Could Staten Island be the home of New York City’s first true light rail line? Based on an analysis conducted by the MTA concerning ways to improve transportation along the borough’s North Shore, it very well might be.
The North Shore Alternatives Analysis, presented last week at Snug Harbor (and available here as a PDF), has been a long time coming. Nearly two years ago, the MTA announced a engineering study that would examine ways to reactivate transit along the old North Shore Rail Line right of way, and the agency started the Alternatives Analysis phase of the project in April 2010. New York’s Empire Development Corporation has called upon the MTA to reactivate the rail line, and now the MTA has whittled its options down to three.
The sexiest choice concerns a light rail network that would run from the Ferry Terminal to the West Shore Plaza. The 15-stop line is estimated to cost $581 million (in 2010 dollars) to construct and would improve travel times from St. George to West Shore Plaza by as much as 35 minutes. The MTA says that light rail would be ” more
compatible than heavy rail with potential plans for connecting services.” I optimistically take that to mean a connection across the Bayonne Bridge.
As far as the light rail details go, the Alternatives Analysis made a few assumptions. First, the Clifton Staten Island Railway shop could be modified to include light rail maintenance. Second, any work would have to include a new car wash, body shop and fueling station in Arlington.
The next option would involve tearing up any rail tracks, paving the right-of-way and turning it into an exclusive busway. By adding eight stops, this alternative could speed travel by as much as 33 minutes end-to-end, but it would carry a substantial price tag as well. The MTA estimates $352 million in capital costs, and for a only a busway, that seems excessive.
The third alternative is called the Transportation System Management. Similar to the required no-build option added to environmental impact statements, this alternative examines ways in which the MTA could improve service by essentially restructuring existing service but doing nothing else. For $37 million, TSM would improve travel times by a whopping 60 seconds.
So what happens next? The MTA is essentially trying to determine which of three alternatives will improve mobility while preserving and enhancing the North Shore’s environment, natural resources and open source and maximizing limited financial resources for the so-called greater public benefit. Over the next few months, the MTA will assess potential ridership figures, conduct traffic analysis for station sites and beging some conceptual engineering and cost refinements. It is, in essence, a pre-environmental impact review designed to identify the locally preferred alternative. They have already begun to solicit community feedback on this plan.
As a believer that no transit options are going to be faster than a dedicated rail line, I’d love to see the MTA pick light rail. It would provide a fast ride across Staten Island and the opportunity to connect into New Jersey. But of course, light rail would present its own set of challenges. New York City has no light rail infrastructure, and bringing it to Staten Island would require the MTA to build up from scratch a light rail support system. It’s not impossible, but for the current MTA, it’s ambitious.
Then there is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. I can see Staten Island becoming one of the MTA’s next great mega-projects, but it’s going to take some time. The $580 million (in today’s money) won’t materialize over night, and the MTA has to finish part of the Second Ave. Subway and the East Side Access project before funding another megaproject. Still, that a potential light rail line would cost something with millions at the end of it instead of billions could be its saving grace. Furthermore, New York City wants to redevelop Staten Island’s North Shore, and providing better transit is a key part of that plan. The dollars might somehow materialize.
So for now, there are rumblings of a plan. Nothing is concrete, but over the next few months and years, transit developments could come to Staten Island. It’s about time.