Fulton train project waits at the station for Congress

By Julie Shapiro

As the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives announced a $789 billion economic stimulus package Wednesday, Lower Manhattanites are hoping the Fulton Transit Center does not get lost in the shuffle.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to use $497 million in federal stimulus money to complete the long-delayed transit center, whose budget has soared to $1.4 billion. The M.T.A. has enough money to complete most of the belowground work of untangling 11 subway lines, but the agency needs the stimulus funding to build the retail-filled aboveground station and restore the adjacent landmarked Corbin Building.

The House and Senate stimulus compromise, forged Wednesday, allocates $8.4 billion for transit, less than the $12 billion in the House’s original plan. Had the House plan moved forward, New York State would have gotten $2 billion for transportation, said Ilan Kayatsky, spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan. Most of that would have gone to the M.T.A., with a large chunk going to the Fulton Transit Center.

Now that the legislators have cut the $12 billion down to $8.4 billion, it is unclear how much New York State will get, but it will likely be less than $2 billion, Kayatsky said in an e-mail to Downtown Express.

“We’re just watching and waiting,” said Aaron Donovan, spokesperson for the M.T.A., earlier in the week.

Two weeks ago, Lee Sander, C.E.O. of the M.T.A., unveiled his new funding plan for the transit center, which relies heavily on federal stimulus money. The M.T.A. initially pegged the project’s cost at $750 million in 2002, and since then the cost has nearly doubled. Sander blamed rising construction and real estate acquisition costs for the swelling price tag.

Sander spoke at a State Assembly hearing held by Speaker Sheldon Silver. Sander did not dispute Silver’s assertion that the state’s first submissions to the new Congress for the stimulus package included no money for the transit center, and later included only $200 million. The M.T.A. and Gov. David Paterson have now upped the request to nearly $500 million.

Sander said the new budget estimate of $1.4 billion would be plenty to build everything the M.T.A. has promised the community, including the glass-domed station whose design received wide acclaim. The M.T.A. could still find cost savings that would bring the project in under its new budget, particularly if they replace the glass dome, called an oculus, with a skylight instead. That would save $40 million, Sander said.

“We want retail, we want it built and we want it now,” said Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance and one of the strongest advocates for the transit center.

Berger, who testified later in the hearing, did not sound attached to keeping the oculus, saying, “We can debate the architecture, but I don’t think that’s the issue.” The real issue is getting the center open as soon as possible, she said.

Last year, Berger said it was important for the architecture to be “distinctive,” as the M.T.A. originally promised.

If the federal money comes through, Sander said the aboveground station could begin to rise in the summer of 2010 and open by the end of 2012.

Up until now, M.T.A. officials have insisted that the budget shortfall at Fulton has not slowed down the work since contractors continue to do underground work on the center. But Michael Horodniceanu, the M.T.A. capital-projects president, acknowledged at the Assembly hearing that the M.T.A. could immediately start working on the historic Corbin Building to incorporate it into the transit center if the M.T.A. had more money. The rehabilitation of the historic building will be “painstaking-type work,” Horodniceanu said.

The M.T.A. is also awaiting stimulus funding so they can start the overhaul of the A/C platforms, a 46-month project that will eliminate the mazelike ramps that confuse tourists and locals alike. The station will likely be even more confusing during the extensive construction, as the M.T.A. plans to keep trains running throughout the reconfiguration.

“This is the equivalent of changing the tire on a bike while you ride a bike, but we found a way to do that,” Horodniceanu said. The M.T.A. will post staff on the platforms to direct people and may have an information kiosk in the station during construction, which will begin later this year.

While the community appeared happy to hear Sander’s recent commitment to build the Fulton Transit Center, especially because the M.T.A. displaced more than 100 businesses to make way for it, the M.T.A. also had some disappointing news: The Cortlandt St. R/W station will not open for at least another year.

The station closed in 2005 and was supposed to reopen shortly but has remained shut. The M.T.A. said a year ago that they wanted to get the station open as quickly as possible, but now officials sound less optimistic.

The World Trade Center construction adjacent to the Cortlandt station caused the platforms and tracks to settle, and the station also needs stair and passageway work, said Donovan, the M.T.A. spokesperson. The M.T.A. plans to open the northbound entrance first, because the northbound platforms need less work. Straphangers will eventually use the northbound entrance to also access the southbound platforms once they are ready, since the southbound entrance cannot open until W.T.C. construction is complete. Donovan would not give a timeline, but at the Assembly hearing, Horodniceanu said it would be “a year-plus” before any part of the station opens.

“The good news is they’re working on it,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee. “The bad news is we don’t have a timeframe or milestones.”

Hughes wants to have the whole Fulton Transit Center open by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, when out-of-towners will flood Downtown, many of them by public transportation.

“We have to make sure this gets completed,” she said.

With reporting by Josh Rogers