The New York City subway system’s first new station in 26 years is set to open this summer, and it is neither the long-awaited Second Avenue subway nor an expansion into one of the outer boroughs’ old “two-fare zones.” And while it’s being built by the state-run MTA, it’s being funded solely out of the city treasury.
The 7 train extension may be the oddest project in the subway system’s exceedingly odd construction history. It first emerged as a concept in 2004, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for a stadium on Manhattan’s far west side that could host both the Jets and the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, which New York was then in the running to host. The mayor’s preferred site: the open-cut rail yards west of Penn Station, which would be covered over with a platform to create a stadium-and-office-building complex dubbed Hudson Yards.
The only problem was getting people to and from the site. The Jacob Javits Convention Center across Eleventh Avenue from the proposed venue had already proven too far off the beaten path to be easily accessible by public transit: The nearest subway stop, the A/C/E station at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, was a half-mile away. The MTA was asked if it would consider extending the 7 train from its Times Square terminus across 42nd Street and down Eleventh Avenue to 33rd; the authority said it had no money in its budget, and anyway its priority was getting at least part of the Second Avenue line built before another century passed.
With the clock ticking on both the Jets plan and the Olympic bid, Bloomberg and then–City Council Speaker Gifford Miller hit on a workaround: The MTA would build the project, but the city would fund its estimated $2 billion cost. It would do so by selling $2 billion worth of bonds, then setting aside all property-tax revenue from new construction on and around the site to repay the subway debt — a procedure known as tax-increment financing, or TIF.
Though there was plenty of criticism of this plan — as Fiscal Policy Institute watchdog James Parrott told the Voice at the time, “They say there’s ample demand for all this office space; if that’s the case, why do you have to subsidize it?” — it fell away once the council approved the plan and all eyes turned to the battle over the Jets stadium itself. That proposal was killed by then–State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver the following year, and one month later the 2012 Summer Games were awarded to London. (Silver resigned his speakership, but not his assembly seat, earlier this year after being charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes for his votes.)
But the subway bonds had already been sold, and so the 7 train extension forged ahead. Eventually the rail yards passed into the hands of a developer, the Related Companies, which — in exchange for $650 million (and counting) in tax breaks — is now in the process of building a giant complex of apartment towers and shopping, so that people riding the $2 billion train required to get people to the far west side have someplace to go once they get there.
The 7 train extension is unlikely to go down as one of the MTA’s great engineering feats: It will consist of only one station (a second proposed station at 42nd Street and Eleventh Avenue was scrapped to save money, and because the MTA never even built a station “shell” that could later be filled in with turnstiles and the like, it’s now considered prohibitively expensive), and it will open more than a year and a half late, thanks in part to revolutionary “inclined elevators” that turned out not to work. And we’ll never know its true cost to taxpayers, because we don’t know whether similar construction would have taken place on the West Side even without the subway. (The forest of high-rises around the nonexistent stop at 42nd and Eleventh implies that it would have.) On the bright side, it won’t raise fares — only taxes.