Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saving the Manhattan Terminal

A transit advocate looks at abandoned transit infrastructure and thinks, "Imagine if we reactivated that!" Certain other people (if they have a name, I don't know what it is) look at abandoned transit infrastructure and think, "Imagine if we turned that into a park!" And you know what? That made sense for the High Line. With its multiple twists and its passages through buildings, even with a brand-new driverless electric metro it probably would have been too noisy and inconvenient to be worth reviving.

This is not the case for several other pieces of abandoned rail infrastructure in the New York area. I've already expressed my frustration with the Walkway Over the Hudson (squatting on the perfectly functional Poughkeepsie Bridge) and the North/South County and Piermont trails (preventing anyone from reactivating the incredibly useful Putnam and Erie lines). Even though the "Tappan Zee Park" proposal was to use road infrastructure (not yet abandoned), it was still a pretty shitty idea, and was exploited by the Governor to divide and conquer his environmentalist opponents.

Unfortunately, these proposals just keep coming. I try to ignore them, but some people seem mesmerized by anything that sounds like a park. There's the "Queensway" proposal to turn the abandoned Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach Branch into a trail, which is a bad idea and shouldn't be encouraged. But tonight I want to talk about a much worse one: the "Low Line" proposal to turn an abandoned underground trolley terminal into a park, lit by sunlight piped down by futuristic fiber optic cables.

For the moment, forget about whether anyone would enjoy hanging out underground the way they do in Bryant Park, even with copious amounts of light. Forget that there's a 46-acre park a few blocks away. Let's talk about the transit infrastructure that would be sacrificed for this project. The Manhattan Terminal is a 60,000 square foot underground station with eight loop tracks for trolleys:

The MTA's Real Estate department, spurred on by the "Low Line" people, has posted a video of the space, which is definitely worth watching. The tracks and the trolley wire guides are still in place.

So we could turn this space into a park or a disco. Or we could take advantage of its strategic location at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, the crossing of two subway lines and the gateway to Lower Manhattan and return it to its intended use: as a transit terminal.

Funny how not one of the Chinatown bus kvetchers has suggested actually providing a terminal for the buses. Would the full-size intercity buses fit? I don't know; Peter Hine doesn't mention the clearance. Certainly the Chinatown vans would all fit.

The diesel and gas fumes might be a challenge, but if the "Low Line" people can talk about piping sunlight down from above, why can't we talk about a good ventilation system? The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a little stinky, but seems to be able to avoid asphyxiating its passengers.

If this were connected to an exclusive bus lane across the bridge like the one in the Lincoln Tunnel, they could really improve transit access.

It's heartening to me that on every breathless news article or blog post about the "Low Line" there were several comments suggesting that the space could be restored as a trolley or bus terminal. I hope that the next time some idiot proposes turning good transit infrastructure into a park, someone will set up a Kickstarter page offering to pay them to go away.


threestationsquare said...

I have to wonder if the "Low Line" thing is some kind of satire. Surely everybody who has every been in a subway station and has a shred of common sense realises that, even with plenty of light, an underground space will quickly get damp, stuffy and smelly, especially if there are plants in it. The space also just isn't that large, so would probably feel cramped.

However, I think it's probably too far from Chinatown to be attractive for the bus and commuter van operators. Having to walk an extra 10-15 minutes (or wait for the J) to reach your destination could easily more than negate the benefit of dedicated lanes across the Williamsburg Bridge (which could anyway be implemented separately). If you somehow managed to legally force the commuter vans to use the terminal rather than more convenient streetcorners, I think this would provide negative transportation value. And this is before considering the cost of renovating and ventilating the terminal and building the necessary ramps, at NYC infrastructure construction prices.

Just because some infrastructure is spare doesn't mean you need to use it, for transit, parks, or anything else. There are plenty of examples of infrastructure being made less valuable by mediocre projects that were the best thing that was feasible to do with it at the time (see the LA Orange Line, a mistake Staten Island is considering repeating). Maybe in the future the terminal space can be used to run light rail from Brooklyn onto the disused Nassau St track pair, or J express tracks, or to feed the South 4th St subway, or as part of a regional rail line, or for bike parking, or something that doesn't even make sense with current paradigms. In the meantime, none of the suggestions I've heard seem remotely worth their costs given present demand. In the words of Lord Melbourne, why not leave it alone?

Steve Stofka said...

Given how the Port Authority bus terminal has had serious congestion issues--despite its size--I like the idea of a second major bus terminal able to relieve pressure from it. Plus, this one would be significantly more accessible from the east and serve a different part of Manhattan while still being right on the subway network.

You could set up an East-West terminal division such that, e.g. buses to Boston terminate in the East terminal while those to Philly the West one. Or different operators could use the different terminals--Coach USA, with its significant Jersey commuter operation and Megabus, the West one; Greyhound, with its intercity focus and Boltbus, the East.

Jonathan said...

There used to be an East Side bus terminal. It was sold off in 1985, according to this NY Times article:

A terminal with dedicated lanes over the Williamsburg Bridge would be OK, but buses would still suffer from BQE traffic.