Half a political lifetime ago, Bill de Blasio seemed interested in extending transit to under-served neighborhoods on his own. He didn’t require a giant push from real estate interests looking to boost property values in already-gentrified neighborhoods, and he seemed on the verge of following through on Mayor Bloomberg’s realization that the city could bypass Albany by funding its own subway expansion plans. That moment involved the OneNYC proposal and the Mayor’s call for a study to assess a Utica Ave. subway.
Perhaps we — the general transit-lovin’ community of New Yorkers who pay close attention to this kind of stuff — got too excited by it. After all, when I went back tonight to re-read my post from April of 2015, it seems clear that de Blasio wasn’t asking for much. He wanted a study of Utica Ave. and committed the bare minimum of dollars to the project. But as we sit here in 2017, the year in which the MTA was expected to spend the dollars for the study, nothing has happened.
As a refresher, the Utica Ave. request was open-ended. The mayor’s proposal called for “a study to explore the expansion of the subway system south along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the densest areas of the city without direct access to the subway. ” The MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan took up the call and morphed this request into a study of an “extension of the Eastern Parkway line to provide service on the 3 and 4 lines along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The study will be coordinated with the City of New York and may examine extension options, supporting land use changes, and financing strategies.” The MTA allocated the $5 million as a 2017 line item, but nothing has happened.
Recently, two pieces explored just what is going on with the Utica Ave. study. In November, writing for The Village Voice, Stephen Miller found a bunch of nothing happening, and a few weeks ago, writing for Gotham Gazette, Elena Burger found a bunch of nothing happening. I’m sensing a theme. The relevant pieces seem to tell the same story. From Miller:
The MTA told the Voice that before work gets going, it is talking with the city to get a better idea of what the de Blasio administration is looking to get out of the study, before hiring a consultant to prepare the report next year. “DOT is actively working with the MTA and the Department of City Planning on a study of the extension of the Utica Avenue subway line,” a transportation department spokesperson said.
The city might claim it’s “actively working,” but elected officials along the route have yet to hear anything. “It’s really been quiet,” said Assembly Member N. Nick Perry. “Our office hasn’t been included in any of the planning meetings for the Utica Avenue subway, if there have been any,” said a spokesperson for State Senator Kevin S. Parker. “As of yet, there has not been outreach by the MTA or DOT to my office regarding the Utica Avenue subway extension study,” State Senator Jesse Hamilton said in a statement.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams said his office checked in with the MTA after the Voice started asking questions. “We haven’t had much conversation,” he said. “There’s money there for a study. We do want to find out when it’s going to start and get more information about it.”
Three months later, the same people had much the same to say to Burger:
But elected officials and residents have heard little about the planned study — which was scheduled to be conducted in the current fiscal year ending June 30 — and are beginning to voice their complaints about a lack of communication from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation.
“I definitely wasn’t consulted, I do know about the study, but I wasn’t told about it.” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents the East Flatbush district where the line would be built. Williams said he had to contact the DOT directly after he learned about the study in 2015, and ask for an update himself. “My hope is that maybe with this new study, they’re trying to get us more involved…but the reality is I don’t think many of us are aware,” he said.
…State Assemblymember N. Nick Perry, whose district includes Williams’ constituency, said he has been given scant information on the proposed study. “I know there’s been a little noise about this, but I haven’t heard anything more,” Perry said. “So far it’s still something in the pipeline and it may be quite a long pipeline.”
An MTA spokesperson told Berger that the agency, along with NYC DOT “launched the study process last year.” It’s not entirely clear what that means as no one really wants to talk about it and politicians have not been involved in the process. We’ll see if anything comes of it.
But just because nothing is happening doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here. Setting aside the question as to whether a Utica Ave. subway extension is a better use of dollars than, say, the BQX (spoiler alert: it is), this type of transit planning limbo is what happens when dollars and a champion don’t materialize. Bill de Blasio never really cared about the Utica Ave. subway. Likely, some staffer inserted a paragraph into the OneNYC report and billed as a way to draw attention to increased mobility in a middle income area without particularly robust transit options. The mayor didn’t object, but he allocated the bare minimum of dollars for the project. It seems you can’t even buy a study for $5 million, let alone plans for a subway line.
For a project of this nature — or really any transit project in 2017 — to become a reality, it needs a champion. It needs someone who will make the case for the project start to finish, and more important, it needs someone who deliver all of the dollars for the project and not just a token amount of pocket change to burnish those bona fides. Even more than the BQX, the Utica Ave. subway was a nice bit of vaporware. At some point, there may be a study, but don’t hold your breath for a subway. No one in power seems to care enough.