MTA is Barring Commuter Trains to Big New Stop

Ground Zero planners have been calling for it, even saying it’s an essential element of any program to rebuild lower Manhattan. But “Grand Central Station South”-an ambitious transit hub intended to clean up connections among downtown subway lines, create a one-seat ride for commuters and provide a new gateway for PATH riders from New Jersey-is being derailed by a rapidly shrinking purse for downtown redevelopment and conflicting agendas.

Later this summer, the transportation-planning firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, charged by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation with developing plans for a new downtown transportation network, will make its proposals public. Much like mid-July’s release of six designs for the World Trade Center site, the transportation study is likely to shed light on a competing network of interests, agencies, advocates and organizations as tangled as the connection from the IRT to the IND in the Fulton Street subway station.

“The issue is always the difficulty of getting these 800-pound agencies to work well and play well with each other,” said Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers’ Campaign, a mass-transit watchdog agency. “Not to mention the cast of characters of business groups and civic organizations. There was a period after 9/11 that there was some hope there would be more cooperation … but from what I hear, there is outright competition for the federal money.”

For some 30 years, transit advocates have called for improved commuter access to lower Manhattan so that downtown firms could better compete with companies based in midtown, near Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

Only the Port Authority-but not the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North-had the ability to bring commuters directly into downtown. Its PATH station in the former World Trade Center was a busy hub for commuters from New Jersey, who could take the tubes to Hoboken or Newark, where they could pick up trains and buses to points south, north and west. Since Sept. 11, however, PATH access to downtown has been nonexistent.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority-which runs both Metro North, which brings commuters from upstate and Connecticut to Grand Central, and the Long Island Railroad, which terminates at Penn Station-also controls the city subways, and so has a built-in disincentive to extend the commuter lines to lower Manhattan. Why give those suburban commuters a free ride downtown when they can be made to swipe their MetroCards and board the subway to get there?

M.T.A. spokespeople would not discuss their position on downtown transportation improvements. But several sources told The Observer that the M.T.A., chained by Peter Kalikow, has long been against extending the Metro North and LIRR to lower Manhattan, preferring to increase-not decrease-subway ridership in the city.

It’s something Carl Weisbrod, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York and now Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appointee to the LMDC board, has heard before.

“Transit agencies haven’t historically been development agencies,” he told The Observer . “Development agencies have been investing in the future of the region as a whole. That’s a somewhat broader mandate than what transit agencies themselves have.”

Even when talk of the transit hub is limited to rebuilding the PATH station lost on Sept. 11 and making it connect more easily to subway lines downtown, the problem isn’t an easy one.

The LMDC had wanted to locate a transit hub at Fulton Street and Broadway, where connections to the LIRR might be easier to accomplish, and where transit-hub development could be piggybacked with an overall improvement of downtown subway connections. Such a hub would also bring commuters to a more central area of lower Manhattan.

But the Port Authority’s leaseholders, Larry Silverstein and Westfield America, will be loath to give up what they had before: a corridor of shops and 11 million square feet of office space directly adjacent to a major suburban entry point through which 100,000 commuters passed every day, according to the study released by the LMDC. Add to that the expected millions each year that could be filtering through that hub from people visiting the on-site memorial to the victims of Sept. 11.

In the six development plans released last week, all of which bore the unmistakable stamp of the Port Authority and its leaseholders, few people noticed the pledge to build a permanent PATH terminal within the World Trade Center site-in addition to a transit center at Fulton and Broadway that would be compatible with “future development of a major commuter-rail station.” In other words, two hubs, connected by a pedestrian concourse.

Getting the M.T.A. on board has been difficult, LMDC board members say. “They’re not being team players,” one LMDC source told The Observer.

But without bringing in some new service downtown, a rail hub at Fulton and Broadway starts to look more and more like a corridor leading to the World Trade Center site-especially if the hub is competing with a sparkling retail concourse and memorial gateway two blocks to the west.

“Does it make sense to think about building a Grand Central downtown, and stick back in it only the stuff that used to be downtown anyway?” one person close to the planning process asked incredulously.

That’s why, behind the scenes, Parsons Brinckerhoff-which has become the LMDC’s transportation consultant-developed a plan with Brookfield Properties, the influential downtown real-estate concern that owns the World Financial Center and 1 Liberty Plaza, which directly adjoin Ground Zero on two sides. While the prospect of extending Metro North downtown appears to most observers to be too far-fetched, the possibility of making downtown more accessible to LIRR riders is not.

Using existing infrastructure developed by the M.T.A. in its ongoing construction of a train link to Kennedy and La Guardia airports, the plan would require LIRR commuters to switch at the Jamaica station for a special shuttle that would follow existing LIRR tracks to the Atlantic Avenue Terminal in downtown Brooklyn. From there, it would use a “drill track”-a fifth center track used only in emergencies-on the A line until just before the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop. There, it would move onto the F line and use the Rutgers Street Tunnel that currently runs between the York Street F station-the last in Brooklyn-and the East Broadway station on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From there, it could make any number of switches onto existing tracks into lower Manhattan.

The train, which would run on both LIRR and subway tracks, would be as lightweight as a subway car; this would allow it to use the subway tracks, where federal regulations say the heavier LIRR trains cannot operate. Commuters from Long Island would make only one stop after boarding the shuttle in Jamaica-at MetroTech in downtown Brooklyn-before barreling towards lower Manhattan.

Huge Price Tag

It’s still a massive project, requiring nearly $2 billion over three years to complete, according to initial estimates. That’s nearly 10 percent of the $20 billion total in federal money pledged to the redevelopment of downtown. But it’s the least expensive proposal on the table for extending commuter lines to lower Manhattan.

Margaret Fung, a member of Community Board 1’s transit task force, formed in the wake of Sept. 11 to monitor the rehabilitation of downtown for commuters, saw the plans at a presentation on July 18.

“Everyone thought it would be a good idea to have better transportation links,” said Ms. Fung, who is also the executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. “But my view was that it wasn’t such a great idea if it was going to create additional problems for subway riders.”

Ms. Fung said that exact figures on how subway riders would be affected were not available at the meeting.

Others pointed to the complex engineering required to get the new shuttle service from the Lower East Side F train tunnel down to the former World Trade Center area. In several locations, it would have to pass over an existing 40-foot “stack,” where two 20-foot-tall tunnels already cross. That would require tunneling 20 feet below the surface in some places-a delicate operation even for a short distance, and the source of much of the project’s projected cost.

It’s also an underlying factor in the urgency the LMDC is attaching to transit plans for lower Manhattan. Those plans are interdependent with plans for building on the World Trade Center site, because tunnels will have to be built in order to support different kinds of structures above ground, while decisions about where to invite development above ground will, in turn, depend on what kinds of transit services are available in lower Manhattan and where.

Insiders said the Brookfield plan already has wide approval at the LMDC-which, after all, selected the firm that had done the Brookfield report for its own transportation-planning study, and is widely believed to hold the purse strings on the $21 billion federal pledge for downtown redevelopment.

That’s not written in stone, though. And so the M.T.A. has a powerful incentive to lobby the federal government directly. But the agency has encountered resistance at City Hall from Mayor Bloomberg to its ritual stickup: Give us money or we’ll raise fares. The issue was not supposed to come up until after the gubernatorial election, but that hasn’t stopped the Mayor from talking tough.

With the M.T.A. accountable for a slew of projects that have already been partially funded-from the Second Avenue subway to the extension of the No. 7 line to the Penn Rail Yards, slated for a massive overhaul-the agency may not be in a position to extend itself much further.

That’s why, LMDC sources said, the M.T.A. has been going to the federal government directly to try to secure redevelopment funds for its own version of a downtown transit hub: an expanded South Ferry IRT stop with more direct connections to the Staten Island Ferry and the Battery Maritime Ferry Terminal, already slated for rehabilitation by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. While the plan was on the table long before 9/11, sources said that M.T.A. officials were making the argument that the agency should get the money for a transit hub there, to accommodate intermodal ferry-to-subway service popular with the city’s Department of Transportation.

Not to be sidestepped, several sources told The Observer that the LMDC was preparing a preliminary swipe at the M.T.A.’s federal-money grab by leaving the South Ferry intermodal terminal out of the transportation plans to be presented by Parsons Brinckerhoff this summer.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

– Additional reporting by Brandt Gassman MTA is Barring Commuter Trains to Big New Stop