When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his Brooklyn-Queens light rail proposal earlier this month, various commentators latched onto the selection of the route. It may not necessarily be a bad routing for a light rail line, but as the city’s first and as the city’s transit deserts go, the waterfront from Sunset Park to Astoria is hardly the most wanting corridor. The proposal came about more because it had deep-pocketed champions willing to fight for it. Whether that’s reason enough to build a new transit route with a new-to-New York transit mode has been a topic of constant debate over the past few weeks, but one thing is for sure: Other transit-starved areas aren’t too happy with this approach.
Enter the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. For years, the SIEDC has been shouting into the void of New York politics. For years, the group has been urging someone in power to take up their calls for a West Shore light rail line. The group has asked for $5 million to perform the alternatives analysis for a proposed 13.1-mile route that could connect to North Shore transit corridor and over the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line. As now, it’s nothing more than a line on paper, and the group is growing frustrated.
They are so frustrated, in fact, that they are threatening to give up. I’m not sure who this threat is directed toward other than the few people at the SIEDC who keep fighting this good fight, but they’re going to give up if no one continues to listen to them. The group sent a letter to a bunch of city officials involved in the Brooklyn-Queens Connector initiative, and as you can see from the excerpts, they are not a happy group right now. Anna Sanders of the Staten Island Advance put together some of the letter:
“A decade of struggle in a world where state and city agencies and transportation groups don’t care about a population center of nearly half a million is just too much to bear,” board directors Ralph Branca, Stanley Friedman and Robert Moore recently wrote to a slew of transportation officials and regional planning organizations…
“Our disappointment is not in the fact that Brooklyn is getting a light rail and that Staten Island is not even getting study money. It’s that all of the excuses used by City, State and Federal agencies and authorities to shoot down the West Shore Light Rail were ignored when proposing the Brooklyn system…”
“We have heard for years that there was ‘No money to fund the West Shore Light Rail.’ Obviously, someone in City Hall found a creative way to make it happen. We have been told that ‘The route is too long, maybe you should phase it in.’ The Brooklyn proposal is the exact same distance as the West Shore Light Rail. We have been instructed time and time again that ‘No agency wants to sponsor, nor do they understand how to build light rail.’ Well, someone must be interested and have the knowledge … when Brooklyn and Queens ask for it.”
Oddly, the letter ends with a threat to abandoned the light rail efforts if no money materializes by the end of September, but that threat hurts only the people who are advocating for a West Shore light rail alternative in the first place. SI politicians who have expressed similar frustration haven’t thrown quite the same temper tantrum. Meanwhile, the Staten Island Advance, while also questioning the SIEDC’s threat, wrote a long editorial accusing the city of double standards and inequity. They’re not wrong, and the piece is well worth a read.
But ultimately, this issue is basic politics. First, Staten Island isn’t exactly a de Blasio stronghold, and certain borough politicians have spent as much time obstructing transit improvements (such as Select Bus Service) as others have spent fighting for more options. Additionally, a light rail line through Staten Island should spur a massive upzoning along its route, and that’s not really part of the conversation Staten Island has had yet. Finally, the reality is that there are no interests behind the a West Shore light rail line. Major players in New York’s development and transportation scene haven’t voiced support, and so it goes nowhere.
Rather than being discouraged by the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, the SIEDC should look to emulate that model and line up monied interests who would support a Staten Island light rail. That’s the political reality of New York’s transportation world where the MTA is controlled by Albany and the mayor isn’t an independently wealthy billionaire beholden only to the limit of his own bank accounts. Again, whether that’s a sound way to engage in transportation planning is a question open debate (and one where the answer is most likely a resounding no), but that’s where we are. Rather than threatening to give up, double down.