As the United States’ economy remains in a slump and the MTA has been forced to scramble for construction dollars, how the authority spends its billions has often come under the microscope. Along the East Side, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will deliver three stations for $4.5 billion. While those costs are high, at least SAS is increasing transit capacity. The same cannot be said for other projects.
Down in Lower Manhattan, various stakeholders — the federal government, the Port Authority — have contributed billions to two projects that are more ostentatious than functional. The Calatrava PATH terminal has been billed as part of the rebirth of Lower Manhattan after September 11, but for $3.8 billion, all we’re getting is a giant porcupine. The Fulton Street Transit Center will be a hub for the subway in name only as the $1.4 billion renovation includes a fancy above-ground entrance and some reconstructed walkways.
For over $5 billion, then, New York is getting a few buildings that may or may not be visually appealing, and no added transit capacity. I’ve long believed that to be a waste of precious resources, and I’m not alone. Over at Forbes, Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism fame writes about spending priorities. Starting his argument with a nod toward Japan’s train system, Smith notes that the country’s rail hubs are not architecturally attract. “Shinjuku doesn’t even seem nice by modernist Japanese standards,” he writes, “and the most extravagant post-war station I can find is Nagoya, which doubles as the skyscraper headquarters of the country’s biggest Shinkansen company.”
Moving along, Smith says that the spending patterns in New York are “indicative of our warped priorities” when it comes to transit spending. A greater proportion of dollars are funneled toward aesthetics rather than capacity. He writes:
Spending a lot of money on flashy stations is also not something that Spain, the world leader in cheap and efficient tunneling projects, recommends. In a report on railway expansion in Madrid, tunneling expert Manuel Melis Maynar writes: “Design should be focused on the needs of the users, rather than on architectural beauty or exotic materials, and never on the name of the architect.” And it makes sense – the point of transit is to transport. Money buys movement, and funds are finite. When a system is running well, people aren’t sticking around to stare at the ceiling, anyway.
As always though, America must be the exception. Spain would never spend $3.8 billion on a single starchitect-studded station, but its own Santiago Calatrava was happy to build one if New York was footing the bill. Calatrava’s original design called for an enormous bird-like World Trade Center PATH station whose walls would open up in a sort of flapping motion, but it was scaled back for security and cost reasons. The wings were clipped and evolution was set back a few hundred million years – the bird will now be a ”slender stegosaurus.” Even the originally projected $2.2 billion cost would have been more than Paris spent on its entire new 9 km-long Métro Line 14.
And then just one block away from the WTC boondoggle, we find the $1.4 billion Fulton Street “Transit Center” (a.k.a., subway station). Back in 2002 there was talk of selling off air rights above the station, the largest undeveloped parcel in Lower Manhattan, but that never happened…If American cities are ever going to grow beyond their currently stunted sizes, they’re going to need new transit infrastructure. But no amount of government subsidies will ever be enough to build more than a line here and there until we get our astronomical costs under control.
Expensive design isn’t the only driver of cost in the U.S., but particularly in Lower Manhattan, design gives transit spending a bad name. It’s tough to justify spending billions on two projects within a few blocks of each other that do next to nothing to increase ridership, but that’s what politicians want. It doesn’t make much sense.