The Regional Plan Association loves this idea. (Image from the MTA)
Toward the end of Elliot Sander’s State of the MTA speech yesterday morning, one of the MTA Capital Construction employees sitting near me turned to his friend and laughed off Sander’s “Network Expansion Options” presentation. “It’s good to be a planner,” he said, with a chuckle, of the MTA CEO and Executive Director’s proposed 40-year expansion plan.
It was a very knowing chuckle. The suits at MTA Capital Construction understand reality. They know what it takes to attempt to build three stops on a new subway line, let alone an entire branch that cuts through three densely-populated boroughs. They know that in the MTA’s first 40 years, the agency hasn’t added much in the way of subway lines to a city that badly needs them. What would make the next 40 years any different?
For the better part of an hour, Sander spoke about the MTA’s last 40 years, its current state and the next 40 years. He put the future on display. “Today, we stand at a crossroads,” he said. “We can take a business-as-usual approach to how we run the MTA, completing the projects that are currently underway and continuing the State of Good Repair program. Or we can set our sights higher. We can complete the projects underway, continue the State of Good Repair program and press on to give the region the network of mobility it needs to be competitive with its global peers.”
For the most part, though, the speech held few surprises. Sander talked about the latest $29.5-billion, five-year capital plan; the fare hike and planned service upgrades; and the potential impact the congestion fee may have on transit.
He routinely stressed using the city’s vast public transit network to remain a competitive 21st Century city. “Today’s MTA is positioned to…become the best in class of large public transportation agencies in the world,” he said. “New York is locked in a competition for brainpower and capital with places like London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. We cannot settle for a second-rate transportation network.”
Sander also called upon the government to invest in mass transit in New York and throughout the country. “Next year, we will have four tunnel-boring machines operating to expand the subway and regional rail systems. Sounds impressive?” he said. “Right now, Shanghai has 90 such machines at work on rail and other projects…Our biggest global competitor, China, spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure.Meanwhile, the United States spends less than 1% of its GDP. That is unacceptable.”
But the real Holy Grail of his speech came as he started speculating on the MTA’s 40-year future. As the illustration up top shows, Sander did not hold back imaging a vastly different and improved subway system:
The Second Avenue Subway can act as a trunk line for new service to West Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx…Consistent with the vision for a Lower Manhattan rail link, imagine the Second Avenue Subway running south to Lower Manhattan, then going under the East River to downtown Brooklyn and on to Jamaica, Queens, via the Long Island Rail Road’s Atlantic Avenue Branch, with a connection to the AirTrain to JFK.
Second Avenue can also provide a Manhattan route for a new service in Queens, running through the 63rd Street tunnel relieve overcrowding on the Queens Boulevard line.
After completion of East Side Access and Second Avenue, the wave of investments that need to be made in the next 25 to 40 years should rely heavily on the MTA’s diamonds in the rough: underutilized or dormant freight and commuter rail rights-of-way that can be transformed into subway lines; and lightly used middle tracks on subway lines that can be used for new express services…
In one scenario, the extension of the Second Avenue Subway I described could connect to new tracks within the right of way of the LIRR Main Line between Jamaica and Port Washington Junction. We can also utilize the Rockaway Beach right-of-way to provide new transit access from the Main Line corridor to southern Queens and the Rockaway Peninsula.
We need to take a close look at the Regional Plan Association’s circumferential subway line, which would convert the lightly used Bay Ridge freight line into a subway service that would run in an arc from southern Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx.
In the Bronx, we have at least two opportunities to give customers faster, more direct connections – something planners call “right-routing.” We can extend the D train north and east to connect with the 2 and 5 trains at Gun Hill Road for more direct connections between the central Bronx and Manhattan’s West Side…
The MTA network’s 55 miles of underused middle track on elevated subway lines also represent a tremendous opportunity that we must exploit. These lines, primarily in Brooklyn and the Bronx, might enable additional express services to be operated, shortening travel times between these boroughs and the Manhattan core.
In the end, Sander’s plan is ambitious, and as the builders noted, it sure does make the planners sound pretty good. But will it be a reality? Can it be a reality? The answer to the second question is yes; the answer to the first question is maybe.
The City needs the projects Sander is selling here, and someone needs to step up and take the reins. It’s one thing to talk vaguely about subway expansion and the need for more lines. It’s another thing entirely to do what Sander is doing and putting forward plans that could revolutionize and modernize New York’s subway and public transit system.
For too long have the city and state leaders allowed the MTA to eke by on next to nothing. While Sander’s plan may be unrealistic, it takes a visionary to move things forward, and as the MTA sits on the precipice of its next 40 years, today’s speech made me think that Sander is the right man for the MTA at the right time.
As he said near the end of his speech, “As the MTA goes, so goes the region.” Now, let’s see what he can do.