an exuberant news conference in August overlooking the
World Trade Center site, federal, state and city
officials announced that $4.55 billion had been set
aside for transit in Lower Manhattan — one of the
biggest single sums ever available for city
transportation and enough, officials assured, to
remake a crucial part of the system.
But only two months later, a pitched battle over
the money is already being waged behind the scenes,
fueled by a debate that many say could determine the
future of downtown: Should the money be spent only to
improve the transit lines already there? Or should it
also be used to bring in new train service, for the
first time making downtown as accessible to suburban
commuters as Midtown has always been?
The idea of extending commuter rail service into
Lower Manhattan first emerged last winter, championed
by a group of powerful downtown landlords, and it was
largely viewed as an expensive pipe dream. But the
dream has remained very much on the table, gaining
political support and becoming a divisive reminder
that, in a crowded city with ever-growing transit
demands, $4.55 billion does not seem like so much
money after all.
Proponents of new rail service, including the
state's senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, and Deputy
Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff, say they believe that
downtown may recover but that it will not remain one
of the world's financial capitals without better
connections to the rest of the region and to Kennedy
and Newark Liberty International Airports.
But critics of the plan, including some top state
officials and many within the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority itself, say that the cost of
a new downtown rail line — estimates range from $1.9
billion to more than $5 billion — far outweighs its
benefits, especially now, when the city is looking for
money for several other huge, long-needed transit
projects, like the Second Avenue subway and bringing
the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal.
So far, the fight has remained largely out of the
public view, but there are widespread worries that it
is growing and portends the kind of bitter divisions
that led to the decade-long fight over Westway, a
1970's plan to submerge a six-lane highway under
hundreds of acres of parkland and development along
the West Side waterfront. It ultimately failed.
"The danger is that we end up in a traditional
New York blood vendetta instead of a rational
discussion," said Robert Yaro, president of the
Regional Plan Association, an independent urban policy
group. "We could end up with nothing if we get
bogged down in that kind of warfare."
Ultimately, Gov. George E. Pataki, who controls the
authority and is a central figure at the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation, will play the
biggest part in settling the debate. But,
characteristically, he has avoided the issue, leaving
it, for now, in the hands of the transit authority,
which has tried to dismiss it but has been unable to
make it go away and is now actually involved with
landlords in studying the proposal.
"I think it's a great idea," said Peter
J. Kalikow, chairman of the transit agency. "But
I don't know, in terms of dollars and benefits,
whether it's a good thing to do now. When we do a
project like that we think about bang for the buck:
does it serve enough people to make it something we
want to expend scarce capital on?"
Almost immediately after the World Trade Center
attack, real estate forces, transit advocates and
public officials all understood that a historic moment
was at hand to fix many longstanding problems with
Lower Manhattan transportation.
Simply rebuilding what had been destroyed — the 1
and 9 subway line, for example, which reopened last
month — was relatively easy, because insurance money
was available for those projects. But moving beyond
that, to untangle and rethink the transit system,
quickly began to prove much harder.
Over the last few months a long list of proposals
was whittled down and a consensus began to build
around a few: to create an underground concourse that
would ease transfers between subway and PATH lines; to
rebuild the PATH terminal and the Fulton Street subway
complex, creating a kind of downtown transit hub; to
rebuild the antiquated South Ferry subway station and
dig a tunnel along Rector Street to connect two subway
stations on that street.
But at the same time, huge forces — the Alliance
for Downtown New York and John E. Zuccotti, chairman
of Brookfield Financial Properties, the largest
downtown landlord — were building support for a plan
to bring the Long Island Rail Road from Brooklyn to
Lower Manhattan, which would require building an
expensive tunnel under the East River or using
existing subway tracks.
Lower Manhattan is the third-largest business
district in the country, behind Midtown and Chicago.
But for decades, businesses have migrated to Midtown,
where Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station provided
easy access to Westchester County, New Jersey and Long
The only way to stem the trend, says Carl Weisbrod,
president of the Downtown Alliance, is to build
transit lines to Long Island and the international
airports. Mr. Zuccotti, for one, is especially
concerned about Merrill Lynch, his largest tenant,
whose lease expires in 2008.
"If the goal of Lower Manhattan's
revitalization is to secure and enhance its role as a
world-class business center," Mr. Weisbrod said,
"then commuter rail and airport access must be
the highest priority."
Transportation advocates and top transit officials
complained that the railroad proposal might benefit
25,000 Long Island executives who work downtown, but
it could inconvenience more than 100,000 subway
But Mr. Zuccotti and his allies have persisted,
devising a complex plan known as a super shuttle. It
involves running a subway train on Long Island Rail
Road tracks that stretch between the Atlantic Avenue
terminal in downtown Brooklyn and the train station in
Jamaica, Queens, which will also have light-rail
connections to Kennedy Airport.
The super shuttle would run nonstop into Brooklyn
and would switch onto the A and C subway lines before
reaching Jay Street, the shuttle's sole stop in
Brooklyn. After entering Manhattan, the super shuttle
would descend from the A line into a new tunnel that
would take it directly to the World Trade Center area.
But this would require rerouting the C line onto
the F line in downtown Brooklyn, for the trip into
Manhattan. The C would then rejoin its old route after
the West Fourth Street station.
Critics say that there is a huge problem with this
plan: the cost, which could eat up most or all of the
available transportation money.
"There are people downtown for whom this
L.I.R.R. issue is so consuming that they could
dispense with all the other projects and it would be
O.K. with them," said Gene Russianoff, staff
lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign.
The only way to bring a new rail line downtown, he
and others say, is through a new tunnel under the East
River. But if there is anything that both sides agree
on, it is that there will probably never be enough
money to do that.
"If we have to wait to build a tunnel, we'll
all be dead by the time it happens," said Kathryn
Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership and
Chamber of Commerce.
In just one example of the contentiousness of the
debate, Senator Schumer recently came under withering
attack from some of his own allies when he took the
side of the new-rail proponents. He complained
publicly that spending an estimated $700 million on
the South Ferry subway station and Rector Street would
undermine more ambitious efforts to remake downtown.
"We need what I like to call a grand Grand
Central Terminal down there, and part and parcel of
that is having all the train lines come there,"
Mr. Schumer said. "I was worried it would get
cannibalized and so I decided to make my point, that
we had to think large down there."
The debate continues to build, with widely
differing predictions of success. A senior city
official said that commuter rail and airport access to
downtown are ideas "rising on the charts"
politically. "In terms of changing the basic
nature of Lower Manhattan," the official said,
"there is probably nothing more important."
But some top state officials take a much more
jaundiced view. "There's nothing wrong with
it," one said. "But when the triage starts,
what makes the cut?"