An EDC endorsement for the 7 to Secaucus, but …By
The idea of sending the 7 train under the Hudson River to Secaucus just won’t die. This proposal first came about when Mayor Michael Bloomberg started yakking after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the ARC Tunnel. It would be our very own answer to the trans-Hudson rail capacity problem, albeit one focused exclusively around a subway ride. Despite Joe Lhota throwing a bucket of very cold water on this hot idea last April, it’s come roaring back in the form of a feasibility study commissioned by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and released Wednesday morning. So let’s humor it.
The report issued yesterday isn’t quite an endorsement of a project Bloomberg is pushing as one for the history books. Despite the headlines and the excitement, the feasibility analysis [pdf] — a document that took the better part of 18 months to produce — essentially says that sending the 7 train to Secaucus is feasible from an engineering perspective and it would attract riders. Stop the presses, right?
Now, before I delve in with a hearty dose of skepticism, we should cover a few basic premises. First, while the EDC published the report, it was prepared by Parson Brinckerhoff, a company that would benefit tremendously from cross-Hudson extension of the New York City subway. Still, it presents a fair assessment of the question at hand, but the question itself is a pretty basic one. We’re not concerned with a few key factors I’ll cover shortly; we just want to know if it’s possible.
Second, extending the 7 line to Secaucus would lead to a projected 128,000 daily riders, and approximately 24,000 of those would be diversions from autos. In other words, it would likely generate far more than enough ridership to justify the construction. For more on this idea, check out Cap’n Transit’s thoughts on defining “enough” riders. So ridership and the engineering work aren’t the big deals.
So what then, you may be wondering, is in this report and why should we view it with a healthy dose of skepticism? Well, the bulk of the report is devoted to the how of it all. It charts the 7 line’s path from 34th St. and 11th Ave. to Secaucus. The route involves a tunnel along the ARC alignment beneath the Hudson River, a curve through New Jersey and then a climb of nearly 200 vertical feet to an above-grade terminus around 76 feet in the air at the Frank Lautenberg station in Secaucus. The PB study also includes building our dearly departed station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. and implementing platform access improvements at all of the 7 train’s current Manhattan stations. As to travel time, the engineering firm estimates an eight-minute ride from Secaucus to 34th St., 12 minutes to Times Square and about 16 minutes to Grand Central. It’s hard to do much better than that for a swipe of a MetroCard.
The questions though outweigh the answer. First, the report dispatches with the idea of any additional stations on the New Jersey side of the tunnel. It should at least contain a stop in Hoboken, if not a second prior to the Secaucus terminal. Second, the section on legal issues raises a number of concerns that warrant more than a few paragraphs in this feasibility study.
Some of the preliminary issues are easy to deal with. Real estate acquisition is simply a matter of cost, and and the same can be said of design considerations. But the real problem here is interagency cooperation. The MTA would need assistance and support from New Jersey Transit, and even though the right of way would be a good 40 feet off from NJ Transit’s and Amtrak’s current space, this type of interstate, interagency unity is rare for numerous reasons.
In a similar vein, the feds too would be involved in a subway that crosses state boundaries. What sort of FRA regulations would impact this project? And if the feds are funding it, in part, as PB assumes, what sort of control would they attempt to exert? Can the labor issues that would arise be easily resolved? And could a 7 to Secaucus simply piggy-back on environmental impact work already completed for ARC, as the report’s authors believe? These aren’t simple questions by any means, and many have never been asked, let alone answered, in the region before.
Beyond the legal concerns are the more practical considerations. PB and the NYC EDC punt on costs. Estimates for both the capital and operations costs, they say, will come about if this project moves into the Advanced Planning phase. And although PB estimates a three-year environmental review process, it’s not clear when work would begin or end. Ridership assumptions use 2035 as a baseline, but if Bloomberg wants this tunnel to be his legacy, he won’t argue for something that won’t see the light of day until he turns 93.
So where does this leave us and the 7 line extension? The report is too fresh for any of the next concrete steps. I like the idea of a subway to Secaucus and a one-seat ride from New Jersey to Midtown. I love the idea of building out the side-platform station at 41st St. and 10th Ave., but I’m not about to begin a countdown until the 7 train is in revenue service to Lautenberg station. From funding on down, the number of obstacles remains high, but if the city wants to turn this into its pet transportation project, there’s no need to stand in its way.