By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Midtown businesses are once again finding themselves caught in the headlights of the largest transportation project in the nation. But this time around, many business owners are smiling.
Last week, Amtrak unveiled the "Gateway Project" [PDF), its answer to the stalled Access to the Region's Core (ARC), the massive tunnel project that would have doubled rail capacity between New Jersey and Midtown, but was killed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie because of skyrocketing costs.
Like the ARC, "Gateway" would bore two new commuter train tunnels under the Hudson river from New Jersey into a new, expanded Penn Station, which would be built just south of the existing transportation hub, boosting capacity significantly during the rush-hour peak.
"We’ve just run out of room," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole, who said the existing infrastructure simply couldn't sustain demand that was expected to double over the next 20 years.
Cole said that it was still too soon to say how many buildings would need to be razed for the new project. The ARC project would have displaced more than 90 Manhattan businesses that had served the neighborhood for decades.
Amtrak has requested a $50 million grant from the federal government for a design and engineering study on the project, which would take an estimated four years. The company would then need to appeal to parties along the Northeast corridor to cover the estimated $13.5 billion cost, which would be funded through a combination of private cash and government grants.
"We can only say that there would be some land acquisition necessary," Cole said.
But so far, local businesses seem open to plan.
"I think it’d be fantastic," said Dino Kelepesis, 25, the manager at Café 31 Sports Bar and Grill, which sits across from the proposed new Penn Station. He predicted that a larger station with more trains would significantly boost his business and others, since there would be more foot traffic in the neighborhood.
The restaurant has already survived the ongoing renovations at Madison Square Garden, he said, so he wasn't concerned about the potential disruption.
"I don’t think any construction at Penn Station will hurt," he said.
The manager of the newly opened bar and restaurant on West 31st Street, the Irish Times, who would only give his first name, Martin, agreed.
"It would be wonderful for this area," he said, as he surveyed the preliminary map released by Amtrak marking the proposed new route. "It would be tremendous for our businesses," he said.
But not everyone was excited by the prospect of more construction in an area that is already set to be bombarded by the demolition of the Hotel Pennsylvania at West 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue and the James A. Farley Post Office's multi-billion transformation into the new Moynihan Station.
"The area is just going to be construction all over the place," said Bashir Salim, 23, a manager at Jack’s 99 Cent Store on West 32nd Street, a block from the proposed site, who said the chaos would surely be bad news for business.
"It will affect us, obviously," he said. "That will make business bad."
But Christina Woo, 39, who manages a wig store in the neighborhood, said that it was really a matter of balancing short-term losses with the long-term benefits of more customers and traffic.
"It would be somewhat chaotic," she said. But, "either way, it will benefit us."
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, a strong supporter of high-speed rail, has enthusiastically endorsed the plan, calling it "a positive step in the effort to cover a gaping hole in our cross Hudson transportation system."
Gov. Chris Christie has also reportedly endorsed the Gateway plan.
The city is also considering an alternate proposal of its own to extend the number 7 subway line into New Jersey instead.