The Subway to NJ: A history of futilityBy
In January 1926, The New York Times discussed a report from the North Jersey Transit Commission on the state of travel across the Hudson River. “The report,” said The Times, “declared that congestion in the Northern New Jersey zone near New York City was becoming so great that measures for relief must be taken immediately.” To combat congestion, the NJTC unveiled a sweeping array of plans to bring subway service from Manhattan to New Jersey. Eighty-four years and two auto tunnels later, we’re still waiting for those tunnels to materialize.
The planing for such an extensive undertaking had started in 1924 when New York transit officials and New Jersey representatives met to map out a region-wide transit system. The initial proposal involved extending the two IRT trains to New Jersey via the local tracks from City Hall on the East Side and South Ferry on the West Side. The plan was trumpeted as a great one for everyone. It would relieve overcrowded commuter rail lines and bring more passengers — and more revenue — to the subway system.
Almost immediately, this plan drew opposition from within New York City. Before engineers had a chance to put their pens to paper, the Queens Borough President spoke out against it. “The Transit Commission, which comes begging the New York City taxpayers for millions to keep its existence has had the brazen effrontery to broadcast in the newspapers a plan it has to extend subways to New Jersey by way of City Hall and the Battery so that the traveling public may easily be carried to New Jersey while 60 per cent of the land in Queens remains undeveloped,” Maurice E. Connolly said.
Still, the Transit Commission and NJTC moved forward, and their initial engineering were immense in scope. As articles from the Electric Railway Journal and available on NYCSubway.org detail, the commissions outlined a plan that was cost-prohibitive but was to serve as a guide for future generations:
As the result of the study of these problems the commission has recommended a program consisting of six principal parts. Listed in the order of their importance, they are as follows: (1) Construction of a new North Jersey rapid transit system. (2) Hudson & Manhattan Railroad extensions in New Jersey. (3) Interborough extensions of its Manhattan lines to New Jersey. (4) Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit system extensions from Manhattan to New Jersey. (5) Extension of North Jersey rapid transit system, listed as part one of this program, to serve a larger area. (6) Electrification of existing steam railroads…
The North Jersey rapid transit system, part one of the program, would consist of the following five lines: (1) Interstate loop line, running north and south between the Hackensack River and Bergen Hill in New Jersey, passing under the Hudson River via a tunnel at the Battery, up through Manhattan to 57th Street and back through another tunnel to New Durham. Its length would be 17.3 miles. A so-called Meadows transfer station would be located near the intersection of the Erie and D., L. & W. Railroads. (2) A line from Paterson through Montclair and Newark, following the interstate loop route through Manhattan to New Durham and thence to Rutherford and Hackensack. The length of this route would be 41.9 miles. (3) A line from Ridgewood via Paterson, Passaic, Rutherford, New Durham, the interstate loop route in New York City, to Newark and Elizabeth. Route mileage would be 39.8. (4) An intrastate route from Elizabeth through Newark and Rutherford to Hackensack, 18.8 miles in length. (5) Another intrastate line from New Durham to Newark, 13.0 miles in length.
The commission stuck a price tag on it that seems laughably low today. This entire plan was to cost $382 million in 1926 or around $4.6 billion in today’s money. That’s the current cost estimate for only Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway.
The proposed loop garnered the most attention. In addition to the Battery Loop described above, the commission offered numerous other possible points of expansion. Among those were discussions to extend the Queensboro subway — today’s 7 line — under 41st St., the Hudson River to a stop along Franklin St. between Boulevard and Bergenline Aves. in Union City; and a plan to send the BMT 14th St. line — today’s L train — from its then-terminal at Sixth Ave. to Hoboken and Jersey City before terminating at the planned transfer station at the Meadowlands. “This is a very logical extension,” the New Jersey planners said of the 14th St. extension, “and should be made at the earliest opportunity. Conference has revealed that such an extension would be acceptable to the New York Rapid Transit Corporation.”
Over the next few years, these plans never went anywhere. To fund them would have required a fare hike to ten cents, a substantial bond issue and special taxing powers. The Transit Commission debated the idea in January 1927, and New Jersey kept working toward it that February. By then, the most realistic portion of the NJTC’s proposal would have involved sending the 7 from 41st St. to Dumont, New Jersey. As the current 7 line extension to Secaucus has the backing of real estate interests, that plan in the late 1920s had the Forty-Second Street Property Owners and Merchants’ Association.
When the Great Depression hit, these nascent plans all but disappeared from public view. New Jersey tried to revive its subway connection in early 1931 in an effort to draw WPA money to the region, but that idea went nowhere. The mayor of Newark tried again in March 1937 with no support from our side of the Hudson River, and that would be that for nearly two decades.
For the next 17 years as automobiles arose to remove congestion from the rails — and create their own on the roads — and the region turned its attention to vehicular tunnels, the New Jersey subway plans languished. In 1954, the Regional Plan Association briefly issued a call to extend the BMT 14th St. line to Jersey City. Instead of building another motor vehicle crossing for $100 million, the RPA believed a subway tunnel would cost just $40 million — or around $315 million today. Neither the New York City Transit Authority nor the Port Authority would ever act on that call or a plan to build a vehicle tunnel to Hoboken from 14th St.
And so today, 56 years after the subway to New Jersey last reared its head, these plans are back. Yet again, as The Times details today, no one knows how much it will truly cost or who will foot the bill. The $5.3 billion figure floated by the Bloomberg Administration hasn’t been explained away, and it seems only tenuously based in reality. “It’s a nice idea, but you don’t see dollar signs attached to the commitment,” Martin E. Robins, an early ARC advocate, said. If history is any guide, I wouldn’t expect those dollar signs or a subway to New Jersey to materialize any time soon.