Silver’s subway decision receives raves at South Ferry

By Josh Rogers

South Ferry subway commuters were happy to hear that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had dropped his opposition to the station’s planned renovation Friday in exchange for $15 million worth of improvements to Battery Park.

Interviews with a handful of regular straphangers either waiting for a Wednesday afternoon rush hour ferry back home to Staten Island or traveling Uptown on 1 and 9 trains leaving the station, revealed unanimous support for the proposed improvements. They all said the best part of the $400 million Metropolitan Transportation Authority plan was adding two exits to a one-exit station where ferry passengers and Statue of Liberty tourists are squeezed into a short, narrow space.

“It’s a fire hazard,” said Rebecca Simmons, an attorney who was taking the train to her home near the Franklin St. station in Tribeca.

She was the only person interviewed Wednesday who said that speeding up the trains — the M.T.A.’s other reason for completing the project – would make a difference. The renovation, which also has a $48 million contingency fee for possible cost overruns, would add a track to the station enabling trains to move in and out quicker. Katherine Lapp, M.T.A. executive director, said it would cut five minutes from the local train commuting time between Penn Station and South Ferry.

Simmons said South Ferry should be at the top of the list although she said there are a lot of important things to do Downtown. “It’s a big priority,” she said. “How does it compare to low-income housing? It’s hard to say.”

David, a 37-year-old Long Island attorney who works near South Ferry, said he will still take the 2,3 Downtown express trains from Penn Station to Chambers St. and switch to the 1,9 even if the M.T.A. fulfills it’s goal of speeding up the trip by five minutes.

“The only thing that would have me change is if the express ran so infrequently that I’d spend more time waiting for trains than I would taking the local,” said David, who declined to give his last name.

By taking an express train most of the way, David and many commuters turn the 11-stop commute into a four-stop trip. When the South Ferry project is expected to be completed in 2007, the Cortlandt St. local stop at the World Trade Center site is also expected to reopen, which will make the 1,9 commute to South Ferry even longer.

Silver, Community Board 1 and the Downtown Alliance, which runs Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district, had previously opposed the station renovation because it would be paid for out of federal, 9/11-related rebuilding funds and they argue there are more important transportation needs, including building a Downtown rail link to J.F.K. Airport and the Long Island Rail Road. They also raised concerns about the 50 Battery Park trees that would be killed during the station’s renovation.

The South Ferry plan has the support of Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who joined Silver at the announcement June 18. Silver had used his veto power with an appointee to the M.T.A Capital Board to hold up the project. He said he agreed to drop his opposition after talking with his Assembly colleagues from Staten Island.

“It became clear that a compromise had to be achieved,” Silver said. “One that would not only advance this project, but would protect and enhance the quality of life for the residents of Battery Park City who have endured so much following the 9/11 attacks.”

The $15 million will restore the park after construction and go to a new playground, a bikeway-walkway along State St. and to improvements the park’s lawn areas. With the state Dept. of Transportation’s plans to build a bikeway adjacent to the park along Battery Pl., the two paths would link the Hudson and East River paths for the first time and go a long way to completing a continuous path around Manhattan.

Adrian Benepe, city Parks commissioner, estimated that it would have cost the M.T.A. perhaps about $5 million to restore the park to its current state, so the improvements could be worth about $10 million.

Joshua Laird, Benepe’s chief of planning, said the park will be finished before the subway station — possibly as early as mid-2006 – since the subway construction under the park must be done in the first phase.

Henry Stern, Benepe’s predecessor at Parks, attended the press conference but did not speak because he is against the plan. He thinks the M.T.A. got off cheap since it is spending less than four percent of the project costs on the park when other agencies have spent 10 – 20 percent of project costs on park improvements while building things like North River Pollution Control Plant and a water filtration plant near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

He said the transportation money Downtown is being wasted on station improvements instead of on projects that would bring new service to Lower Manhattan, like the J.F.K.-L.I.R.R. link.

The South Ferry costs could have paid for only a tiny portion of the $6 billion proposed link, but Stern said it will be hard for Downtown advocates to convince Congress to spend additional money.

“They would have more credibility if they weren’t piddling away the billions on station improvements,” Stern said. “I’m not saying the [South Ferry] station shouldn’t be renovated — spend $100 million,” instead of $400 million.

Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1, congratulated Staten Island commuters on their victory and called on the M.T.A. to contribute at least $400 million on the rail link. Gov. Pataki, who controls the M.T.A., has said the agency will invest in the rail connection, although he has not said how much it will spend.

Lapp said the M.T.A. would provide “some measure of support” in its next capital budget but did not say if there will be room for as much as $400 million.

After about a year of arguing over the plan, there were mostly friendly feelings at the announcement ceremony. Councilmember Alan Gerson said he was glad to see the park and station improvements although he pointed out those sliding platform extensions needed at South Ferry would soon be a relic of a bygone subway era. He suggested Lapp save one for the Transit Museum.

“The nostalgic part of me is going to miss those moving platforms,” said Gerson.

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