(New York, NY - WNYC) At one time it was hoped that the $1.4 billion expansion and reconstruction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, partly damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, would be done by the tenth anniversary of that day. That won't happen. But steady progress is being made on the much-delayed project, including the scheduled opening in the next two months of a new entrance and restoration of service to a closed portion of the Cortlandt Street station next to Ground Zero.
The sprawling underground complex is Lower Manhattan's primary transit crossroads. It has long been known as a good place to connect to different subway lines--if you can figure out how to do it. The center is a multi-leveled labyrinth connecting previously private subway systems not built to be compatible. A primary thrust of the project is to detangle it.
To show how that was going, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority invited a WNYC reporter to don a hard hat and take an escorted look at the busy underground construction site.
It's an organized mess.
Shadowy caverns contain patches of muck and puddles that workers wearing reflective vests splash through. Cement mixers turn lazily as heavy metal blasts from a boombox.
Parts of the complex are impressive. The new Dey Street underpass will connect the center's main entrance building, which is a block south of City Hall Park, with the World Trade Center. It's a huge tunnel that the MTA says will be lined with digital screens showing train information, ads and artwork. That's a big change from what the Fulton Street station has always been: dark, cramped and crowded.
The grandest element is a fifty-foot glass tower over the main entrance that is to be topped by an oculus--a set of prisms to deflect natural light down to some of the subway platforms. The MTA seriously considered scrapping the tower in 2008 when the project went over budget. Then along came the federal stimulus and the tower was restored.
It was weirdly pleasing to stand two stories the street level on a future subway platform and look up through the steel framework of a tapered tower and see, above the high top of a construction crane, clouds scudding against blue sky.
When the center is all done and linked up with a station for the PATH Train to New Jersey under the World Trade Center--some time in 2016--visitors will be able to walk underground from the Winter Garden on the edge of the Hudson River to the William Street subway stop, about six blocks from South Street Seaport on the East River. That's about three-quarters of a mile.
Riders will have access to eleven subway lines, same as before. But the MTA says the warren of poorly lit passageways will be more open and straightforward. There should be less crowding and more space for the 300,000 people they expect to move through the Fulton Street Transit Center every weekday. That'll be a good day for downtown Manhattan, where 85 percent of all trips are made by mass transit, many of them using the center.
The project, begun in 2004, has been notorious for delays. Michael Horodniceanu, president of capital construction for the MTA, said part of the problem was the complexity of a task like building new station space under and around the 123 year-old Corbin Building, a nine-story landmark made of brick that will be incorporated into the main entrance. Horodniceanu said the Corbin Building's foundation had to be disassembled and rebuilt without using heavy machinery.
And he said management of the project was flawed at the start. The MTA looked for a company to do every part of the enormous renovation on tight deadlines. Only one company bid and, when it got the job, soon started falling behind. Horodniceanu said when he came into his position in 2008, he broke the project up into parts, set what he called "realistic" deadlines and attracted multiple bidders.
Now the project seems on track. The MTA's part of it should be done by 2014.
To see more photos in a vivid slideshow of the project, go to WNYC.