Does Transportation Really Deserve Top Billing Downtown?By Peter Marcuse
If you ask any public official or civic leader what the top priority is for planning the city's rebuilding after Sept. 11, they will probably say transportation. Improving transportation downtown is a major part of the recommendations of almost every civic group dealing with the effects of Sept. 11, from the Civic Alliance to the principles of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation itself. However, spending a large portion of the money that the federal government gave the city after Sept. 11 on transportation improvements may not be the best idea for New York City.
Of course, what was destroyed must be restored. But we should think twice before funding ideas such as creating a third major transportation hub in lower Manhattan, a moving walkway to connect remote subway and PATH stations, a major underground shopping mall alongside it, a bigger PATH station, new ferry terminals and bringing West Street underground.
In one recent estimate by Forbes Magazine, restoring the transportation system to pre-September 11 condition will take $5 billion of federal assistance, but another $7.3 billion will be sought to make improvements, and additional local and state funds will undoubtedly be needed for what is proposed. A major rationale for channeling so much of the available funds into transportation for lower Manhattan is that fixing transit infrastructure anywhere benefits everyone. That isn't necessarily the case. The proposed improvements will not benefit all equally. They should become a priority for public investment only if transportation improvements truly trump other needs for improvement throughout the city.
Even if one decides that transportation should be the main priority, putting these sums into a spanking new transportation hub at one end of Manhattan, in addition to the two hubs that already exist in midtown, is not the wisest use of transportation money. From a planning perspective, building a major new hub at one extreme end of the most densely crowded part of the most densely crowded borough of the city also does not make sense.
There are many other transportation facilities throughout the city that need these funds. The subway system desperately needs upgrading in many areas. More-and more modern-buses are needed. The East River tunnel connection is languishing for lack of funds. Bicycle users are badly under-served. Rail access to the Upper West Side and hubs in Jamaica and in Brooklyn are all expansion options. Each would serve a different set of users, with different income levels, ethnicity and gender. Social justice concerns should be a key consideration.
The most misguided transportation investment is the proposal to bury West Street next to Battery Park City in a tunnel. This project's benefits are narrow, affecting primarily the Battery Park City neighborhood, the highest-income enclave in lower Manhattan. According to a Crain's New York report, the cost is now being estimated at $2 billion for a ten block tunnel. Even some public officials are beginning to have doubts. "It is a good thing, but what is the price tag? If it came in at $2 billion or $3 billion then don't do it, because you could find more essential uses for that money," Congressman Jerrold Nadler told Crain's New York. That's exactly the question that ought to be asked of every proposal for infrastructure improvement.
There are other pressing needs throughout the city. Every serious economic study of New York City's future emphasizes the importance of education, for example. Many studies have also recommended business and infrastructure development in New York's other major business and commercial centers. If this is combined with community development plans, it could expand employment opportunities, decongest southern Manhattan, reduce commuting time and ameliorate environmental pollution. Affordable housing is also desperately needed in the city; even the modest proposals of Housing First suggest $10 billion as a 10-year price tag. We should not idly decide to sink billions into up-grading lower Manhattan infrastructure rather than using it to help meet some of these other needs.
Before we decide to devote so much of the Sept. 11 funds to add new transportation to lower Manhattan, the City Planning Commission should take a long-term, comprehensive look at the city's transportation system, its educational system, its environment, its economy, its housing, and make grounded recommendations as to priorities. Its role should be much more central than it now is. Before putting new transportation for lower Manhattan first, it is time to pause and consider the needs of the city as a whole.
Peter Marcuse is a professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.