In March 2009, Elliot Sander stood in Lower Manhattan outside South Ferry, New York’s newest subway station. Addressing a crowd, the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hailed it as the first major transit project to open downtown since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“This artistically beautiful and highly functional station is a tangible reminder that when the MTA is provided with adequate capital funding, we build monumental works that will benefit generations of New Yorkers for many decades to come,” Sander said that day.
Three-and-a-half years later, the station lies in ruins. A tidal surge from Hurricane Sandy Oct. 29 turned it into what current MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota called a “large fish tank.” Dispatch equipment was destroyed, tiles ripped from the wall and surfaces coated with East River muck. The state agency pegs the rebuilding cost at $600 million, making it one of the most expensive items on its $5 billion damage list. The price tag doesn’t include fortifying against future flooding.
What to do about South Ferry, eight stories underground and only 400 feet (122 meters) from the river, is at the center of a debate over the prudence of rebuilding in a flood zone. For some mass-transit advocates, the destruction shows the importance of investing in new flood protection now in order to save money down the road. Others question if the MTA, the biggest U.S. transit agency, should rebuild at all.
The $527 million South Ferry redevelopment project, 80 percent of which was financed by federal funds after the 2001 attacks, was praised as a “true intermodal” center linking boats to Staten Island with subway and bus lines. It had more exits and longer platforms, and connected the Whitehall Street stop on the R train to Brooklyn with the terminus of the No. 1 line from the Bronx.
On the night of the storm, four feet of water flooded Lower Manhattan streets, breaching sheets of plywood covered with sandbags that were placed at station entrances. Steps installed at the entrances to keep water out were useless.
It will be weeks before an assessment of the shuttered station is finished, and the agency is “nowhere near” ready to talk about what it would take to fortify it, according to Lhota. Not rebuilding isn’t an option, he says.
South Ferry has “critical importance” because of its proximity to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, its location on Manhattan’s southern tip and its historical importance as one of the oldest stations in the system, he said.
Failure to rebuild would be a “real loss,” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, which prepares long-range development strategies for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. Closing the station would add hours to commuting times over the course of a year if it were no longer possible for passengers to connect conveniently with the ferry or Select Bus Service on the East Side, he said.
“We should rebuild the South Ferry/Whitehall complex, but it’s important to do so in a way that mitigates the possibility of flooding in the future,” Barone said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was in Washington this week to request federal aid to do just that -- $33 billion for clean-up and repairs and $9 billion for flood protection. Still, Congress may not grant the full request. Meanwhile, the MTA said it may issue as much as $4.8 billion in debt to pay for damages before federal reimbursements and insurance payments arrive.
One of the lowest-lying stations on the No. 1 line, South Ferry is susceptible to flooding even in a storm weaker than Sandy, said George Deodatis, a civil-engineering professor at Columbia University in New York. He recommends investing in sealable doors and removable covers for street grates, both of which could be deployed before storms to keep water out.
“This is an excellent example of demonstrating that funds provided by Congress for mitigation infrastructure will have a major immediate effect, meaning that the mitigation measures can be implemented in less than a year and provide protection for the long term,” he said.
Not reopening South Ferry would add only about a six-minute walk for riders, said Josh Barro, a former senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
If the station didn’t exist, “and we were presented with a plan to build a new subway station on the site of South Ferry at a cost of $600 million, I hope we’d say ‘no,’” he wrote last week in a Bloomberg View column. “Especially because, as sea levels rise, the station will face greater risk of similar flood damage in future storms.”
The $600 million price tag is high, though it shouldn’t be a reason to forgo the project, said Nicole Gelinas, an infrastructure specialist at the Manhattan Institute, which advocates less government spending. Modifying prevailing-wage laws, union rules and building codes could cut costs by 20 percent, she said.
South Ferry faced challenges even before Sandy’s arrival, opening 10 months late and over budget. Widespread water leaks were discovered after contractors completed the majority of concrete work, and workers flubbed track installation, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General.
A 2009 performance review from the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, a watchdog body created by the state legislature, found “no accountability for the design errors, poor construction and inadequate oversight that delayed the completion and impacted the quality of the project.”
Columbia’s Deodatis also warned the MTA about a year ago that stations such as South Ferry were vulnerable to flooding.
“It was an issue of essentially getting the funding to do upgrades,” he said. “The people at the MTA said, ‘This makes sense, we don’t have any objections to your system.’ Since then, I haven’t heard back.”