When it comes to transit planning in 2012, not too many people in America are dreaming big. We can’t seem to get a national high-speed rail plan off the ground, and while some cities — notably Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — are working hard to expand their subway systems, most urban areas are content with incremental improvements. In New York, it was a battle to get a four-station extension of the Second Ave. Subway built, and the East Side Access plan could be facing a two-year delay.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg, then, announced in November 2010 his plans to extend the 7 line to Secaucus, New Jersey, he was met with both skepticism and enthusiasm. The skepticism arose from the fact that Bloomberg seemingly failed to notify even the MTA of his announcement, and enthusiasm because a leading New York politician had finally embraced an ambitious transit opportunity. It was, of course not to be.
The warning signs were in place early. Although the mayor continued to voice support for the 7 line last October, a promised engineering study that was due late last year has yet to materialized. Meanwhile, the MTA, under two different chairmen, never embraced the plan, and yesterday, Joe Lhota offered up a dose of reality in essentially canceling the plan. According to today’s reports, the authority had made the determination at least a month ago that the 7 extension to New Jersey was too costly, and the Mayor seemed to agree. “I know there’s an effort afoot to try to get the subway system to go to New Jersey,” Lhota said. “I told the mayor this, I told the deputy mayor this: I can’t see this happening in our lifetime.”
The Mayor, speaking yesterday afternoon, seemed resigned to Lhota’s reality. “It’s very hard to see the funding coming right now,” he said. Even the Mayor’s initial cost estimates of $5 billion seemed optimistic, and the MTA has other fish to fry. So even though, as The Wall Street Journal reported today, the Parsons Brinckerhoff preliminary study is still a few months away from seeing the light of day, it may just be an exercise in futility at this point.
As I pondered this development last night, I kept wondering whether or not we should mourn the death of the 7 line to Secaucus. I’ve long believed that we simply do not dream big anymore. Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times; perhaps it’s a tendency to kowtow to loud NIMBY voices; perhaps it’s fallout from the Robert Moses Era, a period in planning with which New York has never come to terms. Likely, it’s a combination of all three factors, and rare are the politicians who have been the will to push through an ambitious plan and the political capital to do so as well. For better or worse, Mayor Bloomberg was one of those politicians, but his lasting legacies will be a meager extension of the 7 to Hudson Yards and a controversial arena in Brooklyn. Transit hasn’t been a top priority.
When Bloomberg announced the 7 extension to Secaucus, he seemed to be capitalizing on headlines concerning Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel, and he had hoped to secure federal dollars that would have gone to New Jersey. In that sense, it was a rather blatant move. Yet, it represented a sign that transit could command headlines, and with the Secaucus-bound subway dead for generations, plenty of other projects could grab the spotlight.
So let’s find a champion for a Second Ave. Subway that heads north. Let’s find someone willing to explore the Triboro RX plan. Let’s examine a connection to State Island for a rapid transit system. Let’s look into those Utica and Nostrand Avenue extension plans. Just because this grand idea died doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep dreaming.