American greatness in an urban train station? It sounds strange, even absurd. But reconstructing New York’s Penn Station in its original grandeur could be just the thing to reinvigorate conservatism in America’s cities and suburbs.
Restoring its beauty and traditional architecture would warm the hearts of commuters and travelers, and its magnificence could stand as a monument to American triumph past and present. A reborn Penn Station would be the centerpiece of much-needed infrastructure upgrades in New York, while showing urban and suburban conservatives that the Republican Party has not forgotten them.
Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has tried to focus on infrastructure. Perhaps it stems from the fairly bipartisan agreement that governments have a role to play in that field. Perhaps it is the promise of construction jobs. Maybe, even, the push comes from the top, from a president who made his reputation as a businessman and, more specifically, as a builder.
For conservatives, infrastructure typically means roads. Although it is possible to find examples of privately built roads scattered throughout American history, road-building has mostly been a government endeavor, and conservative objections to it are usually related to specific projects, not to the concept itself. When the subject turns to rail transport, however, objections from the right turn starkly ideological.
Before the birth of automobile and airplanes, rail was the only reliable way to travel long distances in a reasonable amount of time. There was competition among railway companies, but the industry as a whole had a monopoly on moving people around the country.
That hold on the transportation sector and the profits derived from it attracted progressives’ ire. It also gave conservatives an impression of the role of government in that sector that prevails to this day: rail is a private concern. But as a private concern, it failed miserably when faced with competition from private airlines and cars, which government construction of airports and roads helps along.
Reaching Out Beyond the Base
Conservative politicians’ position on rail has not needed to change over time because of the places rail makes sense. Powerful congressmen from rural districts might force Amtrak to keep running their massively unprofitable transcontinental routes, but that is often the limit of congressional concern about rails. They like it only when it crosses their own districts. When rail involves more heavily used connections between Democratic cities and increasingly Democratic suburbs on the east coast, it has been easily—electorally speaking—to ignore it.
This becomes a part of a larger self-fulfilling prophecy. Cities vote Democrat, so Republicans ignore cities. Maybe our obsession with electoral maps has fueled it, but there is a “divided Americas” line of thinking in both parties that makes Democrats think they can ignore rural America and makes Republicans think the same of urban regions.
Yet there are conservatives who live in cities and—even more so—in suburbs. People who believe in limited government, a strong national defense, low taxes, and traditional values also, sometimes, take the train to work. They have good reason to wonder why a Congress that would try to spend hundreds of millions on a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska would not dream of doing the same for a rail tunnel in any of America’s cities. Is the difference between steel wheels and rubber tires a matter of constitutional importance?
The New York metropolitan area’s transportation needs are many. Our nation’s largest city is built upon a seaside archipelago, making it more difficult to move people around than is the case in most big cities. We figured out the solutions to most of New York’s transportation problems a century ago, but keeping them working means spending big money.
One big expense is the North River tunnels. Opened in 1908, these tunnels built by the Pennsylvania Railroad connect New York with New Jersey and are the way into the city for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. Their capacity of 24 trains per hour is maxed out, and has been for years.
They are also nearing the end of their useful life. Without new tunnels being built, the existing tubes would need to be closed one at a time to be overhauled, cutting traffic in half at a time it should really be doubled. The situation would never be tolerated if the river-crossing in question were an interstate highway bridge.
The plan to double the tunnels’ capacity is very costly, and became a political football at the state and federal levels. The latest incarnation, called the Gateway Program, is predicted to cost nearly $15 billion.
It is the kind of unglamorous project that must be done, but to which no politician—especially no conservative politician—wants to affix his name. Memories of the massive cost overruns associated with Boston’s Big Dig give many officeholders nightmares about another huge project, and the tunnels’ unobtrusive presence gives little upside for pols only interested in ribbon-cutting headlines.
Repairing Civic Vandalism
What makes the project even less glamorous is the ugliness that awaits passengers arriving in New York. Some of those urban and suburban conservatives also love beauty and traditional architecture, which brings us back to the glory that was the old Penn Station.
The current version of Penn Station is unattractive, claustrophobic, and a joy to no one. The original Penn station opened in 1910, shortly after the completion of the tunnels that lead to it. At the height of the railway age, it was a secular cathedral, a monument to American exceptionalism and to New York’s preeminence among the great cities of the world.
Lewis McCrary described the old station in The American Conservative in 2016:
At a time when New York was reaching skyward, Charles McKim designed a classically proportioned temple to the modern railroad that evoked the most impressive civic buildings he had studied in Europe. Greeted by long doric colonnades running for two blocks along Seventh Avenue, travelers walked through a wide arcade of shops and restaurants before descending not into today’s underground labyrinth but to a magnificent General Waiting Room with a ceiling 15 stories high. Bathed in natural light, that coffered ceiling was held aloft by eight massive corinthian columns. The entire space was dressed in the same Roman travertine used in the Coliseum and the Vatican.
This was a hymn to American greatness, written in granite and marble. What replaced it in 1963 has been described as an act of civic vandalism. Nearly every article about the modern station quotes art historian Vincent Scully, who compared the two: “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Attaching a $15 billion tunnel to that is putting a suit on a pig. Attaching a classic example of architectural beauty, on the other hand, makes the whole project far more attractive.
But Is It Conservative?
Rebuild Penn Station, a non-profit group, is dedicated to bringing back what was lost in the hubris of the 1960s. McCrary’s article covers the aesthetic and architectural reasons to do it, and it is not necessary to restate them except to say: it is all true. Rebuilding this magnificent structure would be a boon to New York and everyone who travels there. But at an estimated cost of $3 to $3.5 billion, it is fair to ask: is it conservative?
Cost overruns on government projects are a serious concern to any fiscal conservative. It is especially a problem in government construction in New York. The New York Times reported in 2017 that construction of the new Second Avenue subway line was coming in at about $2 billion per mile, far more than any city in the world paid for subways.
Any involvement of federal taxpayers’ dollars would require guarantees that the construction follow federal rules and oversight, and that the city and state be responsible for a larger share of any cost overruns. Conservatives will not support another Big Dig.
That still means a considerable cost, but one that is not unreasonable when one considers just how many people would benefit by it. New York spent $4 billion on the new World Trade Center subway station that opened in 2016, double the original planned cost. Penn Station’s projected costs are comparable.
So even if we treat that estimate skeptically and assume it doubles like other station’s costs did, it is still $6 or $7 billion for a station used by 600,000 passengers a day, compared to $4 billion for one used by just 46,000 a day. With the federal government scheduled to spend more than $4 trillion this year, even picking up the entire cost of the station in one year would result in it costing less than 0.2 percent of the federal budget. Sharing costs with the states and city and spreading it out over the years of construction reduces that figure even more.
Those who backed Trump for president tend to be fairly comfortable with federal spending and do not fixate on ideological distinctions between infrastructure for trains and infrastructure for cars. They look back fondly, as do many non-Trump voters, on a time when America built great things. The transcontinental railroads, the Hoover Dam, and Apollo space program all inspired Americans and showcased our national triumph.
The idea that we should make America great again inspired a lot of voters in 2016. That promise is not fulfilled by tax cuts—as welcome as they were—nor by tweaks to entitlement programs, however much those may be needed. Greatness is in what we do, not in what we cut.
Conservatism includes financial prudence, but thrift need not mean parsimony. Government buildings can be beautiful and, even if it costs more, that beauty improves the lives of everyone who passes through them. And what building has more people pass through it every day than Penn Station?
Instead of emerging from a grotesque subterranean warren, commuters from the city and its suburbs would walk through a functioning example of American greatness. What could be more conservative than that?