Tracks are Tracks?

At a recent event sponsored by the American Institute of Architect’s New York chapter, Robert Davidson, chief architect for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, uttered what I sincerely hope is not a prophetic line. “Tracks are basically tracks,” he said at one point in his PowerPoint presentation, describing the Port Authority’s current effort to restore downtown PATH service late next year by laying tracks along pre-9/11 routes.

He was quick to characterize the work as an “interim solution,” and made a point later of saying that the idea of a downtown transit hub was “still on the table.” However, his throwaway line made me pause. I certainly understand the urgency. I know that many of the financial firms that decamped for midtown and Jersey City won’t be returning downtown (if they return at all) without transit links in place.

Still, given the budget realities facing the city and the nature of development here, this interim solution could easily become the permanent one. It seems unlikely that the Port Authority would push to replace the tracks and then sometime after the fact, at significantly greater expense, move them two or three blocks east to form the Fulton Street hub. (The idea of airport-style people movers between the stations was floated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York’s Daily News a day later.)

When I called Davidson the next day and asked whether this temporary solution might preclude the Port Authority from developing a more ambitious plan five or ten years down the road, he responded, “Absolutely not. Transportation infrastructure is the primary focus.”

I hope he’s right. The initiatives that have near unanimous support—burying West Street and creating a transit hub—are both extremely expensive. Can we afford both? It will be hard to counter the argument that “hard choices” have to be made, because they do. However, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made for borrowing (heavily if need be), because opportunities like this one come but once a century. Literally, it’s now or never.

Categories: Cities