With great restraint, I haven’t written too much about the $4 billion World Trade Center PATH Hub over the past five weeks, but the Port Authority decided to take some reporters for a tour earlier this week. The resulting coverage has been particularly impressive for, on the one hand, its sweeping proclamations of success for a project two years away from opening and, on the other, for its sheer skepticism that this thing was worth building. Stuck in the middle was an entirely inapt comparison to Grand Central by none other than The New York Times.
The story in The Times takes the Port Authority party line hook, line and sinker, at least for its first half. Carrying the headline “A Transit Hub in the Making May Prove to Be the Grandest,” David Dunlap’s piece foresees the PATH Hub as Grand Central South. With a lede that calls Grand Central an “enduring landmark” and “a portal to the city that has never lost its power to inspire awe,” Dunlap wonders if the PATH Hub can do the same:
If the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is ever to emerge from under the shadow of its $3.94 billion price tag (double Grand Central’s, adjusted for inflation), it will have to do more than move PATH commuters efficiently. It will have to lift hearts. Perhaps it can.
A visit to the monumental station on Wednesday left the impression that its main transit hall may be the most hopeful element at the trade center complex when it opens in 2015. Now full of light and air, it will one day be full of people, movement and life, as well. It could become a destination in its own right, even for those who are not among the 200,000 or so commuters traveling daily to and from New Jersey.
The transportation hub and retail concourses will be “the only facilities on site that are completely accessible to the public,” said a report by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is building the hub. By contrast, visitors to the office towers, the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the 1 World Trade Center observatory will be subject to tight scrutiny.
In the end, that may be the most astonishing feature of the hub; that a structure of such colossal proportions should be devoted to unobstructed public use. The main transit hall is 365 feet long — a block and a half — making it 90 feet longer than the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal. It is 115 feet wide, or just 5 feet narrower than the Grand Central concourse. It takes a half minute to walk from one side to the other.
Now to be fair to Dunlap, he spends the second half of the article talking about the project’s ever-increasing cost which has essentially doubled since plans were first unveiled. He also accepts PATH’s estimate that 200,000 people will traipse through the hub daily without much of a second-guess. Currently, PATH’s total daily ridership is only around 260,000, and not all of those riders pass through the World Trade Center stop. A new hub — without added track or tunnel capacity — won’t deliver too many more riders.
So is the PATH Hub positioned to be a new Grand Central? Not by a long shot. The current iteration of Grand Central was built by a private entity to uniform rail operations in New York, electrify the tracks and restore Park Avenue to the people of the city as opposed to its trains. It contains 123 tracks — 46 with platforms — and will soon see a marked increase when East Side Access, at a cost of just twice the PATH Hub, will bring in another eight tracks of LIRR service. The PATH Hub, as an underground mall, may rival Grand Central in its grandeur, but as a train station, it falls far short.
Even still, some of those who saw the station in progress this week walked away far more skeptically than The Times did. Steve Cuozzo of The Post was one of those columnists casting stones on the half-completed transit hub. The structure is an architectural marvel, he says, but “is this pet project of the PA’s New Jersey side worth it?”
The Hub’s so big, complicated and densely packed with everything all around, it made three skyscrapers and the Memorial much harder and costlier to build.
And how many will use it? More than 250,000 daily, PA construction chief Steve Plate said yesterday. Skeptics say as few as 50,000, mostly Jersey commuters. The project adds no new track, only endless underground corridors for walking from here to there. Isn’t that what city streets are for?
In an age with limited dollars available for transit and a glaring need to add capacity, have we spent wisely? Can’t we build great public spaces that inspire civic pride without flushing cash down the drain? At the former Ground Zero site, apparently not.