Gotham Gazette

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Debating Transportation Priorities For Lower Manhattan

Recent stories in the Times and Daily News have highlighted the increasingly fractious debate over allocating $4.55 billion in 9/11-related federal aid for transportation projects.

Some projects have won a broad consensus, including a Transit Center on Fulton Street, a block east of the Trade Center site and connected by an underground concourse to a new PATH station to replace the station destroyed with the Trade Center.

Far more contentious is a proposed "Super Shuttle" train between Jamaica, Queens and this new transit hub. The new rail link would run on Long Island Rail Road tracks from the Long Island Railroad's Jamaica Station in eastern Queens to downtown Brooklyn, then through a new tunnel to connect with subway lines into Fulton Street in downtown Manhattan.

The Super Shuttle rail link is pushed by Brookfield Properties, which has extensive downtown real estate holdings and strongly desires direct commuter rail access from the suburbs to downtown offices. The proposed Super Shuttle is a bit less than a super shuttle -- Long Island Rail Road riders would still need to transfer in Jamaica, and many would have a considerable walk from Fulton Street to offices at the southern tip of Manhattan. Travelers headed for Kennedy Airport would transfer in Jamaica to the AirTrain monorail now under construction.

The Super Shuttle would not improve access from Westchester, Connecticut or New Jersey at all. At a price tag of $1.9 to $5 billion, the New York Times notes that many transit officials consider the link to offer poor bang for the buck. Also important is that the new train would displace the C subway line, forcing downtown-bound C riders to transfer in Brooklyn.

The debate over the Super Shuttle exposes developing fault lines in how the different parties to the debate view lower Manhattan's needs and its future. Five main fault lines can be identified:

  • How fast is fast enough? Everyone agrees on the importance of moving quickly to revive lower Manhattan. But what is "quick"? One definition is tied to expiration dates of leases for downtown office space. The lease of one of Brookfield Properties' major tenants, Merrill Lynch, expires in 2008. So under this definition, lower Manhattan should have better suburban rail access within six years. Others suggest that the solution is the Second Avenue Subway, which would relieve severe overcrowding between Grand Central Terminal and lower Manhattan. The timeframe for that project extends well beyond 2008, however, under even the most optimistic scenarios for its funding and construction.
  • What is a "lower Manhattan" project? Carl Weisbrod of the Downtown Alliance argues that the $4.55 billion in federal aid allocated to transportation should be spent exclusively for projects directly tied to the Trade Center attacks. Replacing the PATH station unequivocally qualifies since it was destroyed by the attacks. By general consensus, the transit hub also qualifies because it ties into PATH and would clearly make traveling to the trade center area a more attractive experience. The relationship between 9/11 and other projects is in the eye of the beholder. Proponents of rebuilding the South Ferry station point to its integral role in connecting the Staten Island ferry to lower Manhattan. Yet Senator Charles Schumer and Weisbrod have questioned its relevance to revitalizing lower Manhattan. Proponents of the Super Shuttle argue that the Second Avenue Subway is not a lower Manhattan project. Yet building a tunnel in Brooklyn, part of the Super Shuttle project, is no more obviously related to lower Manhattan than building a tunnel on Manhattan's East Side.
  • Who most needs improved access to lower Manhattan? Downtown property interests emphasize direct suburban commuter access to downtown. Yet most of the people who work downtown live in the five boroughs. Even among the upper echelons that decide whether a company should move to Midtown, many live on Manhattan's East and West Sides and would be helped by improved subway service, not a direct LIRR connection. How closely are the fortunes of lower Manhattan tied to suburban access versus access from other parts of the city? If lower Manhattan's future is as a 24/7 commercial and entertainment center, would not access from other parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey just across the Hudson be more important than from more distant suburbs?
  • What projects increase access to lower Manhattan? A new rail line from A to B would seem to clearly improve access to those locations. Yet analyses of the Super Shuttle suggest that the time savings for Long Island commuters would be negligible compared with their current routes -- traveling via Penn Station or the LIRR's Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn. At a recent forum on downtown transportation issues, Madelyn Wils of Community Board 1 argued that the transit hub and connectors are service improvements, not new transit services. Yet there is less of a difference than the distinction implies. Dingy stations and difficult transfers can be as much of a barrier as simple lack of service between two points.
  • What modes really count? An unspoken assumption is that real business districts have commuter rail service. There has been little discussion of bus service, aside from accommodating tour buses that will descend on the planned memorial for victims. Ferry service, which now carries twice as many riders as pre-9/11, is mentioned more often. But advocates of suburban rail access feel that ferries are not a substitute to rail. Yet new ferry routes could be put in place far more quickly than new rail lines and could serve a wider variety of suburban locations. They might require a public subsidy, however, which raises a host of different institutional, political and financial issues.

Even with differing views on these questions, there is a consensus that lower Manhattan needs better suburban transit access. What would bring about that access, and quickly enough to make a difference?

First, it is critical to think about a package that utilizes various modes that may include rail, bus and ferry. The Super Shuttle proposal puts a huge amount of available funding into rail. A multi-modal approach that includes buses and ferries could be cheaper and quicker and win broader support.

Second, it is critical to think beyond concrete. Why do LIRR riders who work downtown mostly use Penn Station instead of going through Brooklyn? One reason is that Penn Station offers more frequent departures. Also, riders departing from Penn are less likely to have to transfer to another LIRR train in Jamaica. Improving access is not just a matter of pouring concrete. It's also a matter of how the service is configured, the frequency of service and cost. Transfers illustrate the point. While no one likes to transfer, a transfer between trains serving the same platform and offering frequent service is far different than a transfer that requires climbing stairs and long waits for the next train.

Finally, vision and political leadership are needed. Vision of what lower Manhattan will be in five, 10 or 20 years. Will it continue to be primarily an office and financial center? Will it be a 24/7 community with residential, shopping and entertainment? The vision will help define transportation needs.

Political leadership is also critical to define and articulate that vision and move diverse and often fractious interests toward a consensus. Post-election news reports that Governor Pataki intends to take a more direct role in the process, while also involving the city administration more integrally, is a welcome development.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

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