NEW YORK (AP) — New York’s top elected officials took sledgehammers to a fake brick wall in a symbolic groundbreaking Monday for the long-delayed expansion of Penn Station, the crowded rail hub that serves half a million passengers daily and is the country’s busiest train station.

The groundbreaking on the post office steps marked the beginning of Phase I of a transformation that planners say will end with a newly named station after the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the project, in the 100th year of Penn Station’s grand beginnings, “great news for America.” He said the new Moynihan Station will be at the heart of America’s high-speed rail system.

The $276 million price tag for the first phase includes $83 million in federal stimulus money.

“Now more than ever, New York needs to embrace new projects so that the infrastructure grows as the city grows,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who has championed the expansion of Penn Station into the James A. Farley Post Office building across the street.

Phase I includes expanding the 33rd Street connector between Penn Station and the Farley building, creating two new entrances into the station from the Farley building and improving access to tracks by adding escalators, elevators and stairways. The work is to be completed by 2016.

Moynihan, who died in 2003, sought to partially recreate the Neoclassical temple to transportation that was lost when the original Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s and the current building erected on the same site. The project is a modest step toward Moynihan’s vision of creating a grand gateway to New York. But elected officials hailed the groundbreaking as a milestone nonetheless.

“A dream once deferred is now being fulfilled,” said Gov. David Paterson.

Officials said the station expansion will go forward whether or not the stalled New Jersey-New York rail tunnel is built. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the $9 billion project because of anticipated cost overruns but agreed to a two-week reprieve at LaHood’s urging.

Asked about the tunnel, LaHood said, “He and I agreed that over a two-week period we would put together a plan for a path forward, and we will be meeting with him at the end of that two weeks and presenting the information.”

Phase II of Moynihan Station has no funding or start date.

Earlier Monday, elected leaders and railroad officials gathered in Penn Station to celebrate the 100th birthday of its predecessor, which was completed in 1910.

“Today we are celebrating a bittersweet anniversary,” said Lorraine B. Diehl, author of “The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station.”

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler called the destruction of the old Penn Station “a desecration.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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