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Overcrowded PATH seeks station safety improvements

By Jason Fink  Jersey Journal staff writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- Few would dispute the fact that several PATH stations have become severely -- even dangerously -- overcrowded during morning and evening rush hours, according to the Jersey Journal.

Between 7:30 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, crowds of commuters at the Grove Street station in Downtown Jersey City stretch clear across the platform, often without an inch of empty space to spare. Sometimes it takes several minutes just to make it from the edge of the platform to the staircase leading out of the station. In the evenings, New York-bound trains no longer even stop at Christopher Street, the first station in Manhattan, because it is too small to accommodate the hordes waiting for New Jersey-bound trains.

Although these problems were certainly exacerbated by the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and the loss of two stations and an entire PATH route -- on Sept. 11, stations were beginning to reach capacity before then.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the quasi-governmental bi-state agency that runs the PATH system, says it is time to add new entrances to three of the line's most crowded stations -- Grove Street, Christopher Street and Ninth Street -- not so much to make things more convenient but to make them safer. "We're proposing a second entrance for people in case of emergency," said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority. "We came up with a plan for exits in those stations to get people out faster, assuming two loaded trains came in at the same time." Coleman said the proposal to add three street-level entrances, which will cost $29 million and take about nine months to complete, will allow people to be evacuated from those stations in seven minutes, rather than the 18 minutes it would take now. "That meets a national safety plan," said Coleman.

But the Port Authority proposal has met with fierce opposition from neighborhood groups and business owners in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where two of the street-level entrances -- for the Ninth and Christopher stations -- would be built smack in the middle of what many say is the main commercial and cultural artery of their neighborhood. Nobody is opposed to making the stations safer, but the critics say the Port Authority should solve their problem with more emergency exits, not full-service entrances with turnstiles and staircases leading down from the sidewalk.

The Port Authority is planning to build the new entrance for the Christopher Street station at Christopher and Bedford Street, about a block and a half east of the existing entrance. Plans for the Ninth Street station include a new entrance several blocks east of there, at Christopher and Waverly Street. Those plans, neighbors say, will have a deeply negative impact on the area, both during construction and after the new entrances are built. "It would be devastating for the block," said Mark Lilli, owner of the Factory Cafe, just a few yards from where the entrance off Bedford would be. "It's going to disrupt the whole neighborhood." According to Lilli and other merchants, the construction work, which is tentatively scheduled to begin later this year, would limit the pedestrian traffic that is essential for their businesses. Many of them, having already been forced to close for an extended period after Sept. 11, say they cannot survive another prolonged drought of customers so soon.

Opponents also say the new entrances would also eliminate parking spaces, disrupt traffic on a vital crosstown thoroughfare and clash with the historic district, whose 19th Century row houses and narrow, tree-lined streets make it among New York's most charming -- and desirable -- neighborhoods. "Is that the only place they can put them?" said Arthur Stickler, president of Community Board 2, one of the neighborhood groups leading the opposition. "Why can't it be done without these above-ground entrances?"

Coleman said the new entrances would be four feet wide and would not take up any space on the sidewalk, instead eliminating some of the parking lanes on the curb of the street. He also said emergency exits are not an option and that the Fire Department recommended full-service entrances instead.

But still, many in the neighborhood seem convinced that there is a better way to go. All along Christopher, from Hudson Street to Waverly, posters adorn store windows with messages that read "No PATH Expansion" and "Historic Christopher Street endangered by new PATH entrances." At 4:30 p.m. today, opponents of the project will stage a rally, marching from the existing PATH entrance on Christopher to Sixth Avenue to decry the plan. "I don't want it at all, let it stay the way it is," said one woman, who has lived in the same apartment on Christopher for 61 years and who declined to give her name. "It's going to take everything away from here." In response to the outpouring of opposition, and after hearing from neighbors during public forums held this past winter, the Port Authority has commissioned an independent study to assess the situation and make recommendations. That report will be ready within the next two weeks, Coleman said.

Meanwhile, on the Jersey side of the river, commuters interviewed yesterday said they would welcome new entrances at those stations. "If they opened another side (at Christopher Street) that would help," said Ethan Turgeman, a Bayonne resident who takes the PATH from Grove Street into Manhattan every morning. "People get packed in there, it's inconvenient." Turgeman said he used the Christopher Street station until trains started skipping that stop because of the crowds.

"If there was a little panic in there, people would die," he said.

Others, like Brian Drennan, a former Jersey City resident who now lives in Queens but works in a record store on Christopher, seem to have more mixed feelings. "I can sympathize," said Drennan, who used to take the PATH from Journal Square in Jersey City to Christopher Street every day. "They need another entrance, but maybe along the (Hudson River) where there aren't a lot of businesses." The store where he works depends on a steady flow of pedestrians and Drennan said turning part of the street into a construction site would probably cut down on the street's foot traffic. "I just hope they can do it without putting us out of business," he said.

June 14, 2002

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