It costs three times more to build a subway station here than in London or Paris. What if we could change that?
If you live in London, you won’t have to imagine it for long: London is nearly finished with work on Crossrail, a megaproject that will funnel commuter trains from London’s eastern and western suburbs into a new, 14-mile underground line that will serve seven stations across London’s urban core. Crossrail is not arriving quite as soon as expected — like many megaprojects, it has suffered some delays and cost overruns — but it should open in 2020 or 2021 or so. When it does, it will enable a new service, to be called the Elizabeth line, which will increase the capacity of London’s rail-transit system by 10 percent. It will shorten and simplify commutes, letting workers get off their suburban trains at stops near their offices instead of changing from commuter trains to the subway.
By building this project, London is just catching up to its peers. Paris has had a similar system, the five-line RER, since the 1970s. Berlin’s S-Bahn predates World War II. The genius of these systems is to create a hybrid of subway and commuter rail, serving long- and short-distance commuters alike and quickly connecting far-flung parts of a metropolitan area. That’s why the E in RER stands for express and the S in S-Bahn stands for schnell,or “fast.” If you’ve vacationed in Paris, you likely saw the RER as a quick way to get between points within the Paris core as well as a good way to get out to Disneyland or Versailles.
It feels like New York ought to be able to have something like this. Our city is even wealthier than London or Paris. Our buildings are taller. Our people are supposedly more entrepreneurial. And yet we cannot seem even to properly maintain the infrastructure we already have. The subway is plagued by delays. The New York City Housing Authority struggles with a multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance. The city is considering closing the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for six years, turning the park into a temporary six-lane highway, just so it can close and refurbish the freeway below. And even when we do set out to build things, rather than just figuring out how to hold together what we have with duct tape, our new projects are incremental rather than transformational because even incremental projects cost us billions of dollars and take decades to complete.