Even with $2B, rail link remains in doubt

By Josh Rogers

Two billion dollars is a lot of money unless you travel in the halls of Congress or you’re talking about transportation projects. It may not be enough to get a Downtown rail link to the L.I.R.R. and J.F.K. Airport built.

President Bush put $2 billion in his budget for Lower Manhattan transportation projects this week, and with the Democrats now in control of Congress, it is considered likely to still be there when the final budget is passed, presumably later this year. The politicians who celebrated the decision with press releases after last Thursday’s announcement – Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton – said the $2 billion would be spent for the link, but the budget item, which transfers unused 9/11-related tax breaks, does not mention the commuter-airport connection specifically and can be used for any transportation project south of Canal St.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Lee Sander, whom Spitzer selected to run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have said on several occasions that building the Second Ave. subway and East Side Access, which would connect the L.I.R.R. to Grand Central Station, are higher priorities and there’s not enough money to do all desirable projects.

Even if the $2 billion passes Congress and is set aside for the link, it will still leave at least a $3 billion shortfall. The Port Authority and M.T.A. have committed about $1 billion to the project, which would cost $6 billion if a preliminary estimate a few years ago holds up.

Sander’s spokesperson, Sam Zambuto, said Wednesday “it’s premature” to begin discussing whether to use the federal money on the link or to shift to another project such as the Downtown portion of the Second Ave. line. He said the M.T.A. is still working with the city on the rail link’s environmental impact statement, and will not make a decision before it’s completed later this year.

If Bloomberg and Spitzer can’t agree on how to spend the money, it will be split evenly between the city and the state, according to the three-page budget item, which may not have required Solomonic wisdom to write.

Spokespersons for Bloomberg, Schumer and Clinton declined to comment beyond what was in their bosses releases.

The mayor, in a prepared statement, said the Downtown connection “will create 80,000 permanent jobs in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn and will add about $9 – $12 billion in economic output annually.”

The line would be an expansion of the AirTrain connecting J.F.K. to Jamaica where it would continue on to Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn, go through a new East River subway tunnel that would be built, on its way to the Calatrava commuter-subway station under construction at the World Trade Center site. L.I.R.R. commuters could transfer to the line at Jamaica on their way to Lower Manhattan. A preliminary estimate prepared by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. a few years ago predicted the link would shorten the Long Island commute to the W.T.C. area by 15 minutes and provide a one-seat ride to or from the airport in about 20 minutes.

Supporters and opponents agree the link will serve far fewer people per dollar than the Second Ave. subway will at first, but proponents say the economic development and activity the link will stimulate in Downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jamaica justifies the cost. Some opponents argue the economic activity is not an important factor. Others say it is relevant, but the economic benefits of the Downtown link are being exaggerated.

Eric Deutsch, president of the Downtown Alliance, which represents Wall St. area property owners, said he is hopeful the $2 billion transfer will pass in Washington, at which point the Alliance will focus on making sure it goes to the link. The president had put the money in the budget before, but the Republican-controlled Congress removed it.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the Congress,” Deutsch said. “Unfortunately at the very end of last year it fell out of the budget because of post-election partisan issues.”

He said with the new Democratic chairperson of the House Ways and Means Committee — Rep. Charlie Rangel of Harlem — supporting the measure, and with both New York senators in the majority, the $2-billion tax transfer should pass.

Deutsch said the link will attract more and more riders with time as it stimulates activity in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. “If you build it, not only will people come, but others will come and develop,” he said, adding the AirTrain took a few years for ridership to get grow.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s district includes Lower Manhattan but Nadler is against using the $2 billion on the link. He said it’s designed to prevent brokerage houses moving from Downtown to Midtown and is an expensive price tag for something that will not be a big gain in New York.

“If you said to me this would prevent Wall St. firms from moving to Greenwich Conn., I’d say maybe it’s worth it,” he said in a telephone interview. “But it’s not worth $6 billion to make sure Wall St. doesn’t move to Midtown.”

He is skeptical that Wall St. firms would leave en masse for Midtown with higher rents and limited space, but said even if that fear were real, it would not justify the rail link price tag.

He said with about $400 million, officials should build the new AirTrain connection from J.F.K. to Jamaica, which could provide a one-seat ride to Penn Station and Grand Central Station, once East Side Access is complete.

This idea would require a change in federal regulations which prohibits different kinds of rail lines from sharing tracks. The Downtown rail link would not require this change because the new line would not be sharing space with other L.I.R.R. lines.

Carl Weisbrod, a longtime rail link supporter, said changing the federal rules would be a lot harder than Nadler suggests. “It’s not likely in our lifetime we’ll see a change,” said Weisbrod, who is on the boards of the Alliance and the L.M.D.C., and is a former president of the city’s Economic Development Corp. “We haven’t seen a change for 100 years.”

Weisbrod, who now heads Trinity Church’s real estate division, said Wall St. firms have gradually moved Uptown over the decades and that trend will continue unless new service is added Downtown. Merrill Lynch is the next big firm which may leave the area, he said.

Rail link skeptics have not seized on the best way to spend the $2 billion. The M.T.A. hopes to build the Lower Manhattan section of the Second Ave. T line at an unspecified date in the fourth and last phase, when the money could be used on the tunnels and three new stations south of Canal – Chatham Sq., the Seaport and Hanover Sq. The plan is to begin construction on the first phase of the project next month connecting 96th St. to 63rd St. by 2013, assuming the authority comes up with at least $2 billion in its five-year capital plan in 2010. The first phase will allow T straphangers to transfer and get down to Canal St. on the Q. The T-Q trip Downtown will likely be a faster trip than the T if it’s built all of the way since the T will make more stops along Second Ave.

Nadler, who backs a full-length line, said the Downtown section is so far off in the future it may not be a good way to spend the $2 billion. He pointed to the recent city comptroller’s report detailing maintenance and safety problems in many stations around the city as a good use for some of the money.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been a strong supporter of the rail link, but he also got the M.T.A. to make a commitment to build the Downtown section of the Second Ave. subway several years ago. In an interview with Downtown Express last year, he indicated he favored the link over Second Ave., but soon after, he said both were important and he hadn’t intended to suggest otherwise. When asked this week which project the speaker would back if only one were possible, his spokesperson, Jim Quent, said Silver supports them both.

Gene Russianoff, attorney for the Straphangers’ Campaign and a link opponent, said with construction prices soaring and long-term M.T.A. deficits being predicted, New York will not be able to do all of the projects and will have to make choices. “If you’re for everything, you’re really for nothing,” he said.

He thinks the link will not serve enough people. “Downtown feels it has been gypped since 1913 when Grand Central Station was built, and they think this somehow will right a historical wrong,” he said.

As to how best to spend the $2 billion, he thinks Second Ave. is appealing but acknowledged the project’s uncertain future in Lower Manhattan. He said the M.T.A. recently cut out renovation plans on a few Lower Manhattan J,M,Z stations and there are cost overruns on the Fulton Transit Center, which is being redesigned and rebuilt with $800 million of post-9/11 money.