close the deal expeditiously, Dolan concluded that Paterson wouldn’t be able to pull the whole thing off. So he decided to move in a different direction. Instead of moving across the street to a new arena, Dolan would answer the public’s frustration that MSG was dilapidated by renovating the existing facility.

It had now been seven years since 9/11, and the nearly insurmountable delays involved in the negotiation had yet again left Penn Station back at the starting point. The various schemes had claimed countless hours of planning, several environmental reviews, and been subject to years of scrutiny. Two generations earlier, Robert Moses had been too powerful to stop, but in this case, the government was too weak to go.


Moynihan Station, Maybe

The Great Recession, of all things, came to Penn Station’s rescue. In the wake of the financial collapse, the Obama administration sought to jump-start the nation’s economy by funding what it called “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. In 2010, at the urging of several White House officials who hailed from New York, the president awarded New York state an $83 million grant for construction of a subterranean corridor that would allow passengers entering the Farley Building to get to the train platforms below.

Without this corridor—called the “West End Concourse”—someone standing in Farley looking to get to on a train would have had to exit at street level and cross eighth Avenue to enter Penn Station. Later that year, on the 100th anniversary of the original Penn Station’s opening, now Gov. Paterson presided over a formal groundbreaking. At long last, the first phrase of the decades-long endeavor to build what was now called Moynihan Station was underway.

Even so, the new path forward was much more modest than the design abandoned just a few years earlier. With the real estate market collapsing, the Two Steves were skittish about subsidizing any additional work. Merrill Lynch, which had intended to occupy a new tower across the street from Penn Station, did not survive the financial collapse. It wasn’t clear that a new train station, like the one Related and Vornado had agreed to build just a few years earlier, would drive enough demand to justify their investment. So the burden fell more squarely on taxpayers.

That had left Paterson, New York’s accidental governor, at a loss. He threw responsibility for the project to Tim Gilchrist, a bureaucrat from upstate New York who took up Alex Washburn’s old job as president of what was now called the Moynihan Station Development Corporation. Gilchrist formed an alliance with Andy Lynn, a powerful figure inside the Port Authority. Combined, the two insiders had enough institutional knowledge to get the project moving—with a greater reliance on public financing.

Quietly, Gilchrist and Lynn managed to push the project along, even if at a snail’s pace. Financial challenges, engineering complications, environmental reviews and landmark designations required seemingly endless negotiation and coordination. But in June 2017, with minimal fanfare, the West End Concourse connecting Farley to Penn Station opened to the public.

The question then almost immediately turned to what would emerge above the new concourse—namely whether a grand new train hall would be built. Answering that question was largely left to the governor who succeeded Paterson in 2011, Andrew Cuomo.

The crucial issue was, once again, money. New York State was eager to find a private-sector tenant to lease office space inside Farley because Albany would then be able to use that rent to help pay for construction of the train hall. But tenants proved elusive. Cuomo’s team explored a range of new ideas. When General Electric announced its intention move its headquarters out of Connecticut, Cuomo pushed to have the company relocate to Farley—but executives eventually chose to move to Boston instead. He pitched the Farley Building as one of several potential anchor sites for Amazon’s second headquarters—but executives in Seattle initially decided to build in Queens instead. After the state Senate’s appointee to the Public Authorities Control Board threatened to use his veto to kill that plan, Amazon pulled the plug.

In late 2015, now well into his second term, Cuomo grew impatient. Determined to step into Robert Moses’ shoes and establish a legacy as one of New York’s great builders, he turned up the pressure on the Two Steves. The governor tore up the old designation that had given Vornado and Related the right to develop Farley on their own schedule, and invited developers to submit new plans.

Presaging the news conference Janno Lieber would hold three years later, the governor proposed to widen the hallways in the existing station, most notably the barrel corridor that would subsequently be doused in sewage. Second, he suggested that developers demolish the old Felt Forum, now known as the Hulu Theater, which sits beneath the drum of Madison Square Garden, creating an opening to allow natural light to stream into the existing train hall. Finally, he declared that the winning bidder would finally build a train hall in the Farley Building akin to the one gracing East Midtown’s Grand Central Terminal. And he put a price tag on the project: $3 billion—significantly less than the $14 billion project celebrated in 2008, but much more extensive than the $315 million project Moynihan had proposed a quarter-century earlier.

After decades of unfulfilled promises, the new plan was greeted by the general public with a yawn. But many within the architectural community were incensed. Cuomo’s new vision abandoned their dream of reclaiming the Penn Station block from Madison Square Garden, appearing to some advocates as a capitulation to the private sector. The New York Times’ influential architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, dismissed Cuomo’s proposal as unworthy of New York City’s most important gateway, writing, “We are better than this,” and endorsing a plan to “skin” the existing Madison Square Garden and use the underlying skeleton as a framework for a beautiful new glassed-in train hall.

A pitched battle of ideas soon turned nasty. Civic-minded groups beat the drum publicly for a grander vision. But to the governor’s advisors, the more ambitious plan was a fantasy. Responding to Kimmelman, Rick Cotton, a highly placed Cuomo aide, wrote in a letter to the New York Times, “Let’s not allow complex future dreams to stop us from taking bold and tangible steps today.”

For all that his detractors like to complain that Cuomo is an imperious autocrat—that he’s a bully like Moses—critics were now arguing that his plans for Penn Station were too timid. But he was just acknowledging a political reality. Spitzer’s tussle with Jim Dolan had proved that a governor of New York, no matter how determined, can’t force Madison Square Garden to move. When it comes to New York City’s most important gateway, the most powerful figure in New York state holds a fairly weak hand.

Robert Moses would have found some other way to pressure MSG—perhaps he would have proposed to run an expressway through Dolan’s house on Long Island, or found a way to use regulatory changes to imperil another Dolan-controlled company, like (at the time) Cablevision. Cuomo, by contrast, was hamstrung. No one seriously believed Dolan had any intention of walking away from that money spent on Madison Square Garden’s new renovations for nothing, and taxpayers would never abide the governor handing Dolan billions of public dollars.

Some argue that Cuomo should have fought harder, or found another lever to persuade Dolan to abandon his company’s private property without compensation. But that ignores the underlying reality. Reforms designed to chop up Moses’ power and spread it among local, state, public and private interests have given a whole range of parties—Dolan, Amtrak, the Two Steves, members of Congress, property owners, preservationists, environmentalists, neighborhood activists—the ability to gum up the works and obstruct grand civic projects that seemingly everyone wants. And even if few have the explicit ability to kill a project outright, they have the power to delay it, sometimes indefinitely, until its sponsors give up.

In the dozens of interviews I conducted with those who have worked on Penn Station during the past three decades, I encountered a parade of complaints that but for one particular obstacle, the project would have been completed expeditiously. If only the postal service hadn’t obstructed Moynihan at the first turn. If only Amtrak hadn’t rejected an early deal. If only the Port Authority had offered more money. If only Washington had appropriated additional funds. If only Jim Dolan had decided to accept a new arena. If only for 9/11. If only Spitzer hadn’t been forced to resign. If only for the financial collapse.

Taken together, the conversations come to feel like something akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Everyone describes what was surely an important obstacle. But it’s only after taking them all together that the full picture becomes clear. In a dynamic where so many players can exercise a veto, it’s nearly impossible to move a project forward. No one today has the leverage to do what seems to be best for New York as a whole. And ultimately, government is rendered incompetent.

In 2020, during what will be the 10th year of Cuomo’s governorship, it appears that a new train hall in the Farley Building will, in fact, open to the public, and Penn Station itself will undergo a face-lift. Already, the skylight above Farley has been installed, and just as Janno Lieber promised, the barrel corridor is being expanded and will soon be graced with a new entrance. But that’s not the end of the process. Penn will remain hemmed in by Madison Square Garden. New tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey, if they’re ever built, will require yet another round of renovations. And many expect Cuomo to announce next year another plan to overhaul the remainder of Penn Station, establishing new connections to Farley. Will those plans be subject to nearly interminable delay? History provides a very strong indicator.

As Albany neared the annual deadline to complete the New York State budget in early 2018, Cuomo quietly floated a surprise, last-minute proposal. Frustrated by the snail’s pace of progress improving the neighborhood surrounding Penn Station, the governor’s staff asked the Legislature to grant him unilateral authority to bypass the checks that might otherwise thwart new investment. He wanted to pursue projects without having to seek any input from the city, without going through any state or city environmental review process, and without needing signoff from the state Legislature.

Leaked ahead of time, Cuomo’s proposal met with immediate condemnation. Alicia Glen, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development responded: “This basically usurps all previous approaches in which the city and state worked collectively to develop neighborhoods and projects.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told the New York Post: “It’s a power grab. I oppose this proposal as it stands. We don’t want to cede local control.” City Council President Corey Johnson issued a statement: “It’s not fair to this city, which must be able to control its destiny. And it’s not fair to the public, who will be denied any type of legitimate review process. This plan must be stopped.”

The governor’s office almost immediately backed off, meekly claiming that the proposal had merely been an idea designed to spark discussion. The incident was quickly forgotten. But it represented a microcosm of a now decades-old argument about the contours of public power.

Cuomo wanted then and still wants to build great things. But he, like others with grand designs, almost invariably meets with a newly empowered opposition. Reforms championed in the wake of abuses revealed in the 1960s and ’70s have altered the architecture of power. So there’s no point in arguing that we need another power broker. For both good and ill, were Robert Moses alive today—were he still sitting in the seats of power he amassed during his career—even he would struggle to get things done.


Robert Caro and the Fall of New York

In 2007, more than 30 years after publishing The Power Broker, Robert Caro was invited to give a keynote address as part of a vast Robert Moses retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit had endeavored to place Moses’ sins in the context of everything he had managed to accomplish, both good and bad. Some thought it too forgiving. So Caro used his remarks to remind the audience of the trauma Moses had wrought on the city. To paint a picture of how the power broker afflicted the powerless, he retold one of his book’s most memorable stories, the plight of East Tremont, a working-class neighborhood decimated by the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

The story was chilling—and still is. Despite widespread public and political opposition, Moses had plowed ahead with a plan that essentially cut the Bronx in two. He dismissed without any real justification pleas to shift the expressway’s path to a less destructive route. And once construction began, those living in Moses' path were forced to scatter without any help finding new places to live. Unable to find rent-paying tenants, those owning property near the new expressway chose in some cases to torch their own buildings, simply to collect the insurance money. In a cascading effect, blocks north and south of the new expressways were eventually abandoned. The South Bronx became, in the prevailing view, an urban wasteland.

When, in 2017, he released a new audio book, On Power, Caro told a similar story from Long Island. While planning the route of a new expressway, Moses heeded the complaints of wealthy landowners worried about the new artery intersecting their property, so the power broker altered the route to run instead through a farmer’s fields, needlessly splitting the property in two, and forcing the family to abandon its livelihood. More than four decades after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Caro’s core argument remained the same: Authority, placed in the hands of unchecked bureaucrats like Robert Moses, is an invitation to abuse.

The Trump era may not be the moment to extol the virtues of unchecked executive power. But Penn Station’s story suggests that, for those hoping to achieve traditionally progressive aims, America’s cultural aversion to power has gone too far. Far from running the risk that another Robert Moses might haphazardly destroy a vibrant neighborhood, New York has emerged as a place where even the most worthy projects are left for dead. And it’s not just New York. The poisonous tap water in Flint, Mich., illustrates how feckless government authority can be nearly as dangerous as an impregnable autocrat—and, as demonstrated by Trump’s surprise victory in Michigan in 2016, may lead frustrated voters to embrace one.

On infrastructure, some things are getting done—and New York’s recent embrace of congestion pricing may provide funding for significant new investments in the city’s transit system. Cuomo today quickly rattles off a long list of accomplishments—many of them impressive. But since Moses left the public stage, most recent big ideas have died by one dint or another. New York has so thoroughly overcorrected for Moses’ abuse that the city is now incapable of undoing his legacy.

Westway, an idea to bury Manhattan’s congested West Side Highway, was upended by environmental concerns—namely that it’s construction would disrupt a fish habitat in the Hudson River. Then-Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) killed an early plan to build new railroad tunnels under the Hudson. In what looks like an act of political retribution against Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), President Trump put Gateway, a plan to build new tunnels from New Jersey into an extension of Penn Station, on ice. Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s plan to build a light rail line near the Queens and Brooklyn waterfront is stuck in neutral.

It’s a national crisis. As China builds brand new high-speed rail systems around the world, California—the center of both America’s tech economy and the progressive vision of activist government—recently abandoned a plan to build a line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. And around the country, advocates for affordable housing are running up against a vocal opposition: communities determined to maintain the character of their neighborhoods. Local residents have long objected to changes imposed from outside and above. But a half-century since progressivism turned from venerating power to detesting it, reforms have given those objecting to change a stronger leg to stand on. Progressives are eroding the very faith they want citizens to have in public power.

For anyone convinced that government is an indispensable tool in the progressive mission to improve peoples’ lives, Penn Station is a monument to conservatism. If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority? “Medicare for All,” debt-free college and a clean-energy revolution all require government intervention. Who wants to hand more power to the people incapable of fixing the Western Hemisphere’s most heavily-trafficked transit hub? Better, some will conclude, to hand the reins to someone willing to whip an impossible bureaucracy into shape—someone, perhaps, like Donald Trump.

New York does not need another Robert Moses. But amid the avalanche of checks created since the 1960s, progressives need to revisit the impulse that spurred figures like Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis to try to make government work. Public authority, in the end, isn’t good or bad—it’s a means to an end. No one should be allowed to bulldoze powerless communities with impunity. But government should be able to build a nice train station in less than three decades. To rebuild faith in the power of government to do good, responsible leaders need the power to pursue the public interest.