Hey, stuff does open Downtown!


by Julie Shapiro

South Ferry Subway

“You can be in all 10 cars for the new South Ferry station,” the conductor told straphangers Monday, March 16, 2009. “You don’t need to be in the first five cars anymore….” It sounded like a new day Downtown.

Indeed commuters were generally pleased with the big, new, clean station which meant they would no longer have to jockey for position as they scrambled to the Staten Island Ferry terminal as Lower Manhattan workers and Statue of Liberty tourists struggled to get into the train on their way back Uptown. The incessant warnings from conductors to move to the front of the train were also a thing of the past.

But the very next words out of the conductor’s mouth Monday would not have surprised your average subway cynic. “We are being held momentarily in the station.” When the announcement was repeated a few minutes later, some commuters shook their heads and one looked at his watch, perhaps to see if he would still make the next ferry.

One of the main reasons the Metropolitan Transportation Authority pushed to build the new station was to be able to speed the 1 trains in and out of the station, but on Monday the trains repeatedly stopped between Rector St. and South Ferry before entering the new station. A Transit spokesperson said there were signal problems that were corrected by the next morning rush hour, but trains continued to stop before South Ferry on Tuesday too.

The M.T.A. expected to bring the local subway commute from Penn Station to South Ferry down to 16 minutes from 21. Spot checks by this reporter showed a few successes and failures to meet the goal, but motormen and women are driving with a one-stop handicap. They will have more trouble bringing the trains in on time in a few years when the Cortlandt St. 1 station is expected to reopen at the World Trade Center.

Five-minute commute improvements are considered significant in transportation planning circles, but perhaps nowhere is that more true than at South Ferry, where a delay of a few seconds can extend a Staten Island ferry commuter’s trip by 20 minutes or more. Some noticed one of the few drawbacks to the new station is the sprint to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal was lengthened.

But many tough-to-please riders were happy.

Attorney Connie Oberle Geoghan, 36, got a pleasant surprise on her first day back from maternity leave Monday. She left her Downtown office pushing an empty stroller with two and a half week old Katherine nestled against her belly. She took the new elevator down to the station, but then it was a few minutes before she and a transit worker figured out how to open the handicapped-accessible door, which was missing a handle. But it was a lot better than it would have been carrying a stroller down the stairs.

“Seeing it open is so exciting,” she said as she walked with her newborn to catch a train to the Upper West Side. “I figured it would be a year and she’d be walking by the time it opened.”

Some riders snapped pictures of the new station and many commented to strangers on how they liked it. One Transit worker, asked what he thought, was less moved. “It’s a train stop,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

But as the trains pulled in, enthusiastic interns from Transit Tech high school removed the subway cars’ seven-language posters directing passengers to the first five cars. Several of the students said they hoped to work in the subway system someday and they planned to keep their posters.

“Yeah, they’re discontinuing the loop!” Anthony Modesto, a 16-year-old sophomore said, explaining the souvenir potential.

In the station built in 1905, trains would loop around to head back Uptown, but now with two tracks, they can travel faster.

Although it took almost eight years after 9/11 to build the new station, South Ferry is the first of the big permanent transportation improvements to be built with the federal 9/11 recovery package. Originally budgeted for $400 million, the final cost of South Ferry was $527 million with $420 million coming from the feds.

The project was less popular in Lower Manhattan, where groups like Community Board 1 and the Downtown Alliance thought there were more worthy transportation goals.

“I am somewhat disheartened that it isn’t the Fulton St. station,” Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of C.B. 1’s W.T.C. Committee, said last week after M.T.A. officials updated the board on South Ferry’s pending opening. “That was the community board’s first priority.”

The Fulton Street Station, which also received 9/11 funds, has been delayed because of funding shortfalls. Some Downtowners had hopes the 9/11 transit funds could help pay for the Lower Manhattan portion of the Second Ave. subway or a transit link to J.F.K. Airport and the Long Island Rail Road, but both projects are either dead or about a decade away at best.

South Ferry had it’s own delays, with workers literally hitting a wall in Battery Park as they were building the station a few years ago. A portion of the 1755 stone wall is preserved in the new station.

The problems led right into opening day. After a delegation of politicians led by Gov. David Paterson and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand opened the station Monday morning, the public opening was delayed because of an unrelated water main break by the Canal St. 1 station. But workers had the water cleaned up a few stops up after a few hours, just in time for the afternoon rush.

Before the troubles, the governor explained the biggest improvement: “By Rector St., there’s normally a mad dash to get to those five cars or to figure out whether you’re in one of them…At 12 o’clock today, we will retire this unfortunate tradition here in New York State.”

The M.T.A. and the city Dept. of Transportation are funding about $17 million worth of improvements to Battery Park and Peter Minuit Plaza to compensate for disruptions during the construction of the new station and Staten Island ferry terminal a few years ago. About 90 trees will be added to the plaza. Ferry commuters will once again have a weather-protected trip to the terminal when a new canopy is built, perhaps by the end of the year. Park officials also hope to begin construction next year on a bike and jogging path adjacent to the park to connect the Hudson and East River greenways.

The new station provides a close connection to the Whitehall R, W stop, which also amounts to a visual reminder of the differences between old and new stations. The brand new station floor tiles near the tree-theme artwork end abruptly at the Whitehall section of the turnstile entrance (a transit official laughed when asked if there were any plans to install new tiles for a consistent floor).

Cathy Grier, 49, was playing blues for riders but the music did not affect her thoughts on the station. She marveled at the spaciousness, the cleanliness, the art.

“For a performer, it’s great to be staring at this beautiful artwork…and the elevators smell good,” said Grier, who has lugged her guitar in many subway elevators to perform in the Music Under New York program.

She was also happy she would never again have to worry about being in the front of the train.

“I can’t tell you how many times I came in and I was at the wrong end of the station,” she said.

Constantine Klostri, 38, never had that problem, but he looked forward to commuting the next morning when he could read his book without being told to move closer. He liked other things about the station too. “We’ll see how long it stays clean,” he said as the 1 took him back home to Washington Heights.

With reporting