Time’s up for M.T.A.’s South Ferry numbers

It may sound naive to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but we think you should figure out the benefits of an investment before you make it.

It has become clear to us in the last few weeks that the M.T.A. has committed $400 million in federal money to redesign the South Ferry subway station before the agency has any real estimate for the time savings benefit of the renovation. At a press conference to thank the feds for the Sept. 11 related transportation money for South Ferry and other projects, Peter Kalikow, M.T.A. chairperson, said the commute from Penn Station to South Ferry would be cut by about half.

A few minutes later, he told Downtown Express that the commute would drop from 20 minutes to 12. That’s about half but the veracity of the 12-minute estimate is highly-questionable. It now takes 12 minutes to go four stops from Penn Station to South Ferry using the express 2 or 3 train and the local 1 or 9. The M.T.A. has no plans to add super-speed 1 and 9 trains, so it is hard to imagine the local would be able to make 12 stops in the same 12 minutes.

M.T.A. officials have told others it will be able to shave four or five minutes off the commute. Pressed to explain the discrepancies in all of the time numbers, an M.T.A. spokesperson acknowledged to us that officials have not made a concrete estimate yet.

Renovating the antiquated South Ferry station would no doubt speed up the local, but by how much and what is that worth? A new station would have two tracks instead of one so trains could move in and out of the station quicker. Passengers would be able to exit all 10 cars rather than having to move to the front five cars to exit.

There are other reasons to renovate South Ferry, but saving time is the first reason the M.T.A. gives and it appears too busy cashing its $400 million check to bother figuring out what the benefits will be. And even if the 12-minute estimate is somehow accurate, it would mean a minimal improvement over the existing express-local route.

The money was sent by Washington to help Lower Manhattan rebuild after 9/11. The largest business organization Downtown, the Downtown Alliance, and the largest residential organization, Community Board 1, agree that there are better ways to spend the transportation money, such as using it to help build a link to the Long Island Rail Road and J.F.K. Airport. And another business group, the Partnership for New York, has questioned the economic development benefits compared to other projects since it is unlikely to spur demand for commercial offices in the already developed

South Ferry area.

A nicer subway station will no doubt benefit Staten Island passengers in their rush to Midtown. They deserve a modern station just like all straphangers, but not out of 9/11 money. Let the M.T.A. find the money for its upgrading in its own capital budget.

It is a worthy project. The station’s short platform can cause dangerous crushes when ferry commuters are pushing to get on and Downtown office workers and tourists headed to the Statue of Liberty are getting off. Perhaps there are cheaper ways to improve the station by adding exits without adding new tracks. If the M.T.A. has examined alternatives, it should share the results with the public before it proceeds. If it hasn’t studied alternatives, there is still time to do so. Not all of the transportation plans have been fully studied yet and it would be better to make decisions with actual information to compare benefits of competing transportation projects.

Gov. George Pataki, who controls the agency, has already said South Ferry is going forward. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has limited power over the subways, is going along. Before the construction begins and the money is spent, we’d like them to be able to answer one question:

How much are the benefits of renovating South Ferry worth compared to the other projects vying for scarce transportation dollars?

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