Atlantic Cities

Should Manhattan Rebuild This Ruined Subway Station?

Last week the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York gave a tour of the South Ferry subway station that got crushed during Hurricane Sandy. The station looked pretty bad ten days after the mega-storm. Three months later — it still looks pretty bad:

The MTA estimates the cost of rebuilding South Ferry at around $600 million. The storm surge doused the station with nearly 15 million gallons of saltwater, causing massive damage to both structural elements and electrical equipment (which is never the same once exposed to such corrosion). MTA now believes the repair job may take up to three years.

Considering the extent of the damage and the size of the cost and the length of the timeline and the inevitability of another storm, it's worth wondering whether M.T.A. should cut its losses and close the station for good. The debate is somewhat moot: MTA says it intends to rebuild South Ferry and Congress just gave New York a massive relief package to cover the task. At the same time, it's still early enough in the assessment process to make another move.

Strong arguments can be made both ways. An article in Bloomberg from early December considered the South Ferry "dilemma" and made good cases for both sides. Earlier this week New York transit blogger Benjamin Kabak of 2nd Ave. Sagas offered counterbalancing reasons for and against rebuilding. (Voting at the site is running roughly 2 to 1 in favor of rebuilding at this time.)

Let's start with the incumbent case of keeping the station. From a behavioral perspective, there is the powerful sunk cost effect in play here. The South Ferry station just opened in 2009 at a cost of $545 million, replacing an older one that still exists nearby. The MTA hails the station as a "state-of-the-art marvel," and presumably it attracted some development to the area, which have struggled to reopen after the storm. To give up now would be to forfeit much of that progress.

Putting aside sunk costs, there are still plenty of strong reasons to rebuild. South Ferry plays a major role as a multi-modal transit center at the southern tip of Manhattan. It's a connection point for the 1 train that runs up the west side and the R train that heads into Brooklyn, and in 2011 carried about 29,500 passengers a day, ranking it 33rd in a subway system of 400-plus stations. The station is also the closest access point to the Staten Island ferry, which carries 65,000 travelers on any given day. That's a lot of traffic.

Another great reason to rebuild South Ferry is its role as the southern anchor of the critical 1 line. The new station offered a considerable capacity upgrade — capable of handling 24 cars as opposed to the 10 that maneuvered the sharp loop at the old station. Here it's also worth pointing out that reviving the old station, while technically an option, wouldn't be easy either, since it too got slammed by the storm.

Now the reasons to (sadly) put the station to rest. First and foremost there's the cost. American cities tend to pay much more for transit than their global counterparts, and $600 million for a single station would set another bad precedent. (As we've said before, a billion dollars in transit infrastructure doesn't go too far these days.) This time the Feds helped out — but it's worth taking a minute to consider whether New Yorkers would be willing to foot the bill themselves, since this scenario may repeat itself given rising sea levels.

Which brings us to counterpoint two: rising sea levels. The new South Ferry station had few protections in place against a storm surge, and rather foolishly placed critical electrical equipment is a hazardous low area. A rebuilt station could mitigate the threat by moving controls to higher ground (or relocating them entirely) and by installing sealable street grates and station entrances. Then again those fortifications may increase the basic repair estimate.

Two final reasons against rebuilding are lack of MTA credibility and the existence of other stations nearby. The 2009 upgrade left much to be desired by performance critics, who pointed out long before the flood that the station often leaked [PDF, p. 10]. As Josh Barro of Bloomberg View noted shortly after Sandy, in his argument for "closing the station permanently," there's another 1 train station just a six-minute walk away. (Though it's worth noting that Rector Street on the 1 serves only a third of South Ferry ridership.)

So there you have it. My heavily biased vote, as a rider of the 1 train, is to rebuild the station given its ability to strengthen that line and its function as a major downtown connection point. That's conditional on MTA viewing the situation as a chance to instill public confidence and to create a model station, complete with storm protections, for Lower Manhattan to emulate in the climate change era. That the money came free is even more reason not to squander it. No call for looking a gift station in the mouth — especially when it looks like this.

Images courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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