NYC’s Billion Dollar Boondoggle
by John Delach
Boondoggle: To waste money or time on unnecessary or questionable projects.
Early in the Twentieth Century one of the first additions of New York City’s original subway was to extend the tunnels and tracks to South Ferry at the southern tip of Manhattan providing commuters access to Staten Island and Brooklyn ferries. Two loops were constructed allowing trains to turn around and return uptown without switches. The inner loop directed trains to the East Side and the outer to the West Side.
Old joke. Question: “Why is Lower Manhattan so bright?”
Answer: “Because it’s closer to the Battery.”
Over time, these 1905 unique tunnels proved inadequate for modern service because of the tight turning radius. The inner loop could only accommodate four cars and was removed from revenue service in 1977. The outer loop was improved as well as could be expected including retractable platform extensions that eliminated gaps once trains were positioned. Yet the configuration of these platforms led to delays and, as the length of trains increased, South Ferry Station became a bottleneck as it could only accommodate the first five cars of a ten-car train.
“No good deed goes unpunished.” When a national catastrophe strikes, Uncle will respond with a massive influx of money. Entrenched state bureaucracies are well-prepared to divert as many of these dollars as possible to their own ends. Witness the so-called “Shovel-Ready Initiatives” funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A whole bunch of that money was used by state governments to offset the loss of revenue from their normal tax flow due to the recession. Admittedly, funding schools, police, and fire protection for a year or two is a good thing; but maintaining essential services was not the intended use of re-build America funds.
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001 Bush 43 and Congress eagerly stepped up to the plate to fund the massive recovery effort to re-build the World Trade Center and replace lost infrastructure. When the towers came down, their wreckage penetrated into the subway line that ran under Greenwich Street severing the West Side connection from Chambers Street to South Ferry. It was essential the line be restored but included in the MTA’s plan for re-construction was a proposal to build a new South Street Station. The plan envisioned a two-track, single-island platform stub that could accommodate all ten cars. It would be equipped with state-of-the-art electronics, seven escalators, two ADA compliant elevators and all of the bells and whistles that money could buy.
Uncle contributed $420 of the $530 million it took to build the new tunnel and station and when it opened in 2009, the Governor, New York’s two US Senators, two congressmen, two borough presidents, state and city representatives, US secretary of transportation and MTA big shots all gathered together to praise this vital addition to Lower Manhattan.
Unfortunately, only three years later Superstorm Sandy flooded a large swath of Lower Manhattan. The storm overwhelmed the make-shift sandbag and plywood barriers erected to protect the station…“flooding the station – floor to ceiling – with 15 million gallons of seawater, sewage and debris…effectively destroying the station and its critical equipment.”
In 2013, the MTA noted: “The rebuilding effort will take an estimated $600 million and as long as three years.” Fortunately, the old loop, taken out of service when the new South Ferry station opened, didn’t suffer the same fate and within six months of this disaster, it reopened after $2 million in needed restoration work.
Work on rebuilding the new station is finally making progress. So far, flood-proofing has been completed and in December of 2014, the MTA awarded a 31-month, $194 million contract to replace track, mechanical and electrical equipment and rebuild the station making the total spent or awarded to date equal $326 Million.
If that figure holds, total cost for the original construction and the reconstruction will equal $856 million. A few more million here and a few more million there and pretty soon that billion dollar mark will be in range. “A billion here and a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
We’ll have to wait until July of 2017 at the earliest to discover just how much this boondoggle finally cost the tax payers.
Oh, I’m sure its value will be celebrated by the new gaggle of VIPs who attend the future re-opening. But may I just offer one cautionary thought to project into the future. As the high and mighty pontificate about all the benefits of this magnificent reincarnation, please don’t seal off the old loop; just in case.