Home 7 Line Extension The Subway to NJ: A history of futility

The Subway to NJ: A history of futility

by Benjamin Kabak

A 1931 rendering of proposed expansion of the New York City subway system into New Jersey. (Click to enlarge)

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.

Various loop plans, including an extension of the 7 line to New Jersey, are show on this 1926 illustration. (Via NYCSubway.org)

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.

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Andrew D. Smith November 24, 2010 - 9:03 am

Perhaps a more practical way to extend NJ subway service beyond a 7 extension (though perhaps utterly imposible: Connect existing PATH lines with the subway.

OK, just by eyeballing the width of the existing cars, I can see that the IRT subways are much narrower than PATH trains to the most helpful alignments — feeding the WTC line into the 4-5-6 and feeding the 33rd St. line into the 1-2-3 — would be utterly impossible. Would the technologies be compatible enough to, say, feed the WTC line into the ACE right at the WTC (where the E ends anyway) and attach the 33rd Street line into the Orange subway line at West 4th?

John November 24, 2010 - 9:30 am

The narrowness of the PATH tubes would mandate a tie-in to the IRT if one was ever made, since the Hudson tubes aren’t wide enough for BMT/IND rolling stock. It’s the round shape of the tubes that allows the PATH rail cars to flair out in the middle, giving them a slightly wider profile than your average IRT car, but still narrower than the cars running on the BMT or IND lines (and IIRC, the PATH cars are slightly shorter than the IRT cars to account for some of the sharp turns on the line).

So if a link ever was made, the MTA and the Port Authority would still have to get together and design a hybrid rail car that could navigate the Hudson tubes and the Contract 1 tunnels and/or the Steinway tunnels.

Alon Levy November 24, 2010 - 5:31 pm

PATH is cut off on all sides at 33rd – on the sides by the IND local, at the bottom by the IND express, and to the north by Herald Square. It’s inextensible.

However, free PATH-subway transfers could make PATH useful for more destinations in the city, especially if there’s a transfer to the 1 at Christopsher Street.

Andrew November 24, 2010 - 11:18 pm

The PATH station and 1 station are Christopher Street are nowhere near each other. The walk at 14th Street would be about the same distance, but a transfer there would be more useful, since more lines stop there.

I have no problem with free transfers, but how would you make up for the revenue loss from people who used to pay two fares and now pay only one?

Alon Levy November 24, 2010 - 11:52 pm

I might ask you the opposite question: what do you do with the extra revenue you get from more people using the service because it’s more convenient?

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 12:41 am

I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. The ridership increases would be very small compared to the current two-fare riders who would be saving a fare.

And if I’m wrong, and ridership increases are substantial, then either PATH or NYCT will have to increase service, quickly gobbling up those revenues. Look what happened when MetroCard was introduced and NYCT had to make huge bus service increases to accommodate the new riders.

Unlimited free transfers between modes (including commuter rail) would be wonderful – in the context of zone fares. Without that, it’s effectively a fare reduction for a particular segment of riders. I don’t think NYCT is looking to reduce fares right now.

Alon Levy November 25, 2010 - 2:06 am

The problem with your argument is that its crux is “Higher ridership is bad for us financially.” That’s the last thing NYCT should be thinking about – if it is, it might as well shut down and save everyone the operating losses.

Even if it’s true, all it means is that there are service inefficiencies that could be limited. I’m told that in German and Swiss cities, farebox operating ratios are close to even.

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 10:46 pm

No, the first thing NYCT should be thinking about right now is keeping its system operational during a major funding crisis. Reducing fares and hoping that enough additional riders will be attracted (at time periods that don’t require much more service) would be a very bad idea at this time.

Alon Levy November 25, 2010 - 11:53 pm

NYCT is always in a funding crisis. The strategy of extracting as much money as possible for basic services like transfers isn’t producing profits; might as well shut down.

At no time period would more service be required – once in Manhattan, the lines from PATH to Midtown really offer reverse-peak service. This is unlike, say, SAS and the 7 extension, for which more service would be required at all times of day.

John November 24, 2010 - 9:20 am

I never did see a break-out on the ARC project that split the total cost into just the tunnel section and the cost for hollowing out the terminal 175-feet below Macy’s basement. While Bloomberg’s numbers may be as much in fantasy land as the original ARC price tag, if you took New Jersey’s original $2.7 billion ARC commitment plus the $3 billion total commitment made by the Port Authority as listed in the Times’ story, you’d be past the $5.3 billion estimate before the federal funding has arrived.

The Grand Central capacity question the MTA did bring up does have to be addressed, since the MTA itself is about to flood the station with new passengers, thanks to the LIRR East Side Access project (albeit most of those passengers will be flooding onto the 4/5/6 — if they wanted west side access via the 7, they could just keep taking the LIRR into Penn Station). But it would be fun if at least one party in this would call the other’s bluff and make a monetary commitment, just to force the hand of Christie, the Port Authority and/or the feds/Lautenberg to show who is serious and who is not about finding a cheaper ARC alternative.

Alon Levy November 24, 2010 - 5:52 pm

The Grand Central capacity question is completely fake. Grand Central has more capacity than it will ever need, through its obscenely high number of platforms and cathedral-style interior concourse space.

John November 24, 2010 - 8:44 pm

I read the Times explanation of the MTA’s problems with Grand Central and a No. 7 extension to New Jersey more that the subway complex couldn’t handle any more passenger traffic, not that GCT couldn’t handle additional passengers.

Even then, there’s plenty of space on the No. 7 platform to build a new exit (with Gov. Christie chipping in) around 42nd at Lex that bypasses the 4//5/6 platforms and mezzanine, if a New Jersey extension of the Flushing line really was going to swamp the platform with eastbound AM passengers/westbound PM passengers getting off and on at the station.

Alon Levy November 25, 2010 - 12:01 am

Ah, yeah, on the subway, it doesn’t completely strain disbelief. But then again, the worst platform at Grand Central isn’t on the 7, which isn’t that busy heading into Manhattan, but on the 4/5/6.

That said, pedestrian flow capacity can be pretty flexible, once you get out of the platform area. What I saw in Shanghai at People’s Square (or on Line 1 of the metro for that matter) makes any capacity issue in the US look trivial. Without platform screen doors there are real safety issues if too many people crowd the platform, but the limiting factor at Grand Central is not on the 7’s platform.

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 10:48 pm

There’s no limiting factor here. The 4/5/6 platform and the 7 platform are two completely distinct issues. Right now, the 4/5/6 platform is a problem and the 7 platform isn’t. John is concerned that the 7 platform might also become a problem.

J B November 25, 2010 - 12:36 am

I would have assumed that the SAS would have helped with that problem by the time the ARC was completed.

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 10:48 pm

SAS will reduce crowding on the 4/5/6 platform, but it won’t have much of an affect on the 7 platform.

Steve November 24, 2010 - 10:09 am

Is there a good primer on the Port Authority anywhere? It seems like they wield a lot of power, and people have opinions about them, but they’re still kind of anonymous. Christie apparently thinks all $3 billion of the Port Authority’s ARC money should go to New Jersey, but some commenters here mention Port Authority spending always unfairly benefits New Jersey. But they also built the AirTrain in New York, right?

Where does the Port Authority’s money come from? To whom is the Port Authority answerable? And perhaps most relevantly here: would a subway crossing fall into their bailiwick because it’d be bi-state, or because it’d be like the PATH, which they already control? Or simply because they have money to burn on capital projects?

Benjamin Kabak November 24, 2010 - 10:42 am

The PA answers to the governor’s of both NY and NJ. Each can appoint six members of the board, and I believe the chair position alternates between one state and the other. Economically, they are entirely self-sufficient and can raise money through river crossing tolls, user fees (along the AirTrain for instance) and substantial amounts of rent. They can also bond out their capital projects as the MTA does. There’s absolutely no reason for the PA’s ARC money to go only to New Jersey.

Researcher November 24, 2010 - 10:37 am

In early 1930, Mayor Frank “I am the Law” Hague pushed a plan to build a subway connecting the SIRT’s North Shore line with the Hudson Tubes. Obviously tha went nowhere as well.

SEAN November 24, 2010 - 10:55 am

Could the L be extended across the hudson as well as the 7? Just brainstorming.

Benjamin Kabak November 24, 2010 - 10:56 am

Probably, but that’s really getting ahead of ourselves.

Scott E November 24, 2010 - 11:45 am

The beauty of coming from the 34th St. area is that, in New Jersey, the tracks parallel an existing railroad Right-of-Way through swampland. There’s not too much of a concern about disrupting existing neighborhoods (tunneling, eminent domain takings, NIMBYism, etc.)

That said, the opportunity for other stops to serve existing NJ neighborhoods or to spur development in NJ (as if it’s needed!) is limited for pretty much the same reasons.

SEAN November 24, 2010 - 12:29 pm

True, however you would want the ability to transfer be it Secaucus, Weehawken or some future location.

In Miami for example, A new transfer station is being constructed to connect Metrorail an elevated rapid transit line, Tri-Rail a regional commuter train service, Miami Dade Transit bus service & tie it all to Miami International Airport via something equal to AirTrain.

Alon Levy November 24, 2010 - 5:48 pm

Sure, but because it ties in to 14th Street, it should be done only after there’s good connectivity to Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The purpose of an L extension would not be the same as that of a 7 extension or ARC; instead, it would be used to provide east-west service in Hoboken, northern Jersey City/southern Union City, and Secaucus.

SEAN November 25, 2010 - 10:39 am

That’s a good point. What I was thinking about were the other options for cross-Hudson expantions. As good as PATH is, it misses a few criticle areas of dence population. The 7 extention corrects part of this problem, an extention of the L could fill in another gap. It’s far from perfect, but maybe it could be a cattelist for something greater in the future. Places like Hoboken & Jersey City cant have enough transit.

Alon Levy November 26, 2010 - 12:05 am

Once the two most pressing cross-Hudson issues are resolved – four-tracking the North River Tunnels and adding a two-track tunnel from Hoboken or Jersey City to Lower Manhattan – everything else in Hudson County becomes a much lower priority. The priority shifts to expanding East River capacity, which could be done relatively cheaply by connecting the underused 63rd Street Tunnel to a new trunk line under Northern, and even more cheaply by S-Bahn-ifying the LIRR.

Bob Davis November 26, 2010 - 12:10 am

This reminds me (a native Southern Californian) of the Kelker-DeLeuw study of the transit systems of Los Angeles and ways to bring true rapid transit to the Southland. It was compiled during the same 1920’s period, right about the time Henry Ford’s Flivver Factory cranked out its 15 millionth Model “T”. We all know who won that battle. At least New York kept some of its rail transit (remember that the inhabitants of Brooklyn were once nicknamed “Trolley Dodgers”). LA saw its rail systems slowly fade away, with the last streetcars running in 1963, and rail transit not returning until 1990.

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[…] that plan for a NJ Rapid Transit network, as depicted here and […]


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