NYC is asked to rethink rail stations deep underground

(The following article by Thomas J. Lueck was posted on the New York Times website on June 15.)

NEW YORK -- Warning that new rail stations planned for as deep as 15 stories under Manhattan could be targets of terror, five transit riders' groups from New York and New Jersey have asked the city to reconsider the risk of building them.

In a letter dated May 2 to New York City's senior police, fire and emergency management officials, the riders' groups asserted that "deep caverns" are poorly suited to Manhattan in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.

"In this age of concern about terrorism," the groups said in the letter, "we respectfully request that you do a careful risk assessment of these deep cavern stations."

The projects include New Jersey Transit's proposal for new Hudson River tunnels and a rail station as deep as 100 feet below Macy's on 34th Street, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's long-planned $7.7 billion East Side Access project, which would link the Long Island Rail Road to a station 150 feet beneath Grand Central Terminal.

"As many as 8,000 passengers could be trapped in these terminals in the event of an emergency," the groups assert in the letter.

The letter was made available by the riders' groups after they obtained a copy of a June 7 response, sent by the police to Peter S. Kalikow, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The transit advocates said they felt slighted after reading the police letter, signed by Lowell L. Stahl, assistant chief commanding officer, in which he asked that Mr. Kalikow take "any action you deem appropriate" in response to the groups' warning. The transit groups had sent their letter to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

The Police Department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said in an interview this week that the department had long been aware of the security concerns surrounding deep rail stations, particularly the one planned under Grand Central, where passengers would descend more than a dozen stories on 16 high-speed escalators.

"The counterterrorism bureau has looked at the project," he said, but declined to elaborate. "It does not discuss questions of vulnerability."

The five transit groups, which also sent a copy of the letter to the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, are the Straphangers Campaign, the Empire State Passengers Association, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility in New York, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers and the Lackawanna Coalition in New Jersey.

They said that none of the New York officials or agencies had responded directly to their letter, nor had anyone on Mr. Chertoff's staff.

Transit officials and engineers maintain that the new stations must be placed deep underground to avoid the layers of utilities, foundations and other rail lines already extending deep under Manhattan.

They also point out that deep rail platforms are nothing new to New York and other cities. In Manhattan, examples include the A line's station at 190th Street, where some passengers take an elevator 210 feet between the station and Fort Washington Avenue; others leave the station by walking through a tunnel to Bennett Avenue. And at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street on the F line, escalators take riders 140 feet down to the station. But those stations were "built before 9/11, and the world has changed," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign.

His group has long advocated the East Side Access project as critical to the city's mass transit system, and "we still support the concept," Mr. Russianoff said. But he said the group is not convinced that potential difficulties in access and emergency evacuation have received enough attention. "I have an open mind," Mr. Russianoff said, "but I just don't want people to be subjected to unsafe conditions."

George Haikalis, president of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility and a longtime critic of the deep rail projects, has been advocating an alternative method of getting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central on tracks under Park Avenue owned by Metro-North Railroad.

Mr. Haikalis said the stations being planned deep underground would be too expensive, and dangerous. "These are inviting targets because they are so far down and enclosed," he said.

Security concerns over the East Side Access project have not escaped the attention of the Fire Department. But the project, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg staunchly supports, has not been publicly questioned or criticized by fire officials.

In May, WNYC radio reported on a rift in 2003 between the transportation authority and fire officials over access to the planned station and passageways under Grand Central. It obtained correspondence between the authority and a fire official through the Freedom of Information Law.

In one letter, according to the WNYC report, Capt. Robert Weinman of the Fire Department wrote to an official at the authority, "You must take into account" the "experience and expertise of the Fire Department that you will be calling upon to protect your passengers, employees, property and equipment in the event of an incident."

The disagreement has been resolved, though neither the authority nor fire officials are willing to discuss details.

In an interview this week, Francis X. Gribbon, the Fire Department's chief spokesman, said "we were given what we asked for."

"It involved access points and things like that," he said, declining to be more specific. "They had their ideas, and we had ours, but they satisfied the concerns we raised."

Timothy O'Brien, a spokesman for the transportation authority, said it was in close contact with police and fire officials about many security issues.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

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