Sander unveils ambitious 40-year plan during State of the MTA

By · Published in 2008


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.

Categories : MTA

45 Responses to “Sander unveils ambitious 40-year plan during State of the MTA”

  1. The Secret Conductor says:

    I’m gonna say something controversial… why does everything have to be underground? Maybe we should be studying new clearings for elevated tracks and open cuts. I am sure it will cost less than moving utility lines, sewer pipes, and other underground items PLUS you create unique real estate with dynamic views.

    All I can think about is the fact that there WAS an elevated system on second ave (and I believe 3 and 1 avenue too) and I believe it went all the way into the Bronx. it may have, if memory serves, connected with the current day 2 and 5 trains at 180 street station (and maybe some other places too).

    Now the second ave subway can’t be above ground for multiple reasons, but this new cut through brooklyn/queens may work better if it was mostly above ground. now that is a whole lot of “right of way – emanate domain” crazy-ness mess though…

    Also extend the F further into queens OR create a real bus hub at 179 street (same for main street on the 7), connect to Staten Island using the 1 train, extend the SIRR into Staten Island (as opposed to around it), add 2 more tracks to the queens corridor even if those tracks have to be elevated (how feasible is that??? LOL)… can’t think of any other expansions.

  2. Marc Shepherd says:

    Well, you’re partly going to get your wish if all this happens. The “circumferential subway” he referred to would heavily leverage existing rights-of-way, so it would indeed be mostly above ground.

  3. peter knox says:

    Last night I saw three guys with jackhammers and two guys with shovels building the SAS. Lee Sand”er” needs a 40 year plan for this 30 block stubway.

  4. Alfred Beach says:

    Could you give more detail about the Bay Ridge Freight line? I can’t seem to find a map showing where it runs, although it has a wikipedia entry:

    It seems to follow the route of the M through Queens, and thus would make a really easy connector between the end of the M at Metropolitan and Queens Boulevard (E,F,G,R,V). I’d think that hooking those two pieces together would be a Good Thing.

  5. Alfred Beach says:

    That should read “about the Bay Ridge freight line”.

  6. Angus Grieve-Smith says:

    I’m gonna say something controversial… why does everything have to be underground?

    Come down to Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside and say that. You can say it all you want, but I won’t be able to hear you over the roar of the train. The noise and the darkness are unpleasant. If we could put our line underground without taking money away from needed expansion projects, I’d want that.

    Alfred, take a look here:

  7. Angus Grieve-Smith says:

    Here’s an earlier discussion of the “TriboroRX” on Streetsblog:

    In that discussion, I pointed out that the feasibility of the Bronx-to-Queens part is constrained by the capacity of the Hell Gate Bridge. The bridge used to have four tracks, and it has three now. Assuming you rebuilt the fourth track, those tracks would have to be shared by the existing Amtrak and freight service, plus the planned Metro-North service to Penn Station and Cross-Harbor freight tunnel traffic. It seems to me that you wouldn’t be able to fit very many Cross-Harbor trains in between all that.

  8. ScottE says:

    There are still a couple of parts of his speech I don’t understand (nor can I find a transcript on the MTA web site — is there one?)

    First, how can you run a subway on a “lightly used” freight line? According to FRA, you need heavier trains (commuter-rail style) if the tracks will also be used for freight – it can’t be combined with rapid transit. MTA would either need to build parallel tracks for the subway, or stop the freight use and sever connections to other heavy rail altogether. NJ Transit circumvented this rule somewhat with the River Line, a diesel light-rail running from Trenton to Camden, by separating them by time (light-rail during the day, freight at night) so there is no chance of a collision.

    Second, how will the subway run along the LIRR Atlantic Branch? Where will LIRR run? (I assume this is the section between Jamaica and Flatbush/Atlantic Ave). Most of this branch is a two-track tunnel through Brooklyn, although it is elevated in some spots. Unless the laws are changed, you can’t mix commuter rail with rapid transit. It was tried in the past… the LIRR and BMT shared tracks, and LIRR briefly had a terminal station at the J/M/Z Chambers Street Station. There are some vague references on the web to this, but I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive description.

    A grand scheme, but I don’t quite understand it. I thought connecting the Second Avenue Subway to the Staten Island Railway was the dream of the future, not more trains cluttering downtown Brooklyn.

  9. Max says:

    Scott —

    Freight service may be terminated (the implication is that it doesn’t serve much purpose currently) or it may run in conjunction with commuter rail cars.

    As for running on the Atlantic Ave branch, I imagine the Altantic Ave branch would be converted into a rapid transit service to Jamaica full time and passengers going into LI would switch to the LIRR.

  10. Kid Twist says:

    The Bay Ridge LIRR branch is so lightly used that most people think it’s already been abandoned. Robert Moses once wanted to use this right-of-way for a cross-Brooklyn expressway. It seems like the RPA has been talking about rapid transit in along this cut since the late 1960s, if not longer. I just hope that if they do build this line, it doesn’t become a forgotten stepchild like a certain other line that doesn’t enter Manhattan.

    The idea of additional express services is interesting. I would love to see the Sea Beach express return as part of the effort to revive Coney Island.

  11. Mischa G says:

    I agree with Angus. Go to a neighborhood with elevated trains and tell me underground isn’t vastly preferable. You can’t have a conversation walking near those trains because of the noise and it’s very unpleasant to live withing a couple blocks due to the noise and vibrations caused by the trains. I’d prefer more above ground service to no improvements, but not by much.

    I’ve always thought the G was the best place to start in fixing transportation between BK and Queens. If you found a way to run the G to connect to Atlantic-Pacific and then ran it up past Queens Plaza it would connect enough trains to become very useful. If you could run it to Queensboro Plaza, connect to the F at Queensbridge and create a new path for it up 21st Street in Astoria/LIC you could probably find a way to cross into the Bronx. I’d also look into running the N out to Laguardia. Those changes seem more useful than adding service that stretches nearly to Long Island. Who is really gonna wanna ride all the way around the edge of BK and Queens to get into the city?

  12. Kid Twist says:

    Mischa, the idea here is not to provide a long way into Manhattan. The goal is to provide service for people who want to travel between points in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx without having to go through Manhattan. With this line, you could go from Brooklyn to Shea Stadium, er, Citifield without having to change at Times Square or Grand Central. You could get from Brighton Beach to Brooklyn College without having to drive or take a slow bus. Many, many possibilities.

    Plus, there’s that whole area east of Flatbush Avenue that would get subway service for the first time.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    In some systems, like Tokyo and Moscow, the circular lines are the most congested. The G is underused because unlike the lines in Tokyo and Moscow, it hardly connects to anything; the northernmost line it directly connects to, the L, is indeed clogged. Triboro Line is built to connect to every line in the system except the 1, which runs too far west.

    As for elevated lines, they can be very useful on highways – think the AirTrain and the Van Wyck. The safest way to add a LaGuardia AirTrain is probably to use the Grand Central Parkway. I’m still in favor of a network in western Queens involving an extension of SAS along Northern, an extension of the N/W along Ditmars and Astoria, and a LaGuardia shuttle under Junction, but it’s not going to happen.

  14. Gary says:

    Angus you stole my thunder with that old Streetsblog post, great recall.

    This was the address I wanted from the MTA . . . visionary.

    The framing of NYC vs. Shanghai and other world hub cities is the way to go; we are at risk of seriously falling behind.

  15. Gary says:

    And let me “third” the criticism of elevated lines.

    I question the sanity of all the people paying $1MM to live in DUMBO next to the bridge, because the trains coming roaring over the bridge like a thousand screaming harpies. I have bad hearing as it is, and the noise from that train causes me physical discomfort.

    While the blighting effects of elevated structures are not as bad as the once were (raining cinders down on people below) they are ugly, noisy, block the light, and create an atmosphere of danger due to the darkened conditions below.

    Like the pined for F-express, the circumferential line is one that could be brought on line with a comparatively small investment. And if we are going to get people to abandon their cars, we do need to make the city more accessible to transit riders. Why on earth should someone from Bay Ridge have to get to Queens via Manhattan?

    We need a Marshall Plan for the subway system. I am hopeful that this year, we’ll get a Democratic president (Go Obama!) and a larger majority in both houses of Congress and finally get the federal funding we need to make it happen. And when we do, we need to have plans in hand to be first in line for the money.

    This is beyond a transit issue: it’s environmental policy, it’s energy policy, it’s national security policy. We need to break free of our reliance on oil.

  16. Scotte et al.: The transcript of Sander’s speech is available here on the MTA’s site. I meant to link to it earlier. Sorry about that.

  17. Marc Shepherd says:

    Like the pined for F-express, the circumferential line is one that could be brought on line with a comparatively small investment.

    Lest we get ahead of ourselves, the best conceivable scenario is merely that some kind of planning for the circumferential line would get underway within the next 10 years. The recently unveiled 5-year capital plan made no mention of it, and if that plan is adopted in its entirety, it would be the most expensive ever. Therefore, it’s reasonable to guess that planning—not construction, but just planning—is more than five years away.

  18. To follow up on Marc’s comment, money for studies for these 40-year plans are included in the next five-year capital plan. These projects wouldn’t get under way by 2020 at the earliest I would guess.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    It’s weird that they’re not planning to do this sooner, since the existing ROW and the open cut nature of the line mean that they can complete the project very quickly by New York standards.

  20. The Boss says:

    Its about time that someone at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority put 2 and 2 together and figured out that this city is need of imporve public transit. Now, can the knockle heads in Albany get ball rolling and provide the money needed for these improvement.

  21. The Secret Conductor says:

    I agree with Angus. Go to a neighborhood with elevated trains and tell me underground isn’t vastly preferable. You can’t have a conversation walking near those trains because of the noise and it’s very unpleasant to live withing a couple blocks due to the noise and vibrations caused by the trains. I’d prefer more above ground service to no improvements, but not by much.

    No one likes the elevated train? lol I am guessing everyone has visions of elevated train and their noise levels (and yet, somehow in Williamsburg, the J line, rent is sky high for a room 20 feet from the wheels of a 40 ton tin can). What I am more inclined to thinking is that the elevated sections will be more like the 7 train over queens blvd.

    I think the 7 train over queens blvd is the perfect example of train, street, industrial, residential, and commercial. Why not do it that way? buildings that are residential can be built better with noise proofing… the elevated tracks will use the new noise deafening track and gravel so trains will make more of a cool sound instead of a hard one.

    Well, this is what I’m doing in my Train Sim game modeling what I would like NYC subways to do. elevated tracks become destinations instead of dark drama that many places look like.

  22. Lots of information about the preliminary planning study I did at the RPA on the circumferential line in question, which we’ve taken to calling the “Triboro RX”, is available here:

  23. Alon Levy says:

    Mike, is there any cost estimate for Triboro Line?

  24. Angus Grieve-Smith says:

    The 7 line over Queens Boulevard is great, but that’s partly because it’s not actually over Queens Boulevard, it’s over the parking areas, which can get pretty loud.

    The 7 line over Roosevelt Avenue is not much fun to be under, and I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who believes otherwise.

    If the technology is there to make the 7 train quieter on Roosevelt, I could probably raise the funds myself in an hour just standing on the corner of Roosevelt and Woodside with a tin can.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    It’s there – it’s called rubber-tired metro. Unfortunately, it tends not to perform very well on iced elevated tracks. Neither of the two obvious solutions – to put the entire system underground, and to move the city south of the snow line – is feasible.

  26. Alex B. says:

    You can make steel rail elevated tracks pretty quiet, but it will cost you. DC’s Metro is pretty quiet on its elevated portions. Likewise, if you’ve ever ridden Detroit’s People Mover or other similar new generation systems, they’re whisper-quiet.

    I’m unsure how much of that is the track (I know some of it is for sure) and how much is the rolling stock, but it can be done.

    That doesn’t eliminate the other problems with elevated lines, but it’s a start.

  27. Bruce says:

    This is a great blog for advice finding reliable couriers and messengers. I’m always on the lookout for good information. Another great place is SME

  28. jacob says:

    Why dose this system have to be so noisy, perhaps the tracks and/or the train wheels should be covered with rubber

    I live close by subway tracks it’s driving me nuts; it also wakes the children up


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