Staten Island is often called the forgotten borough by New York’s transit literati. With only some local and express bus routes connecting through to other boroughs and the Staten Island Railway as its only train line, the borough plays host to a high car ownership rate and is relatively disconnected from New York City Transit’s extensive four-borough subway network. For nearly 100 years, Staten Islanders have clamored for a subway connection to nearby Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, and at every turn, the project has been shunted aside over costs or worse.
A 1912 article in The New York Times introduces us to a plan to build a subway to Staten Island under the Narrows. The piece focuses on how real estate values in Tompkinsville and Rosebank were on the rise amidst rumors of a direct subway connection to Manhattan’s Broadway line via a tunnel from Brooklyn that would parallel 67th St. in Kings County, and developers were excited about the future of Staten Island real estate. “In the first place, all Staten Island will not be greatly benefited because there is a large portion of the Borough of Richmond where there are no trolley lines connecting to with the future subway,” William E. Harmon said.
Harmon also mentioned the proposed terminus of this underwater subway route. “The end of the Staten Island subway is, according to present plans, to be at Arrietta Street, about five minutes’ walk from St. George’s Ferry,” he said. Today, Arrietta St. is better known as St. Marks Place, and the subway would spurred both south and north to make a connection with the Staten Island Railway.
Even though the Board of Estimates approved this subway connection to Staten Island on July 11, 1912 and the Mayor William Jay Gaynor followed suit on July 16, the subway was slow to materialize. A 1915 letter to the editor of The Times from Robert T. Cone highlights how borough activists were dying for a subway. Cone noted how travel took three times as long as it should have on the ferry and how Staten Island, if developed properly, could house 3 million taxpayers. He advocated for a two-track subway connection as well as a two-track freight connection from Staten Island to Manhattan. It was an ambitious plan indeed.
Four years later, the issue of a Staten Island subway connection again reared its head. Proponents of any subway plan had decided that a connection to Brooklyn via the 67th St. tunnel would be too indirect and the trip too long, and so they proposed a direct Manhattan-to-Staten Island tunnel. The Staten Island Subway Committee called for one of two routes: either a direct route to Battery Park via Ellis and Bedlow Islands under “the shallows of the bay of Robbins Reef and thence under Kill Van Kull” or by subway via Ellis Island to “within the bulkhead line below Communipaw [in Jersey City]; thence on an elevated structure just within the bulkhead line to a point near Robbins Reef; thence by subway under the Kill Van Kull.” The committee declined to include any cost estimates but assumed the net increase in tax assessments would eventually cover the price of this lengthy subway expansion.
In 1921, optimism was on the rise as the city promised residents of Richmond a subway expansion. For $25 million, the city would build a tunnel under the Narrows and connect Staten Island with the BMT routes in Bay Ridge. In present-day values, that $25 million would be approximately $297 million — or the equivalent of a few blocks of the Second Ave. Subway. At the time, the Board of Estimates had yet to determine if the subway to Staten Island would go under 67th St. or continue from the BMT’s terminal at 86th St.
In 1925, with the BMT in dire fiscal straits, the city’s engineers seemingly torpedoed the subway. That optimistic $25 million was far too low, they said. According to a survey, the real cost in 1925 would have been at least $40 million, and city engineers said they could build a bridge spanning the Narrows for $90 million. “But where a tunnel, if built, could be used only for rapid transit,” The Times said, “a bridge could carry not only vehicular traffic, on which tolls could be charged, but might be so constructed as to afford an outlet for freight cars.”
And thus died the subway to Staten Island. The plan for a bridge meanwhile laid dormant for decades. In the mid-1950s, Robert Moses revived the plan to span the Narrows, but much to the chagrin of The Times, writing in 1955, Moses declined to provide space for rail service on what would become the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. When the bridge opened in 1965, the paper called it “more of an esthetic and engineering marvel than a way to get to Staten Island.” Without rail, it would become dominated by cars, and Staten Islanders were left waiting for that rail connection to the rest of the city. It’s 2010 now, and they’re still waiting.