By dropping word of his support for a Secaucus-bound 7 train this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reminded us once again of his ability to draw a spotlight. With New York and New Jersey transit advocates largely despairing over the lack of transit on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, Bloomberg seemingly us a bone with a show of support for the 7 plan. If anything, the timing has helped restart the debate over the practicality, feasibility and intentions behind the plan.
On Wednesday, after The Post’s story made the rounds, the Mayor faced the New York press corps and went on the record with some support for a trans-Hudson rail crossing. “We want better transportation from here to all the markets, all of the places that people live that want to come into this city to work and to shop and have their entertainment,” he said. “This is something where the economics seem to make some sense. The subway extension is on budget, on time pretty much, coming down the West Side, and you could probably continue it over. There are some economic arguments that it would be justified and that we could work with New Jersey and the federal government and the state government here to get some money to do it.”
For now, we don’t know what the Parsons Brinckerhoff report will say. It’s still only a preliminary report and only those in the city government have seen it. When it’s released, we’ll have a better sense of the road ahead. Right now, though, if Bloomberg is serious about getting such an ambitious plan off the ground, he’ll have to work fast to secure funds for an environmental impact study and the project itself. He has 26 months.
Already, we’re seeing some of the benefits and challenges this project face come into view. Over at WNYC, Andrea Bernstein gathered some info. For starters, the city believes it could put together a broad coalition of funding partners that would include the city and state, New Jersey, the Port Authority and the MTA. That is, apparently, news to those entities.
The MTA is facing a set of very familiar problems. With Joe Lhota coming in, the new CEO and Chairman has a directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cut costs and save money. The current capital plan has no leeway for funding such a project, and the MTA would rather see through the Second Ave. Subway before it looks to New Jersey. So far, MTA officials have tried to distance themselves from this idea. Noting that the MTA has no cash, a spokesman told Metro, “We’re focusing on the three capital projects we have now.” Transit officials said yesterday they would have no comment until the engineering study is released.
Beyond that significant obstacle, the city and PB are reportedly bullish on the popularity of such an extension. Initial estimates say the 7 extension would draw around 125,000 riders per day, thus significantly increasing crowding along the 7 line throughout Midtown Manhattan. Somehow, the IRT Flushing line stations would have to handle increasingly large crowds. In a similar vein, though, the ridership estimates show how this project would be a draw for the real estate business. As Alon Levy noted via Twitter, sending the subway through Hoboken and to Secaucus would be “a bonanza for developers.” Construction companies and landowners on both sides of the Hudson — and especially those at Hudson Yards — would be thrilled. A subway that passes under Hudson Yards from both New Jersey and the rest of New York would vastly increase the area’s popularity.
Still, despite this seemingly rosy outlook, the challenges are immense. Early reports say it could cost less than ARC as the tunneling requires no new Manhattan terminal. Rather, the MTA would simply start digging west from the tail tracks of the 7 line extension near 26th and 11th Ave. Some estimates, however, peg the cost at as much as $10 billion. With federal ARC dollars long since disbursed, any funding from DC would have originate from a new effort to drive transit dollars to the region, and this 7 line extension would just be one more megaproject competing for bucks.
Furthermore, what of the rolling stock and IRT-sized subway cars? Even though the 7 comes equipped with 11-car sets, capacity is limited by width. In an ideal world, it might make more sense to send a spur off the 8th Ave. line with its spacious IND cars to New Jersey. Bu we live in a world of practical realism. With a development at Hudson Yards spurring the discussion, the Mayor will focus only on the 7 line. Its tail tracks bring it close to New Jersey, and mighty political forces are lining up behind it.
Yet, for all of this talk of support from Bloomberg, a reticent and reluctant MTA and a project that doesn’t even have a public scoping document yet, we’re likely jumping the gun. Maybe the Mayor can deliver billions of dollars and a firm joint commitment to this project while somehow drawing a cost-conscious MTA on board. Maybe he can placate constituents throughout the five boroughs who would rather spend transit dollars on improving interborough rather than interstate access. Maybe he just won’t care about the politics because he’s a lame duck and wants a legacy. It wouldn’t be the first time Bloomberg has pushed through something he wants more than anyone else.
For now, enjoy the proverbial ride. This project has had more legs than it ever should have, and maybe one day the next stop on a Secaucus-bound 7 line will be across the river in New Jersey.