Home 7 Line Extension Archive: How the Olympics ruined the 7 line extension

Archive: How the Olympics ruined the 7 line extension

by Benjamin Kabak

On Saturday afternoon, I walked the High Line, and as I stood at the fence at the northern end of the park’s reach, I pondered the Hudson Yards area. Had Mayor Bloomberg secured the 2012 Olympics, that expanse of future development would have been bustling with activity as crews would have been hard at work finishing up the stadium that would have played host to the Summer Games. Instead, we’re waiting on the future of the Javits Center, eventual mixed use development above the rail yards and a one-stop extension of the 7 line that won’t open until early 2014.

In London, the city is trying to finish various infrastructure improvements and Olympics-related construction projects. The city has spent $10 billion on transportation improvements, but they are still urging commuters to change their travel patterns during the games. The Olympics crowds across the pond will make the East Side IRT at 6 p.m. seem downright empty.

As London’s expenses for the games spiral well above budge, I wanted to revisit and revise an old post on the 7 line extension and how the failed Olympics bid changed the project. What would have happened, I asked, had the city secured the Olympics. Let’s find out.

The 7 line project — one now destined to serve residents of a real estate complex not yet built or even paid for — got its start in Bloomberg’s desires to see the Olympics come to New York. It was that same desire and the subsequent loss of the games to London that has led to the downfall of the station at 41st and 10th Ave.

We know the project’s recently history fairly well. The project’s design phase started in 2002 when Bloomberg launched his plan to develop Manhattan’s last great frontier, the Hudson Yards land. At the time, the Mayor hoped to lure the Jets from New Jersey with a stadium that would also serve as the home for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In June 2005, amidst massive public protest, the state legislature failed to guarantee financing for the stadium, and a few months later, the IOC, citing that failure, awarded the Olympics to London.

Still, the 7 line extension did not die with the Olympics. Originally, the project’s timetable was an aggressive one. Project Design Completion was due to be wrapped up by December 2006 with construction beginning that year and revenue service in time for the Olympics in 2012. Today, the MTA still lists TBD as the Project Design Completion date. Construction started on December 15, 2007, over a year later than originally anticipated, and revenue service is right now scheduled to start during December of 2013. The MTA will miss those Summer Olympics by a good 17 months.

Over the course of project’s history, the City and MTA have fought over nearly every aspect of it. The City, the primary funding partner for this extension, refused to fund cost overruns and an expensive station stop at 41st and 10th Ave. The MTA has had trouble securing a deal for the land rights to the Hudson Yards area, and the current $1 billion offer from Related is on borrowed time, already one month past the anticipated closing date.

What though would have happened if the Olympics had come to New York? For that, we hit the maps. Take a look at the map below. It is an excerpt from a special map the MTA printed in 2005 showing the potential locations for all of the Olympics events. (To view the map in full, click here.)

Any Olympics plan for the city included heavy usage of the Far West Side. The Javits Center would have hosted six key events, including weightlifting, fencing, wrestling and table tennis, and the planned West Side stadium would have featured some track-and-field contests and the soccer matches. To ensure capacity for those events, the city would have needed a subway stop at 34th St. and 11th Ave. and probably would have paid to build the one at 41st and 10th as well. Instead, the costs skyrocketed, and we’re left with REBNY’s protests, years too late.

Today, progress along the 7 line may be slightly delayed. MTA Capital Construction will release an update within the next few months, but revenue service may not start until the first quarter of 2014. Michael Horodniceanu, head of the unit, has said the Mayor will ride the subway he views as his legacy whether it is a test train or not. No one though is surprised at the delay. Meanwhile, we can remember when the Olympics nearly came to New York. Enthusiasm amongst city residents was decidedly mixed, but the subways would have benefited once the athletes all went home. The station at 41st St. would have been a reality instead of a lost opportunity.

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Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 12:19 pm

About the only good that comes from the Olympics for any city is transit improvement. Luckily, our state legislature was so against transit improvement that they didn’t bother!

Seriously, though, I’m glad we don’t have to deal with that this year, much as I feel bad for the people of London.

Marc Shepherd January 31, 2012 - 12:26 pm

I am not sure I am getting “How the Olympics ruined the 7 line extension.” If it hadn’t been for the potential of attracting the Olympics, the extension wouldn’t have been built at all.

I do agree that if NYC had won the Olympics bid, the city probably would have found a way to finance the Tenth Avenue station, and the project probably would have been completed on time. But that doesn’t mean that the failure of the bid is at all to blame for the current debacle. All it means is that, lacking a hard date, this project has gone the route of practically every other big public works project: scaled back and late.

Larry Littlefield January 31, 2012 - 12:36 pm

“We know the project’s recently history fairly well. The project’s design phase started in 2002 when Bloomberg launched his plan to develop Manhattan’s last great frontier, the Hudson Yards land.”

First I heard of the extension was from Sandy Hornick at City Planning in the early 1990s. The goal was to allow for office development on the Far West Side, to allow the Manhattan CBD, the key to the city’s economic base, to expand. The possiblity of extending to NJ also dates back that far, at least.

The Olympics had nothing to do with it. It was more like London’s Docklands, which predated their Olympic bid by decades. Later when Giuliani (and later Bloomberg) wanted the Olympics, it was hitched to that. But that was just a side aspect.

It was also the case that when the office market crashed in the early 1990s, City Planning didn’t bother to plan for future office growth. Then when office rents soared in the late 1990s, it started multi-year planning processes which did not finish until the boom was over and the office market crashed again, with virtually no new buildings (and the loss of many existing ones).

Not wanting to make the same mistake again, DCP has put in place plans for Downtown Brooklyn, the far West Side, and Long Island City, complete with the Flushing Extension, even with no investment on the immediate horizon. Those areas are ready to be developed according to plan when the market allows.

Subutay Musluoglu January 31, 2012 - 2:10 pm

Let’s not forgot that one of Giuliani’s early West Side plans was a scheme to practically give it away to Mr. George Steinbrenner to prevent the Yankees from decamping to the Meadowlands. It was a seriously flawed proposal, and I’m glad it didn’t happen. And I say that as a Yankee season ticket holder.

dungone January 31, 2012 - 2:14 pm

I would just like to echo that comment. I wish that New York would lead American cities in actually investing for the future instead of playing a constant game of catch-up. Take the other post on this site – the one about extending subway platforms, now that the subway platforms are overcrowded. To me, that is the epitome of foolishness. It means that no one made an investment when it actually mattered. It also means that at this point, a better investment would be to open up new areas to development by building a subway to “nowhere” instead of trying to squeeze more capacity out of existing lines. The thing about the L isn’t that it’s overcrowded, it’s that it’s overcrowded and some of the people who ride it are walking 2 miles to and from the subway stops to get to their homes. The only thing that adding capacity to the L would really help is to allow the real estate prices closest to the line to skyrocket in a way that puts even more average people between a rock and a hard place. So Queue the 7 line expansion and every other project that we could conceive of that goes to “nowhere.”

My pipe dream would be to say screw it to all the overcrowded lines on the south part of Manhattan and just build a new line along 125th street that bridges both rivers to NJ and towards La Guardia. I imagine that this could spur development in Harlem and the Bronx for 50 years into the future and create a new CBD for the city. I think that’s where Amtrak and LIRR should be routed, with high speed rail, instead of figuring out how to fit them all into midtown. I can just see the city’s next grand – and greatest – train station with Path, LIRR, Metro North, subway, high speed rail, and airport access all converging in one station.

Subutay Musluoglu January 31, 2012 - 3:44 pm

Here, here – bravo! I fully second that. We have been playing catch up. A perfect example has been all the upzoning that has occurred during this administration’s time in office. I’m all for new commercial and residential development and the resultant increased tax revenue, but it needs to be smart development. The current approach has been too simplistic – while increasing densities around existing subway lines and stations is common sense, the impacts of increased ridership on those lines over time is an afterthought, if considered at all. The approvals that many of these projects are going through are just process – just siting near on a subway line is enough to satisfy the criteria. For the larger developments there are environmental impact statements that outline a project’s future impact on a transportation facility, and we’re lucky if that produces a new stairway or two, but not a net increase in line capacity. However, the greater challenge comes from the larger numbers of people from the hundreds of mid-size developments that only require the typical mandatory building permits; over time they add up and you wind up with situations like you have on the L train, as you cited. An entire neighborhood (most of Northwest Brooklyn really) is remade and one line is counted on to shoulder the burden. This happening right now in lots of other places. Look at Sunset Park – a combination of upzoning, an article or two in the New York Times Sunday Real Estate section, word of mouth, and aggressive real estate brokers and voila – in about 5-10 years we will be talking about how the 4th Avenue Line is one of the most crowded lines in the city.

nyland8 January 31, 2012 - 7:49 pm

You mention 125th Street, and it’s worth remembering that it just happens to be the place where the SAS plans to turn and connect to both the MetroNorth Harlem line and the Lexington Ave subway. In a sane world, it wouldn’t stop there, but continue cross town and, in turn, connect to the 2,3, the A,B,C,D, the 1 Train, and the other planned MetroNorth station on the underused Empire line, which only Amtrak currently runs trains on. Also noteworthy is the huge site development that Columbia is undertaking, and the fact that the Parks Department has already built a ferry-ready “excursion pier” on the River there. So creating a political mantra, “Don’t Stop the T Train”, would make a lot of sense. Even if the MTA only budgeted for tunneling 1,000 feet a year, you’d still have cross town traffic north of Central Park in only 8 years.

And when one considers how much money it costs for mobilization, you’d think they’d have figured out by now that once you’re in the ground, you just shouldn’t ever stop. It’s cheaper just to crawl along a little bit every year than it is to stop, wait 2 or 3 generations, and expect to find funding for large projects. It would just take a change in philosophy. Dedicate a portion of your total budget to expansion EVERY year.

If we had done that in 1945, where would we be now?

TERRANOVA47 January 31, 2012 - 1:39 pm

What the map shows is a lack of public transit west of 8th Ave. Cheaper than extending subways the MTA for the Oympics could have put Light Rail from Penn Station along the Hi-Line right of way. Real Estate interests, Residents and long term development of the West Side would have benefited. But then the Bloomberg Administration does not like non-poluting light rail, as seen in Red Hook.

Marc Shepherd January 31, 2012 - 1:57 pm

You need to re-study your history. No one favored re-activating the High Line for rail service, aside from train geeks who break into hives whenever they see unused tracks. The opposition long pre-dated the Bloomberg Administration. Most people who lived in Chelsea and on the West Side wanted the High Line demolished, and Mayor Giuliani agreed with them; they considered it an eyesore, and an obstacle to redevelopment. The visionaries who conceived of the current High Line Park had a steep uphill climb, to persuade people that it would work. It turned out they were right, but rail would have had no chance.

In any event, light rail along the High Line wouldn’t have been very effective, because it doesn’t go anywhere, and it doesn’t connect to the rest of the transit system. You really need to be wearing rail blinders, to believe that that would have been superior to the terrific park we now have, probably the best public space added to Manhattan in decades.

dungone January 31, 2012 - 2:18 pm

I’m really not sure why the “visionaries” who saw it as a park were right when they went against public opinion, but the advocates for light rail would be wrong if they went against public opinion. I actually think that it’s railway geeks who break out in hives when they hear someone mention “light” rail that are part of the problem.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 2:30 pm

It’s perfectly okay to go against public opinion, but not reality. The High Line was probably worse than useless for transit. And that’s me, one of the most pro-rail transit posters on a pro-rail transit blog saying that. It’s decrepit, goes through buildings, doesn’t go places many people need to go, and would be difficult-to-impossible to connect to other services. TERRANOVA47 is absolutely right that our planners are retrograde jackasses for not considering light rail. In high-traffic situations, it’s about universally faster, cheaper to operate per rider, has more capacity, and is more environmentally friendly than buses. But running light rail along the High Line would have been as much a non-starter as running the L along it.

Also: consider what the strengths of light rail actually are. It’s fairly cheap to install and can, if anything, fit into spaces buses can’t go. It provides speedy level boarding, so it’s great for the disabled. Even if it could go on an elevated structure, why should it?

There were two sensible destinies for the HL: become a park or become scrap.

dungone January 31, 2012 - 2:55 pm

If you allow me, I would like to divide your opposition of light rail on the high line into two categories: engineering hurdles and vision hurdles.

The engineering hurdles I agree with you on as being “worst than useless”. The high-line does go through buildings and as such, some places would undoubtedly prove to require expensive engineering fixes, demolition of existing structures, etc. But I don’t really see what decrepit has to do with it, though. That’s why it’s an engineering problem and what matters in this case is the right of way, which I think is ultimately more important than any engineering concern.

Your other concerns are ones of vision – that it’s difficult to connect to other services and that it doesn’t go where many people want to go. If it light rail was built the entire way of what is currently the park, it would just about abut where the 7 line extension will leave off and serve the Hudson Yards project, which could provide a great terminal for it. Then, if the 7 line gets extended across the river, this light-rail spur would end up actually being pretty well connected.

This is where public opinion and good design diverge. Someone can have the foresight to envision what a new service can be used for whereas public opinion generally serves as a reflection of current needs. It’s sort of like if you asked the average person in 1890 what they wanted out of transportation, many would have asked for a faster horse. I really don’t think that public opinion counts for a whole lot when it comes to good transit design.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 4:16 pm

Even would-be L and 7 transfers constitute some of the most expensive construction possible – all for very few potential riders, many of whom would have the better option of using the 7 without a transfer. You’d get the exact same effect by simply making the L and 7 meet somehow. Money would simply be better spent elsewhere.

dungone January 31, 2012 - 5:23 pm

I don’t know… I mean for me personally, walking a block and swiping again would be sufficient. I don’t think there is a single reason for the L and the 7 to link up, especially if an above-grade light rail could allow for many more stations to be built in between. I actually don’t see what the point of linking the 7 up to the L would be, unless the plan is to have the 7 extend much further downtown and serve that area as well.

I think the transfer issue is more of a problem with the way the fare system is set up, with a swipe per ride instead of a swipe per hour with the ability to transfer anywhere as many times as needed within that time. I don’t see what the big deal is of walking down the street for a block versus having a big underground pedestrian tunnel between mezzanines just to have a way of connecting that’s behind the gates. Especially when you’re already going from above grade to below grade. I just spent a few weeks in Berlin and I transferred from above grade to below grade, walked out of one subway station and into another, etc., so many times it would make your head spin, but as a result I think their city seems much better connected than NYC.

dungone January 31, 2012 - 3:16 pm

One more thing… in the unlikely event that the L ever got extended further into the West Side and, possibly, across the river, then there would be something well-connected at both ends of a light rail spur along the High Line.

nyland8 January 31, 2012 - 8:47 pm

“IF” ?!? Seems like an awful lot of “ifs” – so indulge me while I add my own. As mass transit infrastructure goes, the High Line doesn’t go far enough. But “IF” it had not been torn down in the 80’s, “IF” it still went 15 blocks further south to West Houston, it might have been worth exploring as an extension to an existing subway line, and the St. Johns Building would have made an adequate terminal. In fact, with its parking lot to the south, all the way to Spring Street, it would have been long enough for two trains end to end … 1,300 ft +/- … and at least 6 trains wide.

The 7 Train would have been a natural choice, but instead of its current path, “IF” it would have turned sharply southward at Times Square, then westward on 34th Street, coming up out of the ground to meet the High Line between between 10th and 11th, it would have made all the difference in the world.

In this way, the Javits and west side development would have gotten their connection, albeit at right angles to the current plan, the long sought after link between Penn and GCT would have FINALY been achieved, and the High Line would have fulfilled its first, best destiny – as an elevated railroad. “IF” Of course, someone should have thought of this back in the 80’s.

From a structural engineering standpoint, the High Line is quite robust, having been designed for much heavier traffic. It makes the other elevated trains around the boroughs seem anemic by comparison. To then suggest putting a trolley system on top would be … well … just wrong.

dungone February 1, 2012 - 5:36 pm

That’s right, one of the problems about New York is that they build stuff for the next 100 years, 100 years after deciding that it was needed for the past 100 years. So, I recommend baby steps. There’s no such thing as a project that doesn’t go “far enough”. Other cities around the world are managing to build things that serve tens of thousands of people but New Yorkers can’t justify it unless it serves millions and then they get nothing.

Chris January 31, 2012 - 1:39 pm

Given New York was regarded as a nigh-on insurmountable favorite for the 2012 bid in 2002, the post should probably be titled “how the Bush administration’s foreign policy ruined the 7 line extension”…

John-2 January 31, 2012 - 2:48 pm

Nah, the IOC people just love to trash the U.S. in general unless they get their palms greased properly — remember what they did in 2009 to Obama’s effort to bring the Olympics to Chicago.

It actually would have been debatable about where the priorities would have ended up if New York had the 2012 Olympics. Obviously the 7 extension to Hudson Yards would have to be completed by this May at the latest, in order to have a little time to work out all the bugs before the Games would have started in August. But would that have meant re-directing equipment and manpower from other projects, like the SAS and East Side LIRR access, in order to make sure the line to 11th Avenue was done in time? (New York might have gotten a little more direct mass transit stimulus funding in 2009-10 from Washington in order to finish on time, or more likely the city and state would have had to find the $$$ themselves to speed up the completion process.)

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 2:58 pm

Bah. They pretty much want to be greased no matter where they go. That said, the Olympics have been in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Lake Placid since 1980. Not sure any country can top that number in the past 32 years.

More stimulus funding -> giving New York back more of its own money. It wouldn’t have happened.

John-2 January 31, 2012 - 6:34 pm

The near-debacle at Salt Lake City exposed a number of the IOC members are on the take, while it was actually the folks in Greece who complained about Atlanta greasing the IOC’s palms to get the ’96 games, since Athens wanted to hold the games for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics.

Like I said, my guess is even with the Olympics, NY would probably not have gotten any additional transit funds from the stimulus, but it’s possible some of the funds that initially were directed elsewhere, like the high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando that was eventually cancelled, would have gone directly into more “shovel ready” projects, and a subway line for the 2012 Olympics definitely would have qualified in that category.

Woody February 1, 2012 - 1:22 pm

Not exactly. Money for intercity rail could only be transferred to other intercity rail projects. A bunch of Repub governors thought that they could kill intercity rail projects and grab the money for their friends in the highway construction industry, but it didn’t work out that way. So no intercity rail money could be transferred to transit either. Congress doesn’t like to give too much flexibility to the President, even when he’s white.

Cathy February 1, 2012 - 2:01 pm

Insipid racial comment rejected. Sorry. Thanks for playing.

Boris January 31, 2012 - 2:42 pm

I had a chance to talk to some people in the Hudson Yards Development Corporation in the fall during a class trip. My impression was that the 7 is on track to be paid for through taxes on new development that has already happened since 2007 (outside of the Hudson Yards but inside the special development zone). The line will prove to be a huge tax windfall for the city. The money to finish the second station is there – if only it could be made available.

The real failure of the administration is not in mistiming, giving up on the second station, etc, but on not applying the Hudson Yards model to the rest of the city. It’s a good example of transit-oriented development that can work in all the five boroughs, although outside of Midtown Manhattan it should naturally be combined with light rail or BRT, not subways.

Matt January 31, 2012 - 4:32 pm

table tennis, a “key event”?

Anyways, subway aside, it’s fun to look back on where everything would have been.

– Sucks that hockey gets moved from the Garden.
– Soccer at the Meadowlands (old Giants stadium)…would they have switched to grass, cause soccer on terf is dumb
– Handball in the Nassau Mausoleum
– Softball (which isn’t even in the London 12 Olympics, is baseball?) get’s banished to Staten Island.
– Triathlon in Central Park? That means major changes to the park, not cool in my book.

Christopher S. February 4, 2012 - 12:38 am

Just to clarify:

The hockey in question was what we think of as field hockey, not ice hockey.
Yes, they would have installed turf for the old Giants Stadium (yep, expensive).
Softball and baseball got eliminated from the Games starting in 2012.
The triathlon in Central Park would not have required any changes to the infrastructure of the park.

Ed January 31, 2012 - 6:29 pm

I agree with dungone’s vision, though that is the subject for another post, and as Larry Littlefield pointed out, the money isn’t there, in fact its not likely to be there to maintain the existing system.

My favorite pipedream at the moment is a super-express line that would circle the city, making twenty stops at the most, and connecting the two airports within the city, the 125th Street corridor, the West Side, and underserved areas of the outerboroughs by going through western and southern Brooklyn, and central and Eastern Queens. While it would connect with numerous subway lines, the line would actually fall in between commuter rail and the subway, so it would not be metrocard accessible (it would work more like the Airtrain, and in fact you could extend the Airtrain or the PATH to create this). Then it would be feasible to have a rail station on 125th Street, move Penn Station further west, and so on. However this is of course absolutely impossible in the present environment.

nyland8 January 31, 2012 - 8:54 pm

I’ve “designed” both an inner and outer “beltway” for the subway system. Ones that go from the MetroNorth Station in Riverdale, Bronx to the New Dorp station on the Staten Island Railway. And it naturally includes easy access to LaGuardia.

Boy, the cityscape really changes when we think in those terms.

Alon Levy February 2, 2012 - 3:22 am

so it would not be metrocard accessible

In other words, it wouldn’t be useful to anyone except the construction contractors and a handful of people who both live and work on top of the line and don’t care about frequency. Nice.

As a reminder, the RER lines not only accept the same fare media as the Métro, but also charge the same fare within Paris. The same is true for all modes within cities in Germany, or Switzerland, or the Netherlands, etc. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bus or a commuter train, it charges the same zonal fare.


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