Rebuilding the City Underground

Transporting throngs of workers downtown is a huge undertaking, but it's critical

The top of the World Trade Center's 110-story towers, its visitor's deck, may be what travelers from around the globe remember most. But to the hundreds of thousands of locals who passed through the complex every day, what really mattered was the basement. That's where one of the city's key transit hubs drew in 77,000 commuters every workday from New Jersey, plus hundreds of thousands more who rode the subway lines that ran through it. While most of the discussion about how to rebuild Lower Manhattan focuses on the structures above ground, the future of those below-ground transit lines is just as crucial to the financial district's recovery.

Indeed, the disaster of September 11 gives New York the chance to build something much better. The web of stations and lines that served the Twin Towers had been cobbled together from train lines dating back a century. The result was far from ideal. Rebuilding could lead to more modern telephone lines, state-of-the-art power stations, and better road access. Best of all, new train lines could mean faster service for downtown neighborhoods and better connections with existing lines. With billions being promised for rebuilding, long-ignored ideas, such as an additional train tunnel beneath the Hudson River and the Second Avenue subway, are getting new life.

Even with substantial aid, rebuilding will be a daunting task. Just replacing the infrastructure that was lost--the 300,000 telephone lines, the two electrical power stations, the network of streets--will cost billions and probably take the better part of the decade to complete. "Of the manmade environments, Manhattan is easily the most complex," says Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson. That, says Jackson, "makes it the ultimate city, but also vulnerable to interruption."

BIG AMBITIONS. It's an environment a long time in the making. New York understood early on that a strong backbone would be key to its ambitions to attain world capital status. At the turn of the century, when few cities were thinking much beyond paving their roads, New York was already building a massive reservoir system to bring mountain water to its citizens and digging the tubes that would house what continues to be one of the most extensive subway systems in the world. Indeed, New York remains one of the few U.S. cities where life is perfectly possible without a car. "New York has always had a sense of its destiny as the greatest city in the world and wanted to have an infrastructure befitting that," says John D. Landis, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lately, though, New York has been surpassed in infrastructure spending by rival areas. Northern New Jersey has put billions into new train and subway lines in the past decade. The result, says Robert E. Paaswell, director of the City University of New York's Institute for Urban Systems, is an area that's "as attractive a place to develop as the tip of Manhattan." Already, many displaced Wall Street firms have signed leases across the Hudson.

If New York hopes to remain the center of world finance, it will have to move quickly. Right now, Lower Manhattan is operating on what Consolidated Edison describes as "36 miles of extension cords." But plans to rebuild are afoot. Arthur Imperatore Jr., president of NY Waterways, the largest private ferry owner, has hopes to build new terminals capable of handling 60,000 to 80,000 New Jersey commuters for $70 million. The Empire State Transportation Alliance is pushing several initiatives. Elliot Sander, one of the group's chairs, says it's time to throw support behind the Second Avenue subway line, aimed at bringing traffic south from Midtown. Manhattan's future has always hinged on its ability to get workers on and off the island quickly, cheaply, and comfortably. That's just as true at the start of this century as it was in the last.

By Nanette Byrnes

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.