Why the 7 train is winning

why-7-train-winning
In the tube. (Brian Letwin)
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Eliot Brown

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For more than two years now, 150 feet below the surface of the area around 34th and 11th Avenue, truckload after truckload of rock and dirt has been hauled away through what has become a giant cavern, kind of like a sub-surface answer to the Javits Center directly above.

That cavern is well on its way to becoming a subway station, the product of a $2.1 billion plan to add another 1.5 miles to the 7 line. It would also be, if things work out with an idea floated by the Bloomberg administration earlier this month, a bargain-basement gateway to Secaucus.

Whatever happens to the long-shot bid for the new Hudson River connector, the No. 7 extension is still within its $2.1 billion original budget and its physical progress is going swimmingly, in the context an industry where cost overruns routinely go into the billions.

It also stands in stark contrast with another historic transportation project, and he only other subway extension to be undertaken by the city in the past half-century: the Second Avenue Subway.

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The Second Avenue project has not gone as planned. Since ground broke in April 2007, its completion date has been pushed off repeatedly (an average of a year each year), back from 2013 to 2016 (and counting), with the budget growing from $3.8 billion to at least $4.4 billion.

This puts the Second Avenue Subway in a category with two other multi-billion-dollar M.T.A. projects—the new Long Island Rail Road tunnels into Grand Central and the $1.4 billion redo of the Fulton Street station—that have sucked up hundreds of millions of new dollars, and have run years past due. All of which goes to show the extent to which the No. 7, a project burdened by less bureaucracy and which is being built in an easier-to-build-in part of town than the others, is the exception rather than the rule for major transportation projects.

To be sure, the expansion hasn’t been turbulence-free, and there's still three scheduled years' worth of work left to go. During the design stage back in 2007, costs rose by hundreds of millions. Rather than summon an extra half-billion to cover the shortfall, the Bloomberg administration dropped one of two subway stations planned for the line—intended to be at 41st Street and 10th Ave—sentencing the apartment-dwellers by 42nd Street and the West Side Highway to make unpleasant treks to the nearest subway at Eighth Avenue for all eternity.

But ambitions for the behind-schedule and over-budget Second Avenue Subway have been reduced as well. Planned amenities such as a third track at a station and sliding-glass station doors have quietly disappeared, amid a constant stream of hiccups that range from fragile buildings above ground to wayward drills underground. Same with East Side Access, the massive project to bring the Long Island Rail Road into a new station under Grand Central, whose price tag now stands at at least $7.2 billion, and is predicted to be done by the end of 2016 (more than two years late and at least $1 billion over budget). And the Fulton Street Transit Center, which began construction in 2004, is now expected to be done by 2014, having eaten up $420 million in federal stimulus money to cover shortfalls.

The No. 7’s easy ride can be attributed to a variety of factors, one of which certainly is luck—the tunneling simply went faster than expected—and another of which is the benefit of doing a project in what is effectively the Wild West. The area is filled with low-rise warehouses and garages, not residential skyscrapers filled with vocal residents and merchants who deplore the proliferation of rats and other noxious side effects of construction. There is less of a jumble of infrastructure underground to contend with, and, with only one station, there are fewer surprises than on the three-stop Second Ave line.

And then there is process. Given the lengthy ordeal of getting federal transit money, which typically involves waiting in a long line with light rail projects from Minneapolis and Denver, this could have slowed things for years. But rather than try to get Washington to kick in, the go-it-alone mayor simply put the work on the city’s credit card.

It is something of a cruel irony that the 7 extension, while useful, was arguably the least urgently necessary of these major projects. It was born not of a desire to relieve full train cars bursting at the seams, but to bring sports fans and commuters alike to a fantastic new neighborhood anchored by a football stadium that would host the Olympics.

When the dream of hosting the 2012 Olympics died, when London beat out New York, the 7 extension—along with a massive rezoning of the area that called for a small forest of new office buildings—had staying power. Banks fronted money to the city for the project, expecting to be paid back by tax revenues from the office buildings-to-be that would presumably grow with the new train line once the Greater 7 commenced operation. And by fall 2007, a scant two years after the collapse of the Olympic bid, the M.T.A., using the city’s money, gave the green light to burrow a pair of 1.5-mile tunnels under the West Side, kicking off the project.

Apparently even the private sector is failing to keep up with the 7's progress, as the economic bust has slowed plans for the commercial development of the far West Side. The developer of the 26-acre West Side rail yards just to the south, the Related Companies, envisions a 2015 opening date in its most optimistic scenario.