It will be six months yet — and, judging from the photos I snapped, maybe more — before passengers can ride the 7 train to 34th St. and 11th Ave., but as Friday’s ceremonial first ride demonstrated, uncharted territories of Manhattan will soon be on the (subway) map. When the official ribbon-cutting arrives, it will be a big day with New York’s first new subway stop nearly three decades, and as with any project of this magnitude, the gains are real but so are the mistakes. As Mayor Bloomberg stood at his podium Friday afternoon, I pondered some of those mistakes.
As has been the party line for some time now, Bloomberg repeated that the 7 line extension was “on time and on budget.” It’s a $2.4 billion, one-stop extension from 41st St. between 7th and 8th Avenues to 26th and 11th with a station that spans 34th-36th St. in front of the Javits Center. By the time the Hudson Yards development is in full swing, it will see tens of thousands of riders per day and has already opened up some of the last underutilized space in Manhattan to development. Even in 2013, where the subways go, people and business will follow.
But what did we give up to make sure the 7 line extension was on time and on budget? The economics of it all are a bit shady. The city forked over $2.1 billion initially, and the MTA had to pick up some cost overruns. Ultimately, as the MTA didn’t want to build this subway extension if it had to fund any of it, the parties agreed on a funding scheme that worked for all involved but at a big cost. The initial plans called for a two-stop extension with a interim station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. Shortly after I started this site in 2006, that station fell by the wayside, and the MTA and Mayor’s Office engaged in a battle of attrition over the project’s plans.
When it became clear that the second station wouldn’t see the light of day during the initial stages of construction, the city and MTA tried to come to an agreement on a station shell. The construction would have cost around $500 million. Again, the city wouldn’t pay, and the MTA had no spare capital funding. So the shell was axed, and the MTA built in bare provisioning for a future station. The incline of the tunnel flattens out for a few hundred feet near 10th Ave. should money materialize in the future for two platforms on either side of the street. In a fight over the paltry sum of half a billion dollars, New York residents of today and tomorrow lost out. That station will cost significantly more to build in the future than it would have today.
During the battle over that station, we had a glimpse into the machinations of the Mayor’s Office. Dan Doctoroff, when he was the deputy mayor for economic development, was the public face of the fight over the second station, and one line from a Bloomberg P.R. rep, in particular, highlights Doctoroff’s and Bloomberg’s thinking. “Unlike the extension to 34th Street and 11th Avenue, which the city is funding, a 10th Avenue station is not necessary to drive growth there,” the statement said. “A Tenth Avenue station would be nice, but it’s really a straight transportation project versus an economic development catalyst. We do recognize the difficult financial situation in which the M.T.A. finds itself as pressure on all of our budgets intensifies.”
Doctoroff has pursued this line of thinking in recent comments on the Second Ave. Subway, and I worry about what it means for future city investment in transit expansion. During Friday’s ceremony, Ann Weisbrod of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation spoke, and Stephen M. Ross, the chairman of the Related Companies took the mic as well. For all the pomp and circumstance over infrastructure expansion, this was about development first and transportation a distant second.
So what happens in the future? Are we doomed to subway expansion efforts funded by the city only if they feed development in the relative wildness of New York? If so, we’re out of luck because there are no more Hudson Yards-type spaces in New York City. The need to invest in transportation for the sake of transportation looms large, and Bloomberg, as a fighter for congestion pricing, traffic calming and pedestrian safety, should have recognized it five years ago as he did through his words on Friday. Where can we expand next is a very good question indeed.