Of all the rebuilding projects proposed for Lower Manhattan, perhaps none has generated so little enthusiasm as the West Street tunnel. The New York State Department of Transportation — backed by Governor Pataki, but hardly anyone else — proposes to build a four-lane tunnel along West Street, between Vesey and Albany Streets, leaving four lanes at ground level.
The origins of the project can be found in the early design concepts for the World Trade Center site, dating from the summer of 2002. Although widely derided as uninspired, one idea from these first designs caught the public’s imagination: turning West Street into a tree-lined promenade resembling Paris’s Champs-Elysée. For that to be possible, much of the traffic along the highway would need to be routed underground.
As first conceived, the promenade would have run from Chambers Street all the way down to the Battery. But as the staggering costs of such a long tunnel became apparent, it was shortened into what is now the present proposal: a tunnel that runs for just a bit more than the length of the World Trade Center site. The purported aim is to reduce the amount of at-grade traffic adjacent to the memorial, but there would still be four lanes at ground level to allow access to local streets. The project would cost $860 million, and would tie up the West Side Highway for years, blocking both pedestrian and vehicular access to Battery Park City.
A group called Taxpayers for Common Sense has cited the West Street tunnel as one of the 27 most wasteful highway projects in America. That’s because the alternative — widening West Street to eight lanes at-grade — could be done for just $175 million. The savings of almost $700 million could be appropriated for the downtown JFK rail link, a far worthier project that is as yet unfunded, and has considerably more community support.
Neither of the tunnel’s alleged benefits makes much sense. The first is to provide an “appropriate and respectful” setting for the memorial, but as there would still be four lanes at ground level, I hardly see how this would be achieved. The other is to provide better pedestrian access to the memorial, but this could be done with bridges passing over the roadway, as was the case before 9/11. In addition, a pedestrian tunnel below West Street is already part of the WTC site plan. All in all, pedestrians will have plenty of safe routes to cross West Street without the need for any tunnel.
The tunnel has plenty of commuity opposition. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Sen. Charles Schumer, New York City Council Member Alan J. Gerson, New York State Assemblymembers Sheldon Silver and Deborah Glick, New York State Senator Martin Connor, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Community Board #1, the American Automobile Association of New York, the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown, the Regional Plan Association, the Coalition to Save West Street, NYPIRG-Straphangers, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), are among those opposing or seriously questioning it.
According to the TSTC, at a recent public hearing there were 31 speakers, and all but one opposed the project. (The speaker in favor represented a coalition of construction workers.)
Our elected officials have generally made good decisions about the rebuilding process, but this project is a turkey.