Volume 18 • Issue 13 | August 19 - 25, 2005

Talking Point

Have it all with one new rail tunnel

By Brian Hatch

Lower Manhattan is the fourth largest business district in the country. To continue to be a major job engine, it must have a transit system that connects directly to the entire region. The city has 8 million people, but most of the metropolitan area’s 20 million people are beyond reach of the subways. Midtown has numerous direct rail links to the region and beyond, but Lower Manhattan has none. 

It is ironic that Downtown is in this predicament, given that rail transit was invented here. Europe initiated rail transportation, but the trains stopped at the edge of the city. In 1832, the New York & Harlem Railroad was the first to move people within a city. The line went from City Hall to Harlem, via Fourth Ave. (The Harlem also put the “mass” in transit by quintupling the capacity of the “omnibuses” of the time – essentially large stagecoaches.)

The Harlem was a hit, and quickly pushed well north of the city. With a quick switch from steam to horsepower, it was possible to take a one-seat ride from Westchester to Lower Manhattan in the 1800s, something that’s impossible today. 

After steam power was banned below 42nd St., the Harlem, Hudson and New Haven railroads jointly built a station there to be as close to Downtown as possible. By 1926, the New York Times noted that rents around 42nd St. were already higher than Downtown in an article entitled, “‘Uptown Wall Street Grows Wealthy; New Financial District Scattered Around the Grand Central.” Midtown continued to grow in the post-war era until it eclipsed Wall St. altogether. Two-seat rides and the lack of a Lower Manhattan commuter terminal had a direct role in this reversal.

By 1997, a study prepared for the state, city and Alliance for Downtown New York bluntly concluded, “Lower Manhattan needs dramatically improved access to the regional commuter rail system to survive as a Class A office market.”

Appropriately, a consensus has emerged on the need for a new rail connection for Downtown. The question is how to go about it. The current plan is to build a tunnel eastward that could connect Lower Manhattan to a commuter railroad and an airport: namely most L.I.R.R. lines and J.F.K.

A tunnel to the north is the superior approach. By connecting with Penn Station, Lower Manhattan could be connected to not only J.F.K. but Newark Airport as well. More importantly, all L.I.R.R. lines, as well as New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and the Metro-North Railroad could access Downtown. Metro-North is of particular importance, as a disproportionate number of C.E.O.’s live in Westchester and Fairfield counties. A count of headquarter buildings near Grand Central vs. Penn Station illustrates their influence.

With a northern tunnel combined with the East Side Access project creating Metro-North platform space at Penn Station, one-seat rides would not only be available to Babylon, but to Stamford, New Canaan, White Plains, and Poughkeepsie as well. Not just Ronkonkoma, but Morristown, Princeton Junction and Long Branch. Not only Huntington, but also Albany, Buffalo, Back Bay and Capitol Hill. The hundreds of connections to the entire Northeast would electrify the Downtown economy. The wider service area would also dramatically improve ridership, and therefore political support and funding options.

The cost of a commuter tunnel to the east or to the north should be similar. Either option would require a tunnel of about four miles. Either would also need a multi-platform terminal that could accommodate many commuter trains at a time. (There has been some discussion of a simple AirTrain-only terminal, but that limited approach couldn’t justify the multi-billion cost.)

A study in the late 1990s looked at options to improve Lower Manhattan access by building a commuter tunnel to the north. The Second Avenue Subway was also being advanced at the time, but only to the Upper East Side and Harlem – the much-derided “stubway.” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver secured a full-length Second Avenue Subway in 2000, but the commuter rail study was dropped soon thereafter, as though the M.T.A. decided to support just one Downtown project. Today, they are back to looking at a regional rail connection for Lower Manhattan. The opportunity must be maximized.

One option is to connect Downtown to part of the region. It would be far better to directly connect Lower Manhattan to the entire Northeastern United States.

Brian Hatch, a consultant on transportation and urban planning issues, founded NewYorkGames.org, which studied the effects the plan for a Hudson Yards stadium and nearby office towers would have on the city and Lower Manhattan in particular.


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