For the past few years, I’ve been following along as the MTA, at the behest of local Staten Island politicians, has reexamined the fallow right-of-way on Staten Island’s North Shore. When last we checked in on this story, the MTA had narrowed the choices considerable and seemed to be deciding between a light rail option and a truly dedicated bus route. Predictably and to my chagrin, the MTA has decided to endorse a bus route over the old rail right-of-way.
In a study unveiled to the public last week and obtained by Streetsblog on Friday [PDF], the authority delved into its thinking behind endorsing a bus rapid transit line. Overall, the Alternatives Analysis tried to meet three goals. It had to identify an option that improved mobility while preserving and enhancing the environment, natural resources and open spaces and also maximizing the MTA’s limited financial resources. With the right-of-way already secured, the authority had to identify something then that wouldn’t cost a crippling amount to implement while still providing the other benefits identified. Light rail would have allowed for a potential spur over the Bayonne Bridge and into New Jersey while a true bus rapid transit route would better distribute current and future riders throughout Staten Island.
So how did the BRT option win? The numbers, as identified in the study, seem to make it a winner. According to the MTA’s report, a bus rapid transit line would allow for a 23-minute trip from West Shore Plaza to the Ferry Terminal. That’s two minutes slower than the light rail option, but the authority estimated that, with additional bus lines using the ROW, estimated AM peak ridership would reach 12,100 with the bus line and just 10,590 with a light rail. Operating costs for a bus line would be around $500,000 per year less than light rail, and the capital costs pale in comparison. Light rail would cost $645 million while installing the infrastructure for true BRT would cost $371 million.
Should we be satisfied by this answer though? I am a bit skeptical of the ridership estimates. By including bus lines with stops outside of the busway — including preexisting lines that would be rerouted — the MTA has seemingly inflated the number of bus riders who would take advantage of the busway. This is the so-called “open” busway model that would include exit points from the dedicated ROW for routes heading to other points on Staten Island. Still, considering how light rail can run higher capacity vehicles more frequently, it’s tough to see how exactly a bus lane would carry more passengers than a properly designed and integrated light rail system.
Meanwhile, the study seems to give short shrift to environmental concerns as well. Only a box of checkmarks notes that BRT could have a high impact on air quality. Light rail would be a far cleaner transportation option, and if environmental concerns were truly on the table, it wasn’t weighted too heavily here.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised though. New York City has been singularly hesitant to embrace any sort of light rail. A 42nd St. proposal that would reshape midtown has gained no traction, and alternatives for Brooklyn and Queens have never been regarded as realistic options for underserved areas. Staten Island has a dedicated right-of-way and an easy connection to a preexisting light rail line, albeit one in another state, but this option too was left on the table.
Ultimately, though, as Noah Kazis noted, this entire discussion may be a moot one for the foreseeable future. Even at a modest cost of a few hundred million dollars, the MTA can’t yet afford to do anything here, and it still would have to send this project through an engineering and environmental review process. Right now, the North Shore Alternatives Analysis is nothing more than a thought experiment that deserves a better future. When the money is there, perhaps the rail option will be as well.