Newark Penn Station in June 2015. Photo credit: King of Hearts of Flickr

Newark Penn Station starts to undergo a five year, $190 million renovation plan

Finally, the NJ Transit-owned major transportation hub is getting a facelift. Some hope transportation quality is included. 

Last week, cleaning efforts kicked off Newark’s Pennsylvania Station improvement project two years after it was announced. In 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced the $190 million state plan to refurbish the major transportation hub. Funds are being used to renovate the building’s failing infrastructure; including restoration of benches in the waiting room and platform improvements, among other things. 

“About time,” says Duane Reed, a New Jerseyan who rode the trains between Newark and New York for over three decades. “That thing has been looking raggedy for years.”

Listed on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic places, the ornate art-deco style building has seen millions hop on trains, buses and the local underground railways. In the end, the goal is to better pedestrian access to the station, as well as reestablish it as an attractive centerpiece for its home city. 

“We are proud to announce a new beginning for this historic building . . . . and in the process make [Newark Penn station] a symbol of what this city not only aims to be but in fact is,” Murphy conveyed. “The future of Newark’s economy, like the economic future of our state, rides in so many ways on the rails that run through here and on the buses that enter and leave the station.”

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Newark Penn Station from the side the east side of the city, known as Ironbound. Photo credit: Paul Sableman on Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of Newark’s financial and artistic districts, Newark Penn Station is sandwiched between Raymond Plaza West as well as Market Street. Amidst the Great Depression, the post-Classical was designed by U.S. architectural firm McKim, Mead & White; who also designed New York Penn station. The soft pink granite and stone colored edifice first opened on March 23, 1935 with rail service from New York to Newark. 

In 1937, construction was ultimately finished when the Newark City Subway, now the Newark Light Rail, and Hudson & Manhattan Railroad, now the PATH train, were completed. This caused an exponential surge in regional transportation options that have helped spawn the millions of annual dollars for NJ Transit. 

Adorned with lion heads and Corinthian-style columns, Newark Penn is the western-most station of the Newark–World Trade Center line by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH train. The Port of New York and New Jersey is the largest port on the East Coast, and one of the largest consumer markets in North America. In the past, reportedly 80,000 commuters used the station daily. Pre-pandemic, an estimated 42,000 pass through the edifice twice per day

Although we do not pay as much attention to it, some believe the station has an integral, uniting factor; adding to importance in upkeep.

“[T]rain stations became great secular cathedrals,” says New Jersey Institute of Technology architecture professor, Gabrielle Esperdy. The regular Penn Station commuter asserts, “[Newark Penn Station] was more than just a place where you went to get a train; it was a gateway. It was: ‘You have now arrived. Here we are, in the heart of the city.”

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However, recent ridership purportedly declined late last year due to Delta and Omicron variant-related revenue losses. Hence, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, along with Democratic New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, confirmed New Jersey Transit will receive more than $1.5 billion in federal coronavirus transit funds from the American Rescue Plan of 2021 (ARP). NJ Transit officials say the additional aid is needed to offset losses while prioritizing consistent service and safety for passengers, as well as employment for staff. 

“The ability to maintain regular service at this time is proof positive of the vital importance of the federal funding we received through [federal legislation like the] CARES [act], CRRSSA (Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act) and ARP [American Rescue Plan of 2021],” said NJ Transit CEO and president, Kevin Corbett. 

“Thanks to this funding, NJ Transit continues to keep our state moving at this critical time, in addition to keeping customers and employees safe and maintain[ing] our aggressive cleaning protocols.”

. . . .

Although aesthetics are important, they do not matter if functionality is compromised. Hence, many consumers believe the quality of the transportation structure could use just as much sprucing up.  

“[NJ Transit and Newark Penn station] could stand to improve the flow of the train riders and commuters—create a better experience with better signage and high-speed escalators,” says New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers president, Len Resto.

Although Gov. Murphy predicts the federal infrastructure cash infusion may accelerate project completion, construction is anticipated to last until 2025. 

The aspiration– the coming inconveniences will be worth the wait. “I hope there’s Black people still in Newark after it’s all said and done,” surmised Reed who said he had to close his barbershop due to rising costs and lack of foot traffic often coming from the numerous construction projects in downtown Newark.

The needed repairs to the major transportation artery parallel the ongoing rebuilding in the city. Gentrification, along with New Yorkers moving to the area during the pandemic have added to the already sticker shock of inflation. “The townhouse I rented out before the pandemic increased $1,000 afterwards,” Reed told The Ark.

For the past 20 years, real estate investors and city developers have been gradually changing a once blighted-city that suffered in its post-industrial state. Under the last three mayors, Sharp James, Cory Booker and Ras Baraka, the cityscape has changed, bringing in new housing, businesses, a hockey arena and residents. But, the rising costs come at a high price for longtime Newarkers.

“The median income for the average Newarker is roughly $22,000,” explained local historian, sociologist and activist Afrika Ibiang to The Ark. For now, the delays in travel times and stepping over construction material will be part of the Brick city experience.

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