As New York politicians look around the country (and hopefully the world) for ideas on expanding transit, they often find themselves drawn to light rail. The revival of the old streetcar networks along fixed rail routes has been en vogue in recent years as cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Minneapolis to D.C. and beyond have installed new systems. In our city, light rail has lived among the margins of transit advocacy with a the Vision42 initiative and Bob Diamond’s Red Hook trolley idea the only streetcar/light rail plans out there. Now, a few months after developers discussed the “cool idea” of a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront route, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez wants NYC’s Department of Transportation to explore light rail in New York City.
The ask is a modest one. As Politco New York’s Gloria Pazmino reports, Rodriguez, the chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, has asked for a feasibility study. Where to begin is the tough part, but Rodriguez is, at least, thinking about means to improve mobility. “This is not a new idea in New York City,” Rodriguez said. “There have been advocate groups and others who have wanted the city to install a light rail corridor around 42nd Street in Manhattan and other areas. This is an effort to begin a discussion about an alternative way to improve transportation in New York City.”
Whether NYC needs to reinvent the wheel or improve the efficiency of the one it already has is up for debate, and Pazmino tackles the challenges an effort to introduce light rail to New York City may face. She writes:
Building a light rail system in the already crowded streets of Manhattan would be no small feat. Rodriguez’s bill would direct DOT to begin a one-time study to build the rail, include recommendations for how to do it, and if it would help to increase mass transit in areas of the city that are currently underserved by other forms of public transportation. “That system would allow pedestrians to use the light rail to transport to other places and in areas that are isolated and not connected with trains, and that can benefit them,” Rodriguez said…
Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area. First, he wants to learn what it would cost and how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters. “The whole idea is to get DOT to conduct the study. Based on the study, we will have a better idea on the feasibility of bringing in a light rail. I do not want to jump into conclusions about any particular area,” Rodriguez said.
Rich Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, said the idea is worth studying, but the question will be whether a possibly massive first investment will be worth it in the long run. “A light rail in the city is something that is reasonable and could be explored, but we have to consider the cost, and consider the infrastructure you would have to put in to support the service,” Barone said.
As with any new transit system, the biggest challenge is developing a network from the get-go. We can talk about installing light rail along 42nd St. — certainly a worthwhile project that would improve river-to-river mobility while cutting down on traffic — and we can talk about a waterfront line. But these two divergent systems wouldn’t rely on shared infrastructure, thus raising initial capital costs for shops and rolling stock considerably. (Any new light rail system should also be integrated into the MTA’s fare network so that riders aren’t double-charged, but that’s a different concern.)
That is not to say we should rule out light rail for New York City. It’s shown tremendous potential for urban growth throughout the country, and it could be a way to combat the MTA’s unsustainable capital construction costs while reengineering NYC’s street space. Imagine, for instance, instead of a 2nd Ave. Subway, a 2nd Ave. dedicated to two-way light rail and full-length bike lanes with cars eliminated from that north-south route, all for far less than the cost (but also far less the capacity) of the 2nd Ave. line. Or, more feasibly, imagine a light rail through less dense parts of Queens and Brooklyn that aren’t connected to the subways.
The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option that a bus network. There is a psychological element involved as riders prefer the reliability of a fixed-rail system with dedicated running spaces, but real BRT could address those concerns as well without the capital outlay. Ultimately, it may make more sense to reform MTA spending and examine unused rail ROWs throughout the city, but studying light rail has its place in the NYC transit dialogue. I hope something interesting comes of Ydanis Rodriguez’s request.