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At $600 Million, Is South Ferry Station Worth Reopening?

By Josh Barro
November 28, 2012 5:26 PM EST

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it will incur $5 billion in costs related to Hurricane Sandy, forming part of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's requests for federal aid. But some of the line items within that $5 billion tab are so high that we should question whether rebuilding and reopening is the right course.

Particularly stunning is the MTA's estimate that it will spend $600 million to restore just a single subway station: the South Ferry-Whitehall Street complex on the 1 and R lines at the tip of lower Manhattan. This figure had a lot of people scratching their heads, and the MTA has given some clarification: The estimates are preliminary (understandable), and the cost figures may well come in lower.

But if the MTA’s preliminary figures are right, they wouldn’t be unprecedented: New York pays drastically more for most urban rail infrastructure projects than other jurisdictions around the world. Of the four urban rail projects under way around the world that cost more than $1 billion a kilometer, three are in New York City. Milan is about to open a 3.5-mile fully underground subway line, with seven stations, at a cost of just more than $700 million, only a little more than the MTA might spend to repair South Ferry-Whitehall.

Let’s hope the MTA finds a way to come in far under budget. If they don’t, the best course of action is an unappealing one: closing the station permanently.

Imagine that the South Ferry-Whitehall station just didn't exist. Within a few days, we will be in essentially that situation: The MTA expects to start running R trains through the station (though they won't stop), and the 1 is currently terminating at the last station before South Ferry. Both lines have stations about one-third of a mile north of the closed station, so closing South Ferry would subject its users to an approximately six-minute walk.

If that were the status quo, 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" -- especially because, as sea levels rise, the station will face greater risk of similar flood damage in future storms.

Of course, the best response to excessive infrastructure costs isn't to stop building. It's to bring costs down by addressing the planning, engineering, contracting and labor-relations failures that have driven U.S. infrastructure costs so high. As we contemplate the need for flood barriers to protect lower Manhattan from storm surges, making big infrastructure projects affordable will only become more urgent.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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