Volume 16, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 9-16, 2003
M.T.A.’s South Ferry numbers appear hyped
By Josh Rogers
Gov. George Pataki was answering a reporter’s question about the merits of the $400 million South Ferry subway station renovation last week and he wanted to know how much time it would save commuters, so he turned to his top appointee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, Peter Kalikow, who said the commute would be cut by about half.
As the M.T.A. chairperson was leaving the event and press conference called to thank the federal government for funding South Ferry and two other Lower Manhattan transportation projects (the World Trade Center permanent PATH station and the Fulton Transit Center), he said a commute from Penn Station to South Ferry would drop from 20 to 12 minutes once the station is extended and new tracks are added. The project will mean trains will be able to get in and out of the station faster and won’t have to slow down all along the line.
If a 12-minute commute is the goal, the M.T.A. may be able to save $400 million in federal money by doing nothing since it now takes 12 minutes to go between Penn Station and South Ferry using the number 2 or 3 express trains, according to unscientific experiments conducted by Downtown Express last week.
And a 12-minute commute on the 1 or 9 local after the South Ferry renovation may be overly optimistic. Once the Cortlandt St. station reopens at the World Trade Center sometime after 2006, the local would have to make 12 stops in 12 minutes – a startlingly fast rate in the city’s subway system. Last week, an Express reporter found that the four-stop Penn Station-South Ferry route typically takes 12 minutes. Commuters taking an express train from Penn Station can go 2 stops to Chambers St., walk across the platform to the 1 or 9 — which often is waiting to connect to the incoming express – and then take the local two stops down to South Ferry.
Several veterans of the Seventh Ave. line say that during rush hour, a Downtown 1 or 9 is almost always waiting at Chambers for express transfers. “They usually have something there,” said one commuter who made the short walk across the platform to the 1 last week.
Charles Featon, a spokesperson for the Transit Authority, a division of the M.T.A., said 1 and 9 conductors are told to wait at Chambers St. if a Downtown express train is on its way, which makes the express route from Penn Station a quicker, reliable alternative.
Speeding up the 1 and 9 trains is the first of several reasons the M.T.A. gives for renovating the South Ferry station. The small platform has only one exit and passengers can only exit from the front five cars. During the morning rush hour, Staten Island ferry commuters are often jockeying to get on while commuters to Lower Manhattan and tourists headed for the Statue of Liberty are weaving their way to the exit.
Jeffrey Zupan, a transportation analyst for the Regional Plan Association and a strong advocate for the renovation, started a telephone interview last week by saying that the time saving and platform safety reasons were both important, but after hearing Kalikow’s time estimate, he said it sounded suspicious and safety was a more compelling justification.
“I’ve heard all kinds of numbers,” said Zupan. “I think the M.T.A. is shooting themselves in the foot because they can’t get their story straight on that.”
He said another M.T.A. official has told him the time will be shaved from 14 down to 9 minutes. Zupan thinks that as long as at least five minutes can be cut, it would be a significant reason to proceed.
Richard Kennedy, vice chairperson of Community Board 1, which opposes renovating South Ferry with 9/11 recovery money, said several months ago that he has been told that the renovation would save four minutes.
Zupan said that since many tourists take their first subway trip to South Ferry, a less tangible reason to do the renovation is to make a good first impression to out-of-towners.
“They’re told to walk through subway cars going through signs saying don’t walk between the cars,” he said. “Then as they go to the Statue of Liberty, they run into [Staten Island] commuters going in.”
Regarding this argument, Carl Weisbrod, who represents Lower Manhattan property owners as president of the Downtown Alliance, said: “The question is, is that worth $400 million?”
Weisbrod, who also opposes paying for the project with 9/11 money, said the $400 million could help pay for part of the costs for more pressing needs such as a Downtown link to J.F.K. Airport and the Long Island Rail Road, estimated to be anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion, depending on how it is connected.
Paraphrasing the old Washington D.C. saying, Weisbrod said “400 million here and $400 million there [and pretty soon you’re talking about real money].”
He said time-conscious Long Island commuters and other subway riders at Penn Station are more apt to get to South Ferry via the express. “Of course that’s what people do,” said Weisbrod.
After saying the time would be cut in half and then later by eight minutes, Kalikow, the M.T.A.’s chairperson, said Downtowners are wrong to oppose it. Not only will the trip be faster, but the station also bridges an important connection, Kalikow said. “It’s inter-modal,” he told Downtown Express. “It connects ferries to subways and it improves the trip Downtown.”
John McCarthy, an M.T.A. spokesperson, said the eight-minute figure “is an estimation of the time savings made possible by building the South Ferry terminal.”
He said five more trains could go though the station in a typical hour and the true time saving won’t be known until the M.T.A. and Transit Authority determine other variables, including how many more trains will run into the new station. This means the project has been approved before the benefits are fully known.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group which has just completed an evaluation of several transportation projects, said her organization has not taken a position on South Ferry, but she doesn’t think the right things are being considered before transportation decisions are made.
“Overall we’re concerned that the way spending priorities are set is not necessarily consistent with the economic priorities of the city,” she said.
Her study concluded that the other two projects approved last week, a PATH permanent hub and a Fulton Transit Center nearby, are the most worthwhile because they will not only bring transportation benefits, but they will also lead to economic development Downtown.
“The benefits of the hub are very clear,” Wylde said of both transit centers. “It will drive economic decisions Downtown and begin to make Lower Manhattan competitive with Midtown.”
She suspects the South Ferry project has transportation benefits, but said that they may not lead to economic development since it would be difficult to add to the office space near South Ferry. The hubs are likely to spur demand for offices at the W.T.C. and near Fulton St. and Broadway, she added.
“South Ferry obviously has key transportation benefits,” said Wylde. “I think it is clear it does not have a lot of economic development benefits. It is in one of the most economically developed portions of Lower Manhattan.”
Last Wednesday, after Gov. Pataki thanked the U.S. secretary of transportation, Norman Mineta, for releasing the money for the three projects, he said “Lower Manhattan is the focal point” but the transportation decisions should be made based on how much they benefit the whole region. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who also attended the press conference at the temporary PATH station, agreed with the governor.
Pataki also said the final transportation center at the W.T.C., which is being designed by Santiago Calatrava, will be “a magnificent new permanent PATH terminal which will rival Grand Central Station.”
He said he had no doubt President Bush will deliver the $21.4 billion he promised to New York and that was passed by Congress. He thinks the president will also approve additional money.
“I believe when all is said and done, we’ll get more than the $21 billion,” said Pataki.
Mineta, the only Democrat in the Bush cabinet, called the $2.85 billion released last week “a very substantial down payment” on the $4.55 billion dedicated for transportation. He repeated Bush’s promise in 2001 that “we will help New York come back and come back strong.”
Pataki said that building a West St. tunnel “still makes sense” but that discussions with the city, which has been more skeptical about the project’s merits, continue. The $860 million tunnel is intended to make it easier for pedestrians to cross between the W.T.C. site and Battery Park City, but some oppose the project either because they think the tunnel will make the area less safe to pedestrians or because they think the benefits aren’t worth the costs.
Pataki said the Downtown transportation group made up of city and state officials and transportation agency representatives is working well.
“People wondered how would the M.T.A. the Port Authority and the city all function,” he said. “Well, we’re proving we’ve been able to do that.”