Who are the subways for, anyway?
The Hudson Yards subway station near the Javits Convention Center made a dazzling debut Sunday. Riders strolled through a public space featuring immaculate floors, vaulted ceilings, spotless wooden benches and metal fittings that gleamed under artful lighting.
Missing were the dimly lit corridors, awful smells, mountainous piles of garbage and darting rats that we've all become used to. If only the MTA's 468 other stations could be so elegant.
But no, that's not going to happen soon.
Here's why. The extension of the 7 line from Times Square to Hudson Yards and 34th Street was never meant to make urban life less painful for the subway system's 5.5 million turnstile turners a day. It was meant to ignite a real estate boom in what was then an isolated dead zone of seedy bars, concrete overpasses, rail yards, radiator shops and warehouses next to a decaying waterfront.
Bringing the 7 to 34th Street was the grand vision of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a dream the MTA privately regarded as delusional when he first floated it in the early 2000s.
The MTA had its own agenda. It wanted to restart the Second Avenue subway project, which was urgently needed not as a high-rolling real estate gambit but as a way to ease pain and misery for a million-plus riders a day on the Lexington Avenue line -- the 4, 5 and 6 trains -- the only subways that serve the entire length of Manhattan's East Side.
Bloomberg privately argued that the East Side IRT was fine as it was. He loved to point out that he rode it to work daily at City Hall (never mind that an SUV whisked him to an express stop while, onboard the train, his security detail kept him company and presumably provided him with ample breathing room).
But ordinary New Yorkers could only shake their heads at that kind of logic.
The Lex carries more passengers daily than complete subway systems in other American cities. And for most New Yorkers, it offers not so much a commute as a daily assault.
Rush-hour East Side commuters perilously jam its platforms, waiting to smash their bodies Hulk Hogan style through the open doors of packed train cars. Riders already on board often shove back. The only wonder is that the city doesn't see an underground riot daily.
But give Bloomberg credit for this much: As a real estate proposition, his Hudson Yards dream was on the money.
He ultimately financed the No. 7 extension innovatively, using city money and not MTA cash. The city created a special tax district to pay for the subway, and put Hudson Yards on its way to becoming the largest private real estate project in US history. The developed Far West Side should pay for itself again and again. It's a great municipal investment.
But it's still a lousy mass-transit move.
Consider: An intermediate station was originally planned on the 7 extension at 10th Avenue and 41st Street, where massive new apartment towers and multitudes of new residents are appearing. But when the Great Recession struck, the station was scratched.
So now No. 7 trains run without stopping from Times Square to Hudson Yards, which remains a noisy, dusty work in progress. And a real neighborhood with real people goes unserved.
The MTA's president of capital construction, Michael Horodniceanu, told NY 1 this week that construction of a 10th Avenue station might still be possible someday. But his assertion rang about as hollow as his new tunnel.
The guiding principle on this new stretch of rail line is real estate first, workaday folks second.
Meanwhile, the MTA and City Hall today are confronted with the challenge of figuring out how to plan and build the modern, city-sustaining subway system New Yorkers have needed since the 1950s. A new station in a construction zone doesn't count.
Real estate values matter plenty. But people should come first.