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One way to get to Penn Station Aug. 29: underground

(The following article by Michael Luo was posted on the New York Times website on August 13.)

NEW YORK -- Transit officials are concerned that the largest demonstration planned for the Republican National Convention, paired with security measures, will essentially seal off Pennsylvania Station for several hours on Aug. 29, the Sunday before the convention opens.

Although the city says it has a solution - opening some subway turnstiles to allow underground access to Penn Station - transit officials remain worried about crowding and confusion.

The exact route of the march, planned by an umbrella protest group, United for Peace and Justice, was thrown into doubt this week after the group backed out of a deal to gather along the West Side Highway and renewed its bid to rally in Central Park. But city officials remained firm that the group would not succeed in changing the demonstration's path.

That means, for now, that beginning at 10 a.m. that Sunday, the 250,000 people that protest organizers are expecting will march up Seventh Avenue from a staging area south of 23rd Street, then turn left on 34th Street after passing Madison Square Garden, eventually winding up at the West Side Highway.

The problem, according to transit officials, is that six of Penn Station's eight entrances are to be closed for security reasons starting the day before, leaving open only the entrance along Seventh Avenue under the Madison Square Garden marquee and the Long Island Rail Road entrance on 34th Street near Seventh Avenue. Police officials have told transit agencies that they will not be able to disrupt the flow of protesters for the duration of the demonstration, which could be four to five hours, said Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak, the owner of Penn Station. That would leave people trying to leave Penn Station, the nation's busiest railroad station, hemmed in and would block the people trying to get into the station.

"That's a real concern for us," Mr. Black said yesterday. "Presumably, there will be delegates arriving, as well as regular travelers, and it will be difficult for people to find their way out of the station because of the march and because of the restricted egress. The other question is informing the public who wish to enter Penn Station how they might do that. It's going to be very, very challenging."

The solution that has been settled upon is to open up the subway turnstiles reached from entrances on the east side of Seventh Avenue at 33rd Street, and the north side of 34th Street at Eighth Avenue, said Paul J. Browne, the deputy police commissioner for public information.

Barricades would be set up so people would be able to get into Penn Station but would not be able to ride the subway free, said Paul Fleuranges, a spokesman for New York City Transit, which operates the city's buses and subways.

An entrance to the station through a building on the east side of Seventh Avenue that was originally going to be closed may also be used to take some of the burden off the narrow subway entrances, transit officials said.

Mr. Browne played down the worries of transit officials, saying that law enforcement officials believe that most of the difficulties will be limited to the first hour of the demonstration, when protesters usually march in tight formation. After that, Mr. Browne said, the crowds should become less dense and police officers will be able to escort people across Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, as they do during parades.

Transit officials, however, said they were considering asking riders to avoid Penn Station that day.

"We're concerned that this puts additional pressure on the station and restricts access and egress," said Lynn Bowersox, assistant executive director of New Jersey Transit, which shares the station with the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak. "This compresses all of the passenger flow through the subway entrances."

Besides logjams underground, Mr. Black cited the issue of access for people in wheelchairs and elderly passengers with luggage as a major concern. The only elevator that will be available for those entering and exiting the station during the convention is near the Long Island Rail Road entrance on 34th Street. The subway entrances are not accessible to the handicapped.

But Mr. Browne said police officers would try to escort those in wheelchairs across the streets, so they can still enter and leave the station.

"We'll be escorting them across at any time," he said. "We don't think it's going to be a problem."

Friday, August 13, 2004

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