embers of labor unions hold a rally in support of the planned 'Access to the Region's Core' (ARC) rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York City October 19, 2010 in North Bergen, New Jersey. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie plans to kill the project due to budget constraints. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)
Could New York's subway be going suburban?
A proposal to extend the No. 7 line across the Hudson River has straphangers atwitter, with some wondering how the new connection might change the character of the city's beloved trains.
"The idea of it going to New Jersey — oh my God," said Lorraine Diehl, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and author of a book about the subway. "Eek! You'll come back with germs."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed this week that the city is studying whether to extend its No. 7 line from the far west side of Manhattan and under the Hudson to Secaucus, N.J. It would be the subway's only stop outside New York City limits. Bloomberg called the $5.3 billion plan "very clever."
Die-hard New Yorkers were incredulous.
"You've got to be kidding me," said Linda Baran, president of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce. She called the plan a slap in the face to the only subway-free borough, where people have been begging Bloomberg for better public transit for years.
The proposal set off fierce debates on online transit forums like SubChat.com and RailRoad.net, with many New York posters calling the idea a waste of money.
The Straphangers Campaign wants the city to ensure it can meet its other obligations, like finishing an unfinanced subway line along New York's Second Avenue, said Gene Russianoff, the association's staff attorney.
Bloomberg says extending the No. 7 could be an elegant replacement for another tunnel project that fizzled last month when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie balked at the $9 billion to $14 billion price tag. Christie said taxpayers couldn't afford to bear the cost for years of the nation's most costly public works project, which would have doubled the commuting capacity of New Jersey residents taking Amtrak or NJ Transit trains to work.
Construction of a multibillion-dollar, 1.5-mile extension that would take the No. 7 from Times Square to the Hudson riverbank is already under way. The proposed tunnel under the Hudson would cost $5.3 billion and extend the line to the Secaucus Junction station, where straphangers could switch to New Jersey commuter train lines. The proposal is preliminary, and officials haven't firmed up who would pay for what.
The debate has tapped into the long-standing rivalry between New Yorkers and their neighbors across the Hudson, said Jack Eichenbaum, historian for the borough of Queens. Depending on which side of the river you're on, New Yorkers are egocentric jerks and New Jerseyans backwater rubes.
"People say 'Why go to New Jersey? That's a whole other place!'" Eichenbaum said.
Earlier this year, Christie and New York Gov. David Paterson traded barbs over the boorish stars of the reality TV show "Jersey Shore." Christie complained that most of the cast was actually from New York; Paterson joked that maybe they were just better behaved when they're in New York.
In the rest of the country, it's not unusual for subways to cross into other cities, even other states.
Even in New York, there are plenty of other connections to New Jersey: ferry boats, NJ Transit trains and buses, as well as the Port Authority Trans-Hudson commuter rail trains, known as PATH.
But the century-old subway remains purely a New York thing. It also occupies a special place in American culture, inspiring songs like "Take the A Train," made famous by Duke Ellington, and movies like "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."
T-shirts featuring "A," ''1" and other subway line symbols are brisk sellers in New York's souvenir shops. There are no PATH T-shirts there.
The proposed crossing would add a whole new dimension to the No. 7 line, said Jeff Liao, a Taiwanese photographer who spent three years documenting that train for a book.
The No. 7 — the purple line on subway maps — begins in the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens and ends in Times Square. The journey is a metaphor for the American experience itself, Liao said.
"We're all immigrants, and every day we're riding the train to Times Square, chasing the American dream," he said.
The line was the last to retire New York's emblematic "Redbird" trains, named for their dark red color. It takes legions of long-suffering Mets fans to games and gives them a place to savor victories or lament defeats together. Tennis lovers fill the cars in late August to ride east to watch the U.S. Open.
In 1999, New Yorkers went ballistic after Atlanta Braves player John Rocker likened a ride on the No. 7 to riding through Beirut "next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids."
The train continues to carry a diverse and mostly working-class crowd. As it sped eastward through Queens on a recent evening, bricklayer Elton McEneaney, 37, of Ireland, shared a bench with Nelson Romero, 50, a radio announcer from Colombia. There was a Chinese florist and a Mexican factory worker.
An hour later, a NJ Transit train carried a different kind of commuter westward, home to New Jersey: real estate developers, network engineers and executives dressed in suits, black dress shoes and overcoats. Most were white.
If the extension were built, Liao said, the two groups might someday share the same cars in Manhattan.
"The thing about the subway is, it's maybe the only part of the city that's an absolutely true melting pot," Russianoff said.