Monday, November 26, 2012

Is South Ferry Station Worth Reopening at $600M?

The MTA says it will incur $5 billion in costs related to Hurricane Sandy, forming part of New York's request for federal aid. But some of the items within that tab are so high that it is questionable whether rebuilding and reopening is the right course. Particularly the estimate of $600 million to restore just a single subway station: South Ferry-Whitehall Street on the 1 and R lines at the tip of Manhattan. The station recently underwent a $530 million overhaul in 2009, paid for largely with federal September 11 aid funds.

The $600 million figure has a lot of people scratching their heads, and the MTA has given some clarification: The estimates are preliminary (which is understandable), and the actual cost figures 'may' come in lower (which is unbelievable).

But if the MTA’s preliminary figures are right, they wouldn't be unprecedented: New York pays drastically more for most urban rail infrastructure projects than other jurisdictions around the world.

Of the four urban rail projects under way around the world that cost more than $1 billion a mile, three are in New York City. Milan is about to open a 3.5-mile fully underground subway line, with seven stations, at a cost of just more than $700 million, just slightly more than the MTA might spend to repair just the South Ferry-Whitehall station.

Let’s hope the MTA finds a way to come in far under budget. If they don’t, the best course of action is an unappealing one: closing the station permanently.

Imagine that the South Ferry-Whitehall station just didn't exist. We are in essentially that situation already: The MTA is running R trains through the station (though they don't stop), and the No.1 is currently terminating before South Ferry. Both lines have stations about one-third of a mile north of the closed station, so closing South Ferry would subject its users to about a five-minute walk.

If that were the status quo, and we were presented with a plan to build a new subway station on the site of South Ferry at a cost of $600 million, the city should vote "no" -- especially because, as sea levels rise, the station will face greater risk of similar flood damage in future storms.

Of course, the best response to excessive infrastructure costs isn't to stop building. It's to bring costs down by addressing the planning, engineering, contracting and labor-relations failures that have driven U.S. infrastructure costs so high. As we contemplate the need for flood barriers to protect lower Manhattan from storm surges, making big infrastructure projects affordable will only become more urgent.