It must have been a nice change of pace over at MTA headquarters yesterday morning. After several news cycles of being hammered for for their poorly received pilot program to remove trash cans from platforms in two subway stations, a different transit issue captured the New York Post’s headlines.
The Bloomberg Administration pointed to a draft study touting the benefits of extending the 7 Train to the New Jersey Transit complex in Secaucus, New Jersey. Construction is on-going in extending the 7 from Times Square to a new station on the Far West Side, near the Javits Center. And one unnamed Bloomberg official said the plan to bring the 7 Train to Secaucus is “a heck of a lot better” than the cross-Hudson tunnel torpedoed by Chris Christie.
The idea of building a subway tunnel under the Hudson bubbled to the surface after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug on the Access to the Region’s Core, a tunnel that would have increased New Jersey Transit’s capacity into Penn Station and provided a one-seat ride into Midtown for commuters coming by rail from Bergen County. Christie pulled New Jersey’s funding, which killed the project.
It is admirable that Mayor Bloomberg and his administration are interested in looking for an end-run around the loss of ARC, and in theory, extending the 7 Train sounds reasonable. On paper, however, it is far more flawed than ARC ever was. To illustrate this, I have identified seven…ahh ahh ahh…reasons why extending the 7 Train is a bad idea.
MTA Capital Budget Woes
The MTA is not swimming in money. The capital budget, which runs through 2014, is ten billion dollars in the red. Last month, Fitch Ratings downgraded MTA bonds because of concerns about increased debt obligations and funding cuts. Fare hikes are scheduled for the coming years and last year, the MTA cut two subway lines, 36 bus routes and 570 bus stops in an effort to cover a budget shortfall.
As it is, the MTA already has three mega projects they are currently overseeing in the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, the Fulton Street Transit Hub, and the East Side Access project which will bring LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2018. To add another project to that list with such limited resources sounds like a prescription for disaster and even higher fares for New Yorkers.
The Port Authority Has Other Priorities
In the New York area, the MTA has the reputation for being consistently short of cash and falling back on fare hikes. Late this summer, the Port Authority made it clear they are suffering from a similar, though unique, fate. The PA does not rely on and cannot raise taxes to cover costs. Both New York and New Jersey took funds from the Port Authority to cover their own projects. In NJ, Christie yoinked the money to cover road repairs and the MTA took some funds to cover their own budget shortfall.
To make up for these lost funds and gaps stemming from the cost of rebuilding the World Trade Center and other projects in the region, in August, the Port Authority proposed raising PATH fares and the Hudson River crossing tolls. Eventually, Christie and Cuomo settled on less expensive toll hikes. This middle ground means critical infrastructure projects like increasing capacity at LaGuardia have been shelved.
To add another project on the Port Authority’s plate in terms of funding would not only be short sighted, it would imperil the region’s infrastructure. The Port Authority needs to be in the business of replacing the cables on the Washington Bridge, which are the originals from the 1930s, and raising the Bayonne Bridge so PANAMAX ships will be able to make it into the Port of New York and New Jersey. Adding the 7 Train extension to that list is misguided.
No One Seat Ride
Don’t get me wrong, the ARC project wasn’t perfect. It dead-ended at Penn Station with no connection to to the East River Tunnels and Sunnyside Yards, it was of no use to Amtrak and the ride for folks coming from Bergen County was just as long as it would have been on the bus. That being said, what it did have was a one-seat ride to New York.
The idea of transferring to the subway in New Jersey is far less appealing than taking a commuter train or bus, for that matter, directly into New York City. Why would a commuter waste precious time getting off the train in Secaucus, take what could be a long walk to the 7 Train platform to wait for the subway to leave when they could already be in New York City. When it comes to getting places, I am a big believer in forward motion. In as such, minimizing transfers and maximizing distance traveled over time should be the goal. The NJT-7 Train transfer at Secaucus does the exact opposite.
Does Not Add Capacity at Penn Station
One of the big benefits of the ARC project was that it would have dramatically increased the capacity going into Penn Station from New Jersey and points south.
As it currently stands, there are only two tracks going into Penn Station from New Jersey, and just as problematic, is the Portal Bridge between Secaucus and Newark, which is a long identified bottleneck.
Penn Station is at capacity. This project does not address that concern. Running 7 Trains to New Jersey does not mean New Jersey Transit can run less trains into New York. All it means is that there will be another tunnel crossing the Hudson that provides no help to folks on jam packed NJT trains coming into New York or the folks who ride the Raritan Line into Newark before getting on another train to make it into the City.
Kiss New Tunnels For Amtrak/NJT into Penn Station Goodbye
A figure just south of $10 billion is a lot of money. That is the estimated cost of extending the 7 Train to Secaucus. Even if the bill is spread among the MTA, Port Authority, New Jersey Transit, and the federal government, a sizable chunk will be coming from DC.
Amtrak needs more tracks going in and out of Penn Station. They need them to be built to the specifications of modern day, high-speed-rail technology. This will allow for the Northeast Corridor to be truly high speed at some point in the future. And new tunnels will allow New Jersey Transit to bring more commuters into New York. The bottom line is that having the federal government fund a subway tunnel under the Hudson in the guise of making it easier for folks to get into New Yorks, means Amtrak and New Jersey Transit can kiss a new tunnel goodbye for at least a generation.
Good Thing The Second Avenue Subway is Complete
The idea of a subway running under Manhattan’s Second Avenue has been around since the 1920s but has never come to fruition. Now, one of the MTA’s mega-projects is Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway. It has taken more than 90 years, and all we will have to show for it is the Q running under Second Avenue from 63rd Street up to 96 Street. Part of the push by the Bloomberg Administration to extend the 7 is to define the Mayor’s legacy. Why spend this financial capital and political capital on a project that won’t help New Yorkers when it could be put to use on getting the Second Avenue Subway to 125th Street or start pushing further south towards the eventual, and very hopeful, terminal in Lower Manhattan. If Bloomberg wants to be remembered, how about going down as the guy who was responsible for getting the Second Avenue Subway on-line?
Build a Harbor Tunnel
It may surprise some of you out there, but there are five boroughs in New York City. You wouldn’t guess that based on the transportation options folks on Staten Island have. Either it is the ferry to Lower Manhattan, an express bus via Brooklyn, or a local bus to Bay Ridge and the R train’s slow crawl in to Manhattan. Start at either Broad or Whitehall streets and build a connector to the Staten Island Railroad at St. George in Staten Island. That is a one-seat ride. And maybe, just maybe, if Staten Island residents get some love from the MTA, they would be less opposed to the payroll tax.
So there you have it, seven reasons for why the 7 Train shouldn’t go any further west than Manhattan’s Far West Side. The metropolitan region desperately needs a passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson, but that doesn’t mean it should accept any tunnel.