» A more than $5 billion extension of the 7 Subway could ease congestion into the city center and offer New Jerseyans a relatively painless path to the East Side of Manhattan.
Out with one transit mega-project, in with another.
Faced with the decision last month by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to eliminate state funding for the ARC tunnel — effectively ending the project — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg silently instructed municipal staff to begin studying the possibility of stretching the city’s subway system into the state across the Hudson River. Now preliminary news on the proposal has surfaced. A roughly four-mile extension of the 7 Subway Train from the West Side of Manhattan to Secaucus Junction would cost $5.3 billion and provide the extra trans-Hudson rail link the New York region has been demanding for years.
The 7 Train is currently being extended 1.3 miles from Times Square to 11th Avenue and 34th Street at a cost of more than $2 billion.
The plan is in the earliest stages of development — no assumptions can be made about the exact route trains would take on their way to Secaucus. The MTA, which runs the subway, has not been consulted on project documents. Engineering efforts and the construction period would require ten years before opening, at least. No funding is secure.
Yet the construction of a subway connection to New Jersey would be unique in the history of the city: Thus far, no MTA-controlled lines have made it past city borders. And though the cost of the project is and will remain by far the biggest obstacle, the potential of a subway line to transform the relationship between the two states involved could be big enough of a vision to inspire radical new thinking about financing.
The important question, though, is whether this is the project the New York metropolitan region needs or even wants.
Put in the context of the ARC Tunnel, an extension of the 7 Train would have as its primary purpose relieving the congestion of commuter and intercity trains traveling along the existing pair of tracks connecting Penn Station to the mainland. Of course, unlike ARC, this proposal would offer metro-type services and would be incapable of hosting mainline trains. This would have two primary consequences: One, it would require commuters to transfer from New Jersey Transit trains to the subway at Secaucus, a connection that would not have been necessary had ARC been built; and two, it would require the 7 Train to absorb all new growth in new commuting across the Hudson, because the existing rail infrastructure is over capacity at rush hours.
While the required transfer at Secaucus would have its major downsides, the ability to jump onto the subway would have some huge advantages, namely allowing New Jerseyans to travel directly to Grand Central Terminal, the East Midtown business district, and the rapidly expanding Long Island City in Queens. Access at Secaucus is ideal because the station already serves as the hub for all of the agency’s Manhattan and Hoboken-bound commuter trains. In addition, the existing Manhattan stations that would be used by 7 Train commuters are far closer to the surface than ARC’s deep-cavern Penn Station terminus would have been, and connections to other subway lines throughout the city would be more convenient.
The project is projected to cost roughly half as much as the ARC tunnel because it would require no significant new tunneling under Manhattan and would not need a major interlocking to connect with the existing rail system. Mayor Bloomberg has suggested that the 7 Train could use the ARC tunnel’s route, but I have yet to see any evidence that the extension currently under construction would fit in with those plans, since its tail tracks would extend south to 26th Street, far below the 34th Street route of ARC.
Nevertheless, this change of route would open up the welcome possibility of improving rapid transit service to the very dense New Jersey “riviera” just across the Hudson from Manhattan, north of where PATH rapid transit services already run. If the 7 Train extension were designed to include a station under the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail at 9th Street in Hoboken or at Lincoln Harbor, for instance, commuters from this relatively isolated — yet central — section of the region would have far easier access to the metropolitan core. A direct east-west subway connection into Manhattan would mean a large increase in ridership along the light rail line’s north-south route.
Neither the states of New Jersey nor New York are particularly well-off from a budgetary perspective; significantly, the Garden State’s Transportation Trust Fund is virtually broke. Plans for a station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue along the currently under construction extension of the 7 Train have been put off due to a lack of funds at the municipal level. How would any local government be able to finance the construction of another massive new transit project?
The Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration each agreed to contribute $3 billion to the ARC tunnel; in theory, this sum would be enough to complete this new 7 Train project. But Washington’s dollars are likely to be redistributed to schemes elsewhere that could be under construction within the next year or two, not ten.
Yet the direct link between the construction of the 7 Train and the build-up of the Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan should not be ignored. This massive redevelopment area is poised to become New York City’s fourth major business district, with dozens of skyscrapers planned, representing a total investment of $15 billion or more. The arrival of the subway to the area and a better link into New Jersey would improve the prospects for this zone. The subway system could be financed through a neighborhood tax increment financing district.
The fact that this project can be envisioned in a realistic fashion, however, does not prove that it would be the most reasonable use of the public purse. Further studies must be conducted to evaluate whether it is even possible from an engineering perspective. Mayor Bloomberg’s imagination today could be forgotten tomorrow.
An increase in the rail travel capacity between New York and New Jersey is one of the region’s top transportation needs. But moving more commuters does not require the construction of a new tunnel: Cheap changes to rail cars could be simple to implement and eventually a re-orientation of the metropolitan commuter rail system so that it operates more in the mode of regional rail could significantly improve convenience and carrying capacity along existing lines.
Moreover, it is an open question whether an investment in a 7 Train extension to New Jersey should be enough of a priority for the region that it bypasses other long-planned proposals. While the Second Avenue Subway’s first phase is under construction between 63rd and 96th Streets, other extensions of the line — north to 125th Street and south to the Battery — are essential to improve access to Manhattan’s East Side. Direct rail access to JFK Airport from Lower Manhattan has been pondered for decades. And streetcars on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts were promoted by Mayor Bloomberg in his last reelection campaign. Whither these ideas? Should they be condemned to the scrap heap as a 7 Train extension moves forward?
Update: In a press conference this morning, MTA Chairman Jay Walder discussed the potential 7 Train extension to New Jersey. He argued that the agency needs to focus on the system’s existing mega-projects, including the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, and the current (shorter) 7 Train extension. The MTA, he noted, has no funds for this project. Any funding for this project would have to come from another source.