Pataki’s Dilemma: Second Avenue Subway or D’Amato’s Choo-choo?

Federal funding for two huge transportation projects, the Second Avenue subway and a Long Island Railroad connection into Grand Central Terminal, is in jeopardy as a result of bitter controversy over the proposed subway line’s length, The Observer has learned.

Several well-placed Washington insiders said that if a resolution of the Second Avenue controversy isn’t reached soon, New York will stand to lose hundreds of millions of transportation dollars in next year’s Federal budget. One knowledgeable Capitol Hill source said the city, the state and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have until Feb. 1 to agree on a plan for the city’s first new subway line in generations. “In real terms, that deadline won’t be met if [an M.T.A.] budget isn’t in place by November or December,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s a finite amount of funds available, and if the M.T.A. doesn’t get its goddamned act together with a proposal for the Second Avenue subway and [the L.I.R.R.] East Side connection, the money for both projects is going to disappear.”

For the moment, however, the prospect for a compromise between those who want a full-length line that would run from East 125th Street to the Battery, which would cost an estimated $9 billion to $13 billion, and M.T.A. planners who favor a truncated line ending at East 63rd Street and connecting with the N and R lines, at a cost of about $3 billion, seems doubtful at best. As first reported by The Observer , Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has vowed to veto the entire M.T.A. budget, thus paralyzing work on all new capital projects, unless a full-length Second Avenue subway is included in the authority’s five-year capital spending plan. But Gov. George Pataki, who effectively controls the M.T.A. board, has yet to make any clear indication of exactly what he wants for Second Avenue, although he is one of the L.I.R.R. project’s biggest boosters.

If the battle becomes protracted, the M.T.A. could miss a chance for Federal funding when the President and Congress begin to divide up transportation dollars in the next Federal budget. With more and more cities vying for their share of mass-transit money-even car-happy Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is applying this year-Washington is less likely than ever to subsidize the wish list of an agency that can’t even win the support of local officials for its spending plan.

“Here’s the problem,” explained the Capitol Hill insider. “The M.T.A. wants to get money for the Long Island Rail Road connector. But the Federal Government needs a proposal from the M.T.A., and the only way they’re getting it is if the M.T.A. can come up with a capital plan, and there’s no way the M.T.A. will have that plan if they don’t take care of [Speaker] Silver’s concerns.”

The loss of Federal funding for the L.I.R.R. link, estimated to cost about $3.5 billion, would represent a stunning setback for New York’s mass transit system. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former Senator Alfonse D’Amato had both counted Federal authorization of the L.I.R.R. connection as among their greatest achievements in bringing New York’s transportation infrastructure up to date. And New York’s Congressional delegation earlier this year successfully defended those hard-won funds against the attacks of their colleagues from suburban, city-hating constituencies.

Tony Bullock, Mr. Moynihan’s chief of staff, guessed there would be enough Federal money available to contribute significantly to both the L.I.R.R. project and a Second Avenue subway if they can agree on a unified proposal before February. But, he acknowledged, “at some point, the M.T.A. has to decide if it has the capability to fund both of these projects, and without their commitment to them, no, they won’t happen.”

No Silver Lining

Mr. Silver, for his part, is showing no signs of backing off from his demands. Noting the Governor’s well-documented desire to see a start to construction on the L.I.R.R. connection, Mr. Silver told The Observer , “the Governor can’t do this by himself. He’s going to need partners, including the Assembly, so there’s going to have to be some kind of serious discussion and negotiation before this is over.” The Governor’s press office did not return calls for comment.

In the face of Mr. Silver’s unwavering demands for a Harlem-to-Battery subway line-a position since embraced by many transportation experts, a bipartisan array of local politicians, and even the big-government-bashing New York Post -M.T.A. board members seem determined to stand by their plan for what amounts to a short subway tunnel between Harlem and the Upper East Side. Board member Alan Friedberg said the M.T.A.’s proposal was practical, and could be expanded at a later date. Many of the M.T.A.’s critics, he said, are simply being unrealistic. “We are all satisfied with the [M.T.A.] budget,” said Mr. Friedberg, an appointee of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “It would be nice to do everything, but the advocates never focus on how much anything costs. It’s always gimme, gimme, gimme. I can’t speak for the Speaker, but I think it would be a crime to hold up this budget, which would stymie and really choke the entire capital program.”

There are signs that some highly influential New Yorkers in the private sector are tiring of the political Sturm und Drang , and are increasingly leaning toward acceptance of the smaller line as a first step.

Developer and civic do-gooder Lewis Rudin pointed out that his family has been pushing for a Second Avenue subway since 1927, when his father, Sam, was the head of a civic group in the Bronx. And, he noted wistfully, the Rudins “have been pushing ever since, obviously not very successfully.” Mr. Rudin recently brought down the house at an otherwise dry press conference of transportation advocates when he spoke about the potential for new, high-tech development along the spine of an expanded transit system in “the next areas of commerce,” including Harlem, the South Bronx and Long Island City. He even spoke about how a new East Side line would make the five boroughs a viable candidate to host the Olympics. Of the current controversy, Mr. Rudin told The Observer , “I’d like to see a Second Avenue subway all the way down to the Battery. We’ve got to get something down to the Wall Street area. But if it’s not in the works now, [and] if it’s something that they’ll promise, half a loaf is better than no loaf. I would like to see the full version, but if we can’t get it, then we have to take what we can get.”

Douglas Durst, another major developer who advocates a Second Avenue subway, echoed a desire to see an end to the deadlock. “My thought is that they should start with the smaller project and not close off the bigger project, but it’s important that something get done,” he said. “I think there’s a danger with trying to do the bigger project now that nothing will happen, as nothing has happened for the past 25 years.”

Some observers have suggested a compromise scenario that could break the deadlock. The M.T.A. could begin work on the shorter version of the line, designating it as the first phase of a larger project, and earmarking additional funds to begin design and engineering work on the full-length stretch.

Where Is George?

Those looking for this sort of compromise will need lots of help from Mr. Pataki. Though the Governor has yet to take sides publicly in what has become a hot-button issue, insiders hint that he will not allow the cries for action to go unheeded. “I think the Governor is just waiting right now,” said a close ally of Mr. Pataki. “He understands the need for this and, in pure political terms, building the full version would be the greatest favor he could do for the Mayor and the city. There is potential for this to be a real consolidating issue for them. What greater project could there be than this?”

Albert Appleton, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, emphasized that the Governor, and by extension the M.T.A., would have to concede something to subway riders in order to save the commuter-friendly L.I.R.R. link. “We have two choices here in formulating a capital plan,” Mr. Appleton said. “We can have a love feast or a food fight. The way to get a love feast with East Side access is to have a plan for the full Second Avenue subway.”

And while Mr. Pataki continues to play his cards close to the vest, many now hope that he will be ready to make a deal. Gene Russianoff, an attorney for the subway advocate Straphangers Campaign, pointed out that “this year is unusual because everyone at the table here really wants something: The Governor wants L.I.R.R.-East Side access, the Speaker wants a full-length Second Avenue subway and the Mayor wants a [subway] link to La Guardia Airport. I think there’s a real consensus that these have to get done. The only question now is how we get there.”

Mr. Giuliani has effectively insured that the city’s entire financial contribution to the M.T.A. budget will go to a subway link to La Guardia Airport, a project favored by his political ally, Queens Borough President Claire Schulman. The Mayor’s press office did not return calls for comment.

Whatever track political leaders take, they’d better be going full throttle. There are still only vague suggestions of how the money will be raised to fund the M.T.A.’s record-setting $17.5 billion budget proposal. And if Washington balks at subsidizing the New York’s transit projects-the Federal Government would normally be expected to foot about 25 percent of the bill-then we may end up with nothing at all. “The genie for these projects is out of the lamp,” said Mr. Russianoff. “I would find it hard to believe that the people who spent so much time rubbing it aren’t going to get their wishes.”