Second Avenue subway: To build or not to build?


By Josh Rogers

East Side politicians from Harlem to Lower Manhattan came to City Hall last week to show their support for building the full-length Second Ave. subway and counter a recent business report suggesting the project is not worth doing because it will take too long to construct.

“The full length Second Ave. subway remains the most important and valuable transportation project that can be done for this entire region,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said at the Dec. 20 press conference organized by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney.

When a reporter asked whether anyone on the City Hall steps supported a shortened subway line from Harlem to 63rd St. — the so-called “stubway” – the politicians shouted “no,” almost in unison.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which once favored the stubway, plans to begin building the full-length line from 125th St. to Hanover Sq. at the end of next year and to finish in 2020.

Silver was the driving force behind securing $1 billion in state money for the project’s engineering, design and initial construction costs. Almost $14 billion is still needed and Silver said 90 percent of it should come from the federal government since the state has already invested so much.

“Ultimately it does not get built without a major federal commitment,” Silver said.

Maloney said Congress has funded the subway each of the last four years, but the total so far is only $9 million, less than one tenth of one percent of the project’s costs.

Silver said the new line would reduce overcrowding on the most crowded subway line in the nation, the Lexington Ave. trains, and would be a particular benefit to two neighborhoods he represents — Chinatown, which he said has suffered the biggest economic hardship as a result of 9/11, and the Lower East Side, where residents living near the East River are a hike away from the closest subway entrance.

Not everyone agrees. The Partnership for New York City, made up of the city’s largest businesses, released a report last month suggesting that although there are clear benefits to the Second Ave. line — $12.62 billion in economic development and $8.4 billion in transportation benefits such as time savings – the project is not worth the $15.3 billion cost in present value terms.

“There is simply not enough money to do this,” Kathryn Wylde, the Partnership’s president, said a few weeks ago. “It’s not that we wouldn’t all love the Second Ave. subway. The question is what are the tradeoffs.”

Wylde said by examining the subway line in terms of present value, the costs go up since you invest money year after year to build it, and the benefits are reduced since you have to wait until 2020 to receive them. “You don’t get any economic payback for 17 years,” said Wylde. Present value is an economic term measuring the value of something that will be realized in the future.

The politicians came armed with a report from the Regional Plan Association extolling the benefits of the Second Ave. subway line, but the report did not include present value estimates.

Wylde was not surprised by the omission. “They’re not economists,” she said last week. “They’re planners.”

Chris Jones, an R.P.A. vice president, said his group did do present value estimates, but analysts left it out of the report because they did not want it to be viewed as a response to the Partnership’s analysis. He said the differing conclusions are based on different assumptions about how fast the subway could be built and how much economic development it would trigger.

Jones said the subway line could be built in 12 years and that the M.T.A. and Partnership are being too conservative with the 17-year estimate. R.P.A.’s Rita Schwartz said given the accelerated construction estimate on the city’s water tunnel project and the quick reopening of the World Trade Center temporary PATH station, it is realistic to think that the subway line could be built faster than expected.

John McCarthy, an M.T.A. spokesperson, said last week that the agency continues to prepare to begin building the subway next year and is targeting 2020 as the completion date. He declined to comment on R.P.A.’s timetable.

R.P.A. also estimates that the new subway line would spur twice as much commercial development (7 million sq. feet) than the Partnership estimates (3 million sq. feet) along Manhattan’s East Side.

Jones said the biggest clusters of development would be near 55 Water St. in Lower Manhattan, near the Con Edison plant in the East 30s, and on the Upper East Side where medical facilities would expand and near 125th St.

The R.P.A. study also concluded that the new subway would lead to 70,000 jobs during construction, 86,000 afterwards, and that it would generate $1.26 billion in economic activity every year after it was built.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, the ranking member of the House’s powerful Ways & Means Committee, said, “the Partnership is in partnership with the wrong people because they’re not in partnership with us.” He added that he hoped to be able to work with the group and that if they came out in favor of the Second Ave. subway, he’d be happy to help them with the “J.F.K. link or whatever they want.”

He was referring to a link between the Queens airport, the Long Island Rail Road and Lower Manhattan, which may cost as much as $5 billion. The Partnership did not study the commuter-airport connection in its report, but Wylde has said linking Downtown to Long Island could have enormous benefits as Downtown recovers from the 2001 attack.

Sen. Charles Schumer last week said the $1.7 billion remaining transportation money in the federal 9/11 relief package should be spent on the J.F.K.-L.I.R.R. link and could be combined with other unused 9/11money — $1.2 billion in Community Development Block Grants and if necessary, as much as $3 billion in tax incentives – to pay for the link. Gov. George Pataki hopes to spend about half of the remaining transportation money on a vehicular tunnel under West St. near the W.T.C. and there is a long list of projects that groups have been lobbying to spend the C.D.B.G. money on, including the Hudson River Park, affordable housing and a cultural center in Chinatown. Phil Singer, Schumer’s spokesperson, said it is not that the senator is against any of the other ideas, but that the federal money and the commuter link presents a rare opportunity to revive Downtown’s economy.

As for the Second Ave. subway, the two officials who control the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., Gov. Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have never supported using 9/11 money on the Second Ave. subway because it could only pay for a small piece of the line.

At last week’s conference, Silver and Maloney stopped Mayor Bloomberg as he was returning to his office at City Hall. Bloomberg expressed general support for a full-length line, but added that there were a lot of good transportation projects and “if we had [enough money] we could build it all.”

Bloomberg has been more enthusiastic about extending the number 7 train to Manhattan’s West Side as part of his plan to develop the area, expand the Javits Center and build a stadium for the New York Jets and the Olympics, as part of the city’s bid to host the Summer Games in 2012.

Wylde said the 7 extension is a better project than Second Ave. because it would cost less, $2.16 billion, could be done in only five years and lead to $13.83 billion in economic development benefits, according to the Partnership report. Building transportation centers at the World Trade Center and near Fulton St., a four-year $2.87 billion project that will be paid for with 9/11 money, is the most worthwhile, because it would lead to almost $15 billion in economic development benefits, and almost $4 billion in transportation benefits, Wylde said.

Her report suggests one project that is already on the fast track, East Side Access connecting the L.I.R.R. to Grand Central Terminal at $6 billion, is also questionable because it will take nine years to get $4.2 billion in transportation benefits and $9.68 billion worth of development.

Silver said with East Side Access being built, it makes the Second Ave. line more essential since it will bring more commuters to the East Side and would exacerbate Lexington line overcrowding if the new subway line is not built.

“East Side Access does not work unless you have a Second Ave. subway,” said Silver

Maloney, Rangel and Silver were joined last week by among others, State Sen. Martin Connor, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1, all of Lower Manhattan, Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, two Upper East Siders, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, and in Harlem, Councilmember Phil Reed and David Givens, chairperson of Community Board 11.


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