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The Subway's 7 Line Goes to Washington

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Transit advocates and city planners expend a lot of energy thinking about and debating the intricacies of human mobility: who will go where, when, and why and how can we help them get there more quickly, safely, and comfortably. We don't walk or ride or drive as the crow flies. Our transportation choices, when we have them at all, depend on how well or how poorly our local, state, and federal governments - often in collaboration - have designed and built highways, subways, and bike lanes.

Such projects often involve big decisions: where to build a highway, when to fix a bridge, whether to expand a transit line. But just as often they are small-scale. For instance, much thought goes into "accessibility tradeoffs," the costs associated with placing subway and bus stops closer together and farther apart.

While it is well-known that the federal government - and New York State - do a particularly poor job of funding and planning for public transportation, the news that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and representatives of the Real Estate Board of New York have been forced to implore the Vice President's office for funding to build a single subway station for the 7-line extension is particularly disturbing.

The extension of the 7 line to the West Side of Manhattan has been underway for about two-and-a-half years and will provide transit access to the mixed-use redevelopment of a transit-starved area. High costs and a budget-strapped MTA unwilling to pitch in funding assistance have meant the City can build only one of the extension's two proposed subway stations. The stop at 34th Street and 11th Avenue will be built, but the station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue has been scrapped almost since construction began.

While the expanded 7-line will stretch into an underserved and underdeveloped area of Manhattan, the extension does not involve the same equity issues as, say, expanding transit access in southeast Queens. However, the construction of the 7 line demonstrates just how haphazard transportation planning and construction has become in the United States.

In just the last several months, representatives of the country's two largest cities have traveled to Washington looking for funds to help construct transit systems each city has already begun. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa requested federal assistance to speed up construction of his plan to build and expand 12 transit projects at no long-term cost to the federal government. Speaker Quinn and the Real Estate Board are looking for $250 million (or as much as $500 million, depending on how things shake out with the Bloomberg administration) to build a single subway station.

Even those skeptical of the 7 line admit that the project is an attempt to use transit access to spur economic and residential development. And as Jay Marcus of Manhattan Community Board 4 says, "The residents feel like they moved here with the expectation that we would have a subway stop at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, and without it, it's hard to see how this can ever feel like a neighborhood." A spokesman for the deputy mayor for economic development disagreed two years ago, saying that the 10th Avenue station is "really a straight transportation project" not "an economic development catalyst." But this stretches credulity when the spokesman is talking about an area referred to as the last best developable land in Manhattan where 18,000 or so new employees will work within a quarter mile of the scrapped station.

While politicians in Congress constantly whine about how China is surpassing the United States in myriad ways - quality infrastructure foremost among them - projects like the 7 line proceed almost unnoticed or are not noticed until it is too late. Constructing a subway line or any transportation alternative should not involve compromising the project's integrity because it is expensive. The United States will never construct quality infrastructure if localities - even the biggest, richest ones - are forced to shoulder the burden of investment alone.

In the absence of a partnership with the federal government, localities will always construct subpar subways, highways, and bridges as cost overruns, economic downturns, and NIMBYism - simply the furniture of the universe we live in - lead not to compromises, but to concessions.