On the allure of Manhattan-centric transit growth


The Triboro RX line would improve transit access in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx but skips over powerful Manhattan.

Historically, the New York City Subway system has always focused on delivering people into the heart of Manhattan. It grew out of the need to bring people from the north, south and east to Wall St. and spread it tentacles through midtown, upper Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs always shuttling people to what we now know as the Manhattan Central Business District. The alluring draw of Manhattan still dictates the city’s expansionist transit policies, but should it?

The MTA likes to tout its megaprojects, and since the start of the century, they have embarked on a rather ambitious expansion plan to grow the transit network. The Second Ave. Subway will alleviate congestion on the Lexington Ave. IRT while better providing transit access from the Upper East Side to Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The 7 line extension will open up a new frontier of development along Manhattan’s Far West Side while East Side Access will bring LIRR to Manhattan’s East Side. The Fulton St. Transit Center and the new South Ferry station are all a part of the comprehensive effort to develop Lower Manhattan.

Take a deep breath because that’s a lot of Manhattan. At a time when areas in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens are undergoing rapid transformation as residential neighborhoods, job centers and desirable places for growth, the New York City subway system remains singularly focused on bringing people into Manhattan, its own job since the early 1900s. On the one hand, it should be concerned with Manhattan because most commuters want to get to and from Manhattan every day, and since Manhattan is an island, it has only so many entry points.

On the other, the Manhattan-centric nature of the subway system makes interborough and some intra-borough travel quite complicated or convoluted. It’s nigh impossible to travel from Bay Ridge to JFK Airport on the subway without a considerable investment in time, and many of the job centers focused around health care remain frustratingly out of the way for straphangers. Yet, the only non-Manhattan projects involve some Select Bus Service corridors that take forever to go from planning to reality.

Meanwhile, city officials starting at the top are making noises about another Manhattan-centric subway project. Mayor Bloomberg, as we know, wants to build an extension of the 7 train to Secaucus. Doing so would funnel more workers from Hudson County, New Jersey, into Midtown via the Hudson Yards development. It’s a developer’s dream and one that would improve both mobility and desirability west of the Hudson.

That said, I don’t blame Staten Island politicians who feel slighted over the rumored plans. The city would rather build the subway to New Jersey than ponder Outer Borough expansion plans. After all, those expansion plans wouldn’t have the same impact as a subway that funnels commuters straight into midtown would. Still, as Bloomberg draws responses to his proposal for a new high tech campus somewhere in the city, the push to add jobs outside of Manhattan will inevitably lead to demand for better transit options.

The short wishlist of Outer Borough transit projects is centered around the Triboro RX line. Last mentioned by the MTA in 2008 as part of Lee Sander’s 40-year plan, the Triboro RX line would use preexising rights-of-way and tracks to connect Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx while staying clear of Manhattan. It would pass through job hubs and offer connections to at least 17 other subway lines. It could be amended to cross the Narrows to Staten Island and would extend somewhere into the Bronx.

Beyond that, the city could use better transit access to LaGuardia, a Nostrand and/or Utica Ave. subway extension and service past Flushing/Main St. on the 7 line. None of these projects offer the sexy political allure of Manhattan, but they would do wonders for mobility in and around the region. The dollars and the will though just aren’t there, and we’ll watch as Manhattan remains, for better or worse, the center of attention.

Addendum: As the good Cap’n just reminded me, he offered up his take on Manhattan recently. Check out this piece for a different view on why Manhattan has all the fun.

Categories : Manhattan

66 Responses to “On the allure of Manhattan-centric transit growth”

  1. Alex C says:

    Convert the Dyre Ave line to IND (it was originally run as an IND line anyways, though with IRT equipment) and send this RX up to Eastchester. The ROW is all there, just clean it up. Seriously, this could probably be done for a fraction of what Bloomberg wants for the 7 to Jersey. And probably 2nd Avenue subway to 125.

    • Chris says:

      Alex –

      Are you talking about extending the Dyre ave line (ex NY B & W) through Pelham and Mount Vernon? That’ll never fly in our suburbs, though the full route to White Plains would make sense if the right of way still existed.

      But I agree with you about extending the 2nd ave line to 125th street. But I’d go one step further – why not make a left turn at 125 st, and make the upper section a crosstown line going to Broadway….?


    • Anon256 says:

      Running TriboroRX straight up to Dyre Ave would prevent it from serving the South Bronx, and impose significant costs for what riders would probably consider inferior service (since most Dyre Ave riders currently have a one-seat ride to Manhattan). Better might be to run it through the St Mary’s tunnel as proposed (with a transfer to a new elevated station on the 2/5) but then turn up the Park Ave Metro North right of way to at least Fordham, providing convenient rapid transit service to areas that haven’t had it since the 3rd Ave El came down.

  2. Caelestor says:

    The Triboro RX line is nice, but I prioritize completion of a subway under 2nd Ave, Northern Blvd, and Utica Ave because the ridership is there. Though I agree that Triboro is fourth in line to be built to relieve stress on the subway in Manhattan, it’s sort of a wild card in that its route is contrary to the traditional commutes that have developed since WWII (i.e. outer borough to Manhattan CBD).

    • Alon Levy says:

      I’ll buy 2nd Avenue just because of the capacity problems on the Lex, but the rest are less cost-effective. They’ll carry many more riders than Triboro, but they’ll also cost more.

      At least they will assuming Triboro can get the ROW in order. The cost of Triboro as proposed by Michael Frumin consists of digging a few hundreds of meters of tunnel from Melrose to Yankee Stadium, widening a short segment of the ROW in Brooklyn, building stations, and buying out CSX. The second and third costs are fairly trivial; the fourth one is a wildcard, and depends on whether the state can make a sufficiently attractive offer of a freight alternative. (If Amtrak were interested in working with anyone else rather than screwing others over at every available opportunity, it could offer its own woefully underused track pair or an electric district through Penn Station. If.)

      • Joe Steindam says:

        What part of the Triboro RX ROW does CSX own?

      • BoerumHillScott says:

        Building stations will be very expensive, considering that many need to interface with existing stations and all need to be ADA compliant.

        • Woody says:

          Is this a flaw or a feature, to make more station usable by all citizens? If we are serious about making the entire system accessible, folding the cost of the needed elevators into the total budget for a new subway line seems a fairly easy way to get that budget item approved.

          • Eric says:

            It’s a flaw if a half of your budget goes to allow usability for less than 1% of citizens, who in any case have other options (buses).

        • Bolwerk says:

          This is probably not a big deal for a new line, or even for elevated lines. It might be a PITA for existing underground services.

      • Chris says:

        Alon –

        The right of way can be acquired, and the cost of building ADA stations from scratch is negligibly higher than non ADA stations. CSX and NY&Atl. can easily be “bribed” for access to its tracks and rights of way. The trick would be to share access with freight lines and Amtrak across the Hell Gate Bridge (not unheard of in mass transit) to move commuters between Bronx and Queens.

        Now, Amtrak is a tricky partner to deal with – in part because federal policy is geared to hurt the carrier whenever possible. (When Amtrak was created, politicians s wanted it to die, and like zombies and vampires (we just celebrated Halloween here) the undead wouldn’t go away….. But I’m not sure if there’s room for a 4th track on the Hell Gate, and the New York Connecting railroad could be incentivised to share trackage without Amtrak’s cooperation….

        • Anon256 says:

          The Hell Gate is four tracks wide. The difficult part will be between the B/Q and the F. See .

        • Alon Levy says:

          Hell Gate used to have four tracks, two each for passenger and freight trains. Either Conrail or CSX, I forget which, reduced its half of the bridge to single-track.

          Any track-sharing with freight requires sending FRA officials to early retirement. (And should not be done for urban transit anyway). The allure is that with two relatively easy exceptions it’s possible to build a sealed corridor.

          Building wheelchair-accessible stations not in a tunnel is easy. They do it on LRT all the time (with lower boarding height, but boarding height doesn’t really matter when the line is below-grade.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Single-lining is also a tax advantage. Fewer improvements, means less money paid in property taxes to the state and probably city.

            Amazing it would happen on something like the Hell Gate.

      • Woody says:

        Do you mean that Amtrak should offer the track pair that now carries the Acela and in the future might carry the Acela II? Isn’t that kind of track easily worn down by freight trains? What am I missing here?

        • Bolwerk says:

          Probably. Acela isn’t exactly a lot better than freight trains for wear and tear though, so maybe it’s a somewhat lateral move. The NEC has pretty high maintenance costs compared to real high-speed corridors in Europe.

  3. Eric says:

    Triboro RX will mostly help lower income and middle class New Yorkers avoid bringing more money into Manhattan, which is why it will never get built.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Why would it have any effect on whether money is spent in Manhattan, and why is it a bad thing to spend money in Manhattan?

      • Eric says:

        Because the people in charge of these decision and the people in charge of lending the money to finance these decisions only really care about enriching themselves.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Triboro RX seems entirely neutral in that regard, at worst. Or, if they are financing it, they still benefit whether the project is in Manhattan or Malaysia.

  4. Very excellent points made by Mr. Kabak here, and indeed it’s why we New Jersey rail advocates point to HBLRT with pride: Yes, it does help serve Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, but its routing and O/D pairs include other centers of activity. Strip away the state border (or the Hudson Ocean), and one sees exactly the kind of rail service that goes beyond “Manhattan-centric.”

    To be fully honest, however, even New Jersey Transit has a bit too much “Manhattan-uber-alles” mentality invested in its rail operations — and we’ve said so for decades.

  5. Marc Frasier says:

    How much would it cost, relative to other transit projects, to build the Triboro RX line?

  6. Eric F. says:

    Wasn’t there a plan to create a “truck way” along roughly that alignment? If you had a dedicated right of way like that you could allow buses on it during rush hours and allow trucks to use it, getting off of locals roads, the rest of the time. I’m not sure how serious the truck way idea was, but I think the idea was to remove them from some of the interior Brookyn surface streets.

    • Alon Levy says:

      No, the idea was to build a cross-harbor freight tunnel from Jersey City to Bay Bridge and have freight trains displacing trucks. The problem: it’s expensive as fuck (almost as much as the Tappan Zee widening).

      • Eric F. says:

        There most certainly was a proposal to use railroad rights of way in Brooklyn into a truck route. I don’t think it got very far, but it was out there. I heard a NYC DOT official allude to it in a presentation stating that it was “ahead of its time”. I’m not sure if there is an internet presence for the proposal. The lack of a cross Brooklyn expressway make very short mileage freight trips take hours, and the truckway was a method, by half measure, of addressing this flaw in the network.

        I know the freight train excites rail advocates, but absent mass warehousing in Brookyn, which is not going to happpen, I’m at a loss as to how it would help anything. Building a cross harbor multimodal tunnel would be an enormous benefit. Everything from trucks to interstate buses could access Brooklyn, Queens and L.I. without having to run through Manhattan or Staten Island, but I imagine a car toll on such a crossing would be well over $20 in order to finance the thing.

        • Alon Levy says:

          The idea is that it would provide a crossing from Jersey to CSX’s yard in the Bronx, as well as to Long Island. It’s supposed to reduce truck traffic across the bridges by 5-10%.

          The problem with doing the tunnel for trucks is that you need multiple lanes for that as well as more mechanical ventilation, and this increases cost. Rail, for all its faults, is unbeatable for capacity per unit of ROW width or cross-section.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Coming to think of it, on the other hand, rail also is much worse at climbing grades. So it could increase the cost of the tunnel to have a ruling grade of 1% rather than 4%.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Eh, well, don’t let that dissuade you. Even with a consistent 1% grade, the entire Brooklyn-side landing footprint can very likely be under a single, narrow street given that the plan right now is for a single track.

  7. Steve S. says:

    CSX holds some of the most useful underutilized transportation corridors, not just in New York, but throughout the Northeast. One of the major problems of dealing with them is that if one is looking to acquire their corridor (for non-FRA-compliant transit service, like the RX here) they’ll usually tender a blatantly overpriced offer, no matter how much the actual value is the appraisers estimate. Another key issue is that these corridors are actually quite antiquated for freight use–again, this is not just a New York problem–but neither the railroad nor the government seem interested in committing money to either upgrade or replace them…the government, in particular, preferring instead to promulgate brain-dead zombie sprawl-promoting Old Economy projects like the Tappan Zee bridge.

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    Most outer borough trips are local. Manhattan has the highest average payroll per worker in the U.S., which is why people will travel a long way to get there.

    Why take a $35,000 per year in Queens when you live in Brooklyn or vice versa.

    The mode with the big potential for increased use in the other boroughs other than Staten Island is bicycle. At Staten Island densities, you have to look to carpooling, because they are stuck with the car.

  9. Peter says:

    The Bayridge Branch and the former PRR Hell Gate Line, then? Dont forget the woefully underutilized LIRR Montauk Branch along Newtown Creek to Jamaica, or the moribund Rego Park Cutoff – the REAL one-seat JFK-Midtown route. If transportation advocates dont act soon, the Rego Park line will be taken over by High Line Wannabees, and a crucial transportation Right of Way will be lost forever.

    • Alex C says:

      The MTA still owns the ROW, despite people living along the Rockaway branch sometimes illegally just spreading their backyards onto it.

  10. BrooklynBus says:

    Ben, no argument with you on this one.

    This is what gets me how planning is done here and perhaps all over. When someone suggests a good idea, the political response is that the matter has to be studied. If the initial feasibility study is favorable, then detailed studies are needed. Once that is done, then we have environmental reviews, ULURP, etc. Meanwhile five or ten years pass, costs rise and opposition starts building and NIMBYs take control. The project is then stopped and nothing is accomplished and all the study money is wasted, but all the engineering firms are happy and so are the politicians because their friends have gotten paid, but the public is once again screwed.

    But look what happens when a powerful politician like Mayor Bloomberg wants something done like extending the #7 line. Where is the study that shows that this is the best way to spend limited resources? If there was one, I’m sure it wasn’t an objective one, but one where the conclusions were drawn in advance. Then all the other studies are rushed and the project is completed. That’s why I’m not so sure that the extension to NJ will not go through while projects like the Triboro RX will continue to languish no matter how much popular support it has.

  11. TP says:

    Most of the outer boroughs are zoned for low density and high parking minimums. There’s no great way to serve these neighborhoods with amazing transit, and other than a few targeted areas for growth like the Williamsburg waterfront and Long Island City, the movement is toward reducing allowable density in most of the outer boroughs, at least as far as DCP’s rezonings and the NIMBYs who love them. People get up in arms when developers actually start building new construction that takes advantage of the maximum allowable densities/parking minimums, yell at the city about traffic and blocked views, and DCP saves the day with a downzoning. This doesn’t bode well for ramping up transit service.

    Manhattan is the focus of transit because it’s the highest density part of the city. It makes sense. Want highrises with no off-street parking in Flatlands or Staten Island? No? Then no new transit for you. The dream of a single family home in a neighborhood where you can hear a pin drop but a subway running every 5 minutes at your front door isn’t going to become reality.

    Not that I’m against the Triboro RX or any other Outer Borough transit improvement, but it’s not some vast conspiracy that the Outer Boroughs aren’t the focus of transit in NYC.

    • Jason says:

      By upzoning the outer-boros to increase density it would also combat the sprawl of the metro-region as there would be plenty more residential units available to the many who want to, but simply can’t afford to live here under the current system. Then, when the population rises, outer-boro citizens will demand these projects happen.

      Alas, too many entrenched interests to see this happen.

    • BrooklynBus says:

      The thing is if you want the up zoning, you put in the transit line first and then up zone. You don’t up zone and hope to make the transit improvements later because it doesn’t happen that way. The up zoning is accomplished without any transit improvements. So people buy cars and there is more congestion. You wouldn’t think of developing an area and then add sewer lines and sidewalks after the area is built would you?

      Transit needs to work the same way. As far as buses are concerned, those improvements must be made at the same time the area is developed, but the MTA makes us wait sometimes five or ten years for reroutings or new routes that should have started on Day One and only make those changes after strong political outcries. In some cases developments exist for fifty years and the improvements are never made.

      • Christopher says:

        It could and should be a duel process. In fact upzoning and TIFs in those new zones to pay for transit improvements is exactly how other cities (including those in the U.S.) are paying for transit improvement projects.

        There are however places within the current network that could be upzoned and used to pay for improvements. Areas along the M in Brooklyn and Queens as well as the A/C could handle more capacity and are in need of transit investment. Projects that could be funded by increasing zoning. I live along the M in Bushwick. There are two fast food restaurants surrounded by parking and a strip mall between Knickerbocker and Myrtle Ave / Wyckoff. Those are prime areas for incrreased density and height that could be used to improve the sorry state of the stations on the M.

      • Alon Levy says:

        You can do both simultaneously, really. Upzoning takes a few years to lead to new development, which then takes a bit of time to fill up. The MTA could announce upzoning at the same time it began construction of Triboro. For example, it could increase commercial intensity at the 74th/Broadway station, which would gain a third subway trunk line; in anticipation of the new service, developers could then build new office space and rent it to companies willing to move once the line were completed.

  12. AlexB says:

    Ironically, I think the thing that keeps more money flowing to Manhattan is that it is the only part of the city that everyone shares. Because everyone at some point will have to go into Manhattan for something, everyone eventually uses everything that gets built there, and these improvements are done on “neutral” ground. Look at the 7 extension. As flawed as it is, it has already put Staten Island against New Jersey. Every time money goes to one borough, all the other boroughs ask, “why not me?” In order for improvements to occur city-wide, everybody has to get something. Something the whole city could get behind (and has gotten behind in repeated city-wide transit plans): a Utica Subway and/or extensions of the 2/5 down Nostrand or Flatbush, a subway connection from Staten to Brooklyn vie the 4th Ave line, a 3rd Ave subway in the Bronx, and eastern Queens extensions of the E, F, and/or 7 trains.

  13. Daniel says:

    I thought the original plan to extend the 7 to 34th Street to be incomplete and that it should have been continued down to 14th Street to create an transfer point with an extended L train to the westside. If extending the 7 to Secaucus is preferred and somehow approved, then perhaps the L should extend west and up to 34th Street to connect there.

    Another idea that has come to mind is Brooklyn/Queens-centric. Why not study the idea of extending the G train from Long Island City up 21st Street to Ditmars and hang it East to LaGuardia airport? 21st Street is a main stretch through Long Island City and Astoria and would accommodate many low income areas in the Ravenswood and Hallets Cove region of western Queens. By sending the train along Ditmars (or even 21st Ave) and towards LaGuardia.

    • Jeff says:

      The commotion over the previous proposal to extend the Astoria Line to LGA probably killed any chance of building anything in that neighborhood.

      The only way we will get a line to LaGuardia would be over highway ROWs IMO, like what the PA did with the JFK Airtrain.

    • Eric says:

      I think this be a great idea, if the connections were right (transfers at Ditmars Blvd for the N/Q and at Queensbridge for the F)– but then would you run the G through to Queens Plaza and then go to 21st Street?

      You’d have great connections to the west side, east side, and midtown with this.

  14. ajedrez says:

    By the way, I’d just like to point out that the trip from JFK to Bay Ridge is still hard, but it has been made at least a little bit easier by the connection of the (R) and (A) at Jay Street.

  15. Daniel says:

    Jeff, the Astoria (N/Q) line is elevated and not what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting extending the G train from Court Square, up 21st and across the Ditmars/Steinway area underground to LAG.

  16. It’s all a wonderful idea, but I think there is an inherent problem with the way people are used to traveling between the outer boroughs. There is a train that doesn’t go through Manhattan, serving ‘up and coming’ neighborhoods, yet it runs low frequency, half-capacity service. The beloved (G), of course. I would worry that another outer borough-only line would fall to the same fate as the (G).

    Don’t get me wrong, being a Queens native and current resident, I would LOVE for this plan to go through. I just worry that there are a lot of factors going against despite a fair amount of infrastructure already being prevalent.

    • Eric says:

      The fact that the G runs short trains is really indefensible from a public service viewpoint. I know why the MTA does it, but really–people get into this habit of defending everything the MTA does to save money even if it negatively impacts people’s lives.

      • Clarke says:

        Another major downfall of the G is that its connections are lacking. A connection to the J/M at Broadway/Hewes and Fulton to Atlantic/Pacific would be a major windfall for outerborough connections.

  17. Daniel says:

    I remember discussions on extended the old V line from the 2nd Ave/Houston Stop (really – it’s 1st Ave) under the East River and through to Greenpoint where it’d connect with the G train track. Greenpoint and Williamsburg could use another line. The L was not designed with an express track and with today’s development just across the river, the L is always packed.

  18. SHARON says:

    ONE EASY project that requires ZERO construction costs that would greatly improve transit in sheeps head bay, bensonhurst and all lines that connect through stillwell terminal is to run D train for instances through stillwell up the q line and q trains through stillwell up the d line. There are often a hundred or more people who make this difficult transfer per train and many more would use such a service if offered.

    A ride that now takes me between 30 min to an hour(71th street d line to sheepshead bay q line) would be made much easier

  19. Bruce says:

    Unfortunately, without a direct link into Manhattan, I believe this will remain just a dream. So, I would propose instead that the RX instead make a left turn in Woodside, trough a relatively short tunnel into the Sunnyside yards area, and then connect to the 63rd Street tunnel where the F-train’s infrequency leaves plenty of room for another train. Sorry Bronx! I just think this would be the most politcally appealing way to utilize that long ROW through Brooklyn and Queens.

    • Anon256 says:

      The north half of TriboroRX is an obvious extension of the M train from Metropolitan Ave, the south half is an obvious extension/branch of the L train from New Lots Ave. Those wanting to travel between the halves could transfer at Myrtle-Wyckoff. Both halves would have direct service to Manhattan, with no new tunneling required.

    • If you want to get really creative with a Manhattan connection, how about after the Hell Gate Bridge, the RX enters Manhattan at 125 Street and goes across 125th to Broadway via the ‘Second Avenue Subway – ‘Phase 5”.

      Just another pipe dream for an avid transit fan!

      • chemster says:

        Much as I would like to see a cross-town subway at 125th street (Imagine – a subway linking the 4/5/6, the 2/3, the A/B/C/D, and the 1 at 125th street!), going all the way over to Broadway could be a problem — have you ever seen the station on Broadway? Here’s a wikipedia link. As you can see, that’s up pretty high… whereas the A/B/C/D isn’t. But still — even stopping at the A/B/C/D would be a good thing!

        • Eric says:

          I don’t think it would be a great loss not to connect a 125th St crosstown line with the 1 since it would ostensibly be built with a connection to the 2/3.

      • Caelestor says:

        This idea has surfaced a lot on the forums, but unfortunately it can’t work because the rapid, short descent from the bridge into a tunnel would be too steep.

  20. Woody says:

    Many politicians in “the City” are strongly pro-transit. Is there ANY politico in the Outer Boros who is pro-tranisit? Aren’t they ALL pro-car and pro-car only?

    Who do we think will push for the Triboro RX, or any significant part thereof — Marty Markowitz? John Liu? So it’s not just exactly Manhattan being piggy, is it?

    • Anon256 says:

      I would think a major attraction of a “Triboro” style line would be either to show such outer borough politicians a way their constituents could benefit from transit spending, or show their constituents a way they could benefit by electing pro-transit politicians.

  21. dungone says:

    I think that Staten Island would best be served by linking up to New Jersey Transit. But you didn’t really hear Staten Island politicians pushing the city throw some of its weight behind the ARC tunnel, which would have made for an ideal commute when combined with a short rail extension across an existing rail bridge to their island. Would have been a win-win for both states.

    • ajedrez says:

      Except that they’re doubtful that the short extension to SI would be built, and as an SIer, I can’t blame them.

      • dungone says:

        Come on… there was no initiative, no politician even floated the idea… they were happy enough that none of their tax money would ever go to that transit project. But now that the city is looking to take the 7 to Secaucus, they’re quick to demand a tunnel all the way from Manhattan. As if all the Staten Island taxes in the world could ever pay for that tunnel.

  22. Kevin Walsh says:

    You always hear proposals for subways in existing open cut railroads — they’re practical and make a lot of sense. The Bay Ridge Branch makes sense, as does the Montauk Branch and unused Rockaway Branch.

    Except for the people who live in those neighborhoods, who don’t want outsiders to be going through. And they’re the ones who have the politicians’ ear.

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