Archive for Queens
Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his State of the City speech, is set to announce support for a $2.5 billion plan to build a light rail that would connect the rapidly developing Brooklyn and Queens waterfront areas. The proposal, developed over the past six months by a group of real estate developers, transportation advocates and urban planners calling itself the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, aims to provide better transit options for job centers in Industry City, Red Hook and the Brooklyn Navy Yards while easing the north-south connections between Astoria, Long Island City and parts south throughout Brooklyn. It is not a slam-dunk proposal from a transit perspective, and the city will have to make the case that it is a sound investment considering the city’s competing needs.
We learned about the plan, in fairly specific detail, a few weeks ago when initial studies were leaked to the press, and on Wednesday, Michael Grynbaum of The Times broke news the streetcar would be a headliner during de Blasio’s speech. He wrote:
The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic — a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys…The streetcar system, which would realize a long-held fantasy of the city’s urban planners, is expected to cost about $2.5 billion, significantly less than a new underground subway line, city officials said on Wednesday.
Its operation, however, remains far-off. Under the plan, construction would start in 2019, after studies and community review; service would begin several years after that, perhaps not until 2024, officials said. Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, acknowledged “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.”
But Ms. Glen said the city’s existing transit network no longer met the needs of a metropolis whose commuting patterns have shifted significantly in the last two decades. A streetcar route, she said in an interview, offered a novel and practical fix at a time when federal money for infrastructure is scarce. “The old transportation system was a hub-and-spoke approach, where people went into Manhattan for work and came back out,” Ms. Glen said. “This is about mapping transit to the future of New York.”
The routing is as reported a few weeks back. The system would terminate in Sunset Park near Industry City, travel through Red Hook and then along the waterfront through Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO to the Navy Yards before passing the Two Trees’ Domino development in Williamsburg and journeying through Greenpoint en route to Long Island City and the western edge of Astoria. While early reports aren’t definite on this number, I’ve been told that, despite renderings, the city would like more than 70 percent of the streetcar route to run on a dedicated right of way. Any mixed-traffic plan should be discarded immediately, but those details have yet to be fully made public.
Some of the city’s transit and development experts are excited by the deal. There is a desperate need for north-south transportation between Brooklyn and Queens,” NYU’s Mitchell Moss said to The Times in an earlier version of Grynbaum’s article. “This is going to do more to encourage more housing than any other transit improvement currently underway.”
Others though are less convinced, and in an explosion of analysis early on Wednesday, various folks who contribute to what has been termed Transit Twitter expressed a healthy degree of skepticism directed toward this project. It isn’t, they contended, on a route that isn’t already served by somewhat nearby subway lines or, in some places, very nearby subway lines, including the G train, and buses that run through the areas don’t have ridership that would lend itself to a successful fixed rail system. Plus, for $2.5 billion, the city could effectively ensure enough money for the MTA to bond out the dollars required to build more phases of the Second Ave. Subway and the Utica Ave. subway, two projects that would be more impactful that a new light rail system not prohibitively far from an existing subway route.
There is the question too of the drivers behind this route. Considering the city’s other needs and potential funding opportunities, why a streetcar and why here? Two Trees seems to be a major player in this effort and in waterfront development up and down this Brooklyn Queens Connector corridor, and they stand to benefit the most from more waterfront access. Plus, as The Times notes, this light rail project wouldn’t require state approval or oversight. Thus, de Blasio can push through a major infrastructure project without running into interference from Andrew Cuomo, his gubernatorial nemesis up the road.
Despite the initial objections and the ins and outs of the politics behind this plan, as I said a few weeks ago, I don’t hate this idea so long as it’s implemented properly. The city has been pushing to bring jobs to both Industry City and the Navy Yards, and while few people would take the 27 minute north-to-side ride from Sunset Park to Astoria, a lot of people would ride from one end to the middle or from the middle to an end. (Anyway, who rides the A regularly from Inwood to the Rockaways? That’s not quite the point of a lengthy transit route.) Plus, with a northern terminus planned for Astoria, it’s not a stretch to see a future connection to Laguardia Airport via the BMT’s Ditmars Boulevard terminal. That’s a far more appealing option than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s misguided Willets Point AirTrain.
To be a success, this light rail line must run in its own dedicated lane and, for better or worse, be integrated into the MTA’s fare structure. The city should consider upzoning where possible along its route, but already, many including former NYC DOT planning director Jon Orcutt, don’t believe the funding scheme is realistic. That’s part of the case the mayor will have to make.
Ultimately, it’s a big idea and it’s a new idea with shiny technology that we don’t have here in New York City. That angle is going to drive part of the dialogue around this plan, but in reality, we need to see a rigorous defense that justifies $2.4 billion in light of competing needs. Building because some developers are willing to foot the bill simply supports the idea that there are two New Yorks — one where access to money and power gets things done and another stuck depending change but unable to realize it. Transportation investments that will reverberate through the decades deserve a bit more consideration than that.
For a few hours, at least, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure improvement tour is on hold. Thursday’s announcement concerned the Javits Center, and I’ve learned that he’s going to announce a series of technology-related upgrades, including B Division countdown clocks, for the subways on Friday morning live from the Transit Museum. I don’t know if this announcement is in addition to ongoing MTA efforts to bring this technology to fruition or if the timeline for even a Cuomo project will still be 3-5 years as it’s been for the past five years. We’ll find out soon enough.
Meanwhile, the pause in this tour allows us a chance to examine another story regarding New York City transportation that nearly sneaked in under the radar this week. A few months after hearing about what one person called a “cool idea” to initiate a waterfront streetcar that would connect Brooklyn and Queens, word of the behind-the-scenes consultant work leaked to the Daily News, and we now have an understanding of what one routing for a $1.7 billion streetcar may be. I’ve learned that this is one proposal being examined, and it’s not yet finalized or even exclusive. It can still be revised and amended, and the final suggestion may look different. But here goes.
As Dan Rivoli reported earlier this week, consultants hired by the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector have identified a 17-mile corridor that could support a light rail line running. The group believes it would connect growing job centers such as Industry City and Dumbo with residential areas such as Red Hook that do not currently enjoy particularly efficient or robust transit options. The route would start near the Brooklyn Army Terminal, pass by Industry City, journey to DUMBO via Red Hook, swing past the Navy Yards and waterfront development in Williamsburg before crossing into Long Island City and terminating in Astoria Cove.
Here’s Rivoli’s report with comments from some who have been involved or watching the project:
A study commissioned for a nonprofit called the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector — whose members include transit experts, community leaders and business giants like Doug Steiner of Steiner Studios, investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Helena Durst of the Durst Organization real estate firm — envisions sleek streetcars zipping through 10 neighborhoods along the 17-mile stretch of waterfront land between Sunset Park and Astoria.
The Brooklyn Queens Connector is aimed at linking neighborhoods to new job hubs outside of the Manhattan-centric subway system as the waterfront adds new residential buildings and office space. The study estimates 15.8 million passengers a year in 2035. “Too much of the city is underserved by our transit system, and we need to be looking at ideas like this to create a 21st century network,” said Jill Eisenhard, director of the Red Hook Initiative community group and a member of the nonprofit supporting a tram.
Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said the Brooklyn waterfront is going through a “renaissance” but needs better transit options to spread the benefits. “This is a brilliant way to tie together several different areas, which offer jobs, which offer housing, which offer recreation,” said Moss, who is unaffiliated with the group.
The immediate issues I see with this proposal include the approach to service and funding. First, despite the renderings, anything we consider for the waterfront should not be a mixed-traffic streetcar. If the city, or private interests, plans to invest in light rail, it should be a light rail system with a fully dedicated right of way. It should also integrate with the MTA’s fare payment system so the city isn’t instituting a two-fare system as they’ve done with their ferry network.
Costs too are an issue. The reported initial price tag pegs this project at $1.7 billion, including build-out of infrastructure to support new rolling stock, and a $26 million a year operating budget with 16 million riders per year by 2035. The capital costs are necessarily high due to the need to build new shops and purchase rolling stock, but the operating costs aren’t outrageous. The consultants also maintain that light rail would generate “$3.7 billion of new tax revenue, ‘generating more than enough value to pay for its own construction,’ according to the study.”
Already, I’ve seen some backlash to this project. Some have argued that transit development through Sunset Park and Red Hook will increase property value and lead to gentrification which pushes out current residents. This is a slippery slope of an argument that maintains areas attract poorer residents because transit options are lacking but that we cannot invest in transit because transit will lead to value growth that pushes out these poorer residents. I don’t like this argument and believe it plays into my stance that affordable housing has to include transit development. In other words, it’s up to the city to improve transit and maintain affordable housing so people can continue to live where they live but still get around the city.
The second issue is one of need. When this project first bubbled up, I was skeptical. It seemed duplicative of the G train and targeted to wealth New Yorkers who could afford to buy up waterfront property. With an extension to Sunset Park and a routing closer to subsidized housing in Red Hook, the current proposal begins to address some of the issues I had with this plan when it was, as one proponent noted, just a “cool idea.” It connects growing job centers with residential areas in ways the current system doesn’t. Whether it’s a good use of $1.7 billion — or whether it should even cost $1.7 billion — is an open question.
So what we have here then is the start of a potentially good idea. The consultant report won’t be released publicly yet in full, and it’s not clear what the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector will do yet. Someone will have to identify a proper plan and fight for it, and that’s a tall order a time when our governor is running around announcing pet projects and the mayor can’t be bothered with the details of a much-needed transit expansion.
It’s been a while, at least on the site, since I’ve delved into the ongoing fight over the LIRR’s unused Rockaway Beach Branch right of way. I’ve kept abreast of goings-on via Twitter, and it has devolved into a bitter fight between and amongst groups that would otherwise be allies. The debate has spilled over into the discussion over nearby Woodhaven Boulevard, and it implicates not only the immediate area and its residents but also disparate neighborhoods and parts of the city that do not have a seat at the immediate table. It threatens to be Queens’ own response to the debacle that was the 34th St. Transitway, and that’s a future and history we shouldn’t want to repeat.
We could get into the nitty gritty later, but in broad strokes, this story pits a few interests against one another. One group — consisting largely of DOT, the MTA and a loose coalition of transit advocates — wants to turn Woodhaven Boulevard into an approximation of NYC’s first bus rapid transit line with dedicated lanes and fewer conveniences for drivers. It’s not a perfect plan as it lacks physical separation, and we could debate center-running lanes over side-running lanes for days. But it’s out there, and it’s a creative and proper allocation of street space on an important north-south corridor that isn’t served by transit.
Opposing the Woodhaven BRT plan are your usual array of Queens residents with assists from some Brooklynites who believe in the primacy of the automobile and cannot suffer the elimination of lanes for cars, left turns or prioritizing transit riders. Some of these opponents are knee-jerk NIMBYs, but others have decided that the better solution is to turn the Rockaway Beach Branch line into an elevated and dedicated busway. Despite the fact that the right of way is in shambles and work to shore up the structure would be both costly and timely, these proponents — who have found voices in local community papers — argue that the right of way is perfect for a bus. Never mind the fact that it’ll take years, if not decades, for that plan to become a reality, and DOT and the MTA want an immediate solution.
Then, in yet another corner are the QueensWay proponents. These folks, led by the Trust for Public Land, have pushed hard to get funding and community support before too many politicians wake up to the reality that turning the ROW into a park without a proper assessment of reactivation would be a future folly. They had some momentum from some loud voices in neighborhoods along the park, but pushback by Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder has slowed this effort and given a neighborhood that stands to benefit a voice in the wilderness. Some of the park advocates have lined up behind the Woodhaven SBS plan, in part, because they recognize that QueensWay won’t actually solve Queens’ mobility issues. SBS then is also a pro-park, quasi-NIMBY solution for a group that has dismissed rail seemingly out of hand.
So it’s NIMBYs vs. transit advocates vs. park advocates vs. bus advocates vs. NYC DOT. All I’ve asked for is a truly independent engineering and cost assessment of the various proposals, but it’s hard to escape the bitter name-calling of the disputes. And that’s the mess we’re in. (For a flavor of it on the local level, check out this recent piece and this other recent piece from the Queens Chronicle.)
So now, 500 words later, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Montauk Cutoff. Or you might be wondering just what the *%^$ the Montauk Cutoff is. I’m so glad you asked. The Montauk Cutoff is a 1/3 of a mile LIRR right of way that runs through Long Island City, connecting the Lower Montauk Branch to the Sunnyside Yards, and the MTA has decommissioned it. The agency anticipates no near-term use for it, but they are actively preserving the right-of-way should a future use emerge. It is, writ large, the single biggest lesson to take from the Rockaway Beach Branch Line debate: Keep and preserve what can be used for rail while considering adaptive reuse with the understanding that any potential reuse may be only temporary.
So far, the MTA has issued a Request for Expressions of Interest [pdf] which could lead to a future RFP. In discussing the RFEI with Curbed a few months ago, an MTA spokesman explained the agency’s guiding philosophy: “Specifically, the MTA is seeking expressions of interest from businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and individuals with innovative adaptive reuse concepts, and detailed implementation and operating plans for those concepts. These concepts can include, but are not limited to, public open space, urban farming, or museum or sculpture garden space.”
The RFEI echoes this sentiment. “It is conceivable that the Montauk Cutoff may be required for future transportation needs,” the document notes. “A sale or permanent disposition of the Montauk Cutoff may disadvantage. MTA in the future, and leaving it vacant may invite encroachments and blight. As a result, the MTA wishes to investigate adaptive reuse concepts to preserve the right-of-way for potential future use.
Already, the usual suspects are jockeying for position. Some linear park proponents and rails-to-trails group have discussed a mini-High Line-style park through Long Island City and a variety of community groups are actively exploring ways to incorporate this right of way into the surrounding neighborhood. Community visioning groups have seemingly made this a more inconclusive project than that surrounding the Rockaway Beach Branch, but that is, in part, because the MTA is exerting its control and ownership of the ROW while clearly expressing its desire to preserve the ROW.
It’s not clear yet what happens with the Montauk Cutoff. The MTA could assess the responses to the RFEI and decide to hold back an RFP. They could just let it sit there for a while before a rail use returns. But, for now at least, it’s a project with far fewer people fighting over its future, and that alone should tell you everything about the importance of both the Rockaway Beach Branch Line and the Montauk Cutoff to efforts to improve mobility around an area in need of transit capacity.
As politicians have recently called upon the MTA to rationalize commuter rail fares for travel within New York City, an MTA watchdog group has issued a firm proposal to do just that, which, they claim, would cost the MTA only $3 million. It’s called the Freedom Ticket, and it’s an idea put forward by the New York City Transit Rider Council. They want the MTA to implement it first in the transit desert of Southeast Queens and later at all commuter rail stations that are at least 0.8 miles away from the nearest subway stop.
The report — available on NYCTRC’s website — offers up a rigorous examination of potential fare combinations and routes with available capacity. According to their report, there are approximately 20,000 peak-hour LIRR seats available for riders from Southeast Queens, and Babylon, Long Beach, Far Rockaway, Hempstead, and West Hempstead trains could carry the load (in addition to ample space on trains to the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn). By rationalizing fares — not to the level of a MetroCard swipe but in line with an LIRR monthly pass — the MTA could better serve these under-served areas.
“Being able to use commuter rail within the City at a reasonable cost means real freedom for people in parts of the City that are underserved by transit. Freedom Ticket means real freedom for hundreds of thousands of city residents with some of the most difficult commutes in the city.” NYCTRC Chair Andrew Albert said.
Essentially, the idea here is to offer the use of space on certain LIRR trains and free connections between the LIRR and other NYC Transit modes. At $215 per month, the ticket is still more expensive than a monthly MetroCard but slightly lower than an express bus pass. Travel times could be cut to Manhattan by around 40 minutes, and the addition of a transfer will allow for mobility within the city. Of course, this only works for those commuting to and from work; additional rides would incur an additional fee, something unlimited ride MetroCard users don’t worry about these days. Still, with savings of up to 50% and considerably shortened commutes, the offer would be well worth it for many.
When the topic has come up in the past, the MTA has objected on the grounds that it will affect their bottom line. Forget the convenience of it; to the agency, unless it’s their idea, it’s all about the money. William Henderson, head of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, came prepared. The council believes their proof of concept if implemented in Queens would cost the MTA $4.3 million (a pittance really) while generating around $1.5 million if 1000 new riders fill seats. At 3000 riders, the proposal draws even, and the NYCTRC even suggested that local NYC politicians have access to discretionary funding to help subsidize some or all of the costs. If these numbers bear out, it’s as close to a no-brainer as possible.
Looking ahead, then, the NYCTRC believes this program could expand following completion of East Side Access (and Penn Station Access) when commuter rail would provide direct connections from Queens and the Bronx to both Grand Central and Penn Station. Then, the so-called Freedom Ticket should be implemented at all commuter rail stops that are at least 0.8 miles away from a subway. This would expand the program to a handful of stops in the Bronx.
For its part, the MTA seemed more willing to entertain this idea than they have been in the past, but in a statement, the agency still stressed the need for a net-zero impact to their bottom line, the shortsightedness of which I covered last week. “It’s an interesting proposal to alleviate the concerns of some of our customers,” Adam Lisberg said in a statement, though it would certainly carry a financial impact for the MTA as well. We’ll consider it next year as we determine how to structure the next in our series of modest fare increases equivalent to the rate of inflation.”
To access the full report along with all supporting documentation, you can download the PDF here.
Now that the head of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has opened the door to a light rail study, the floodwaters of potential political requests have been let loose. Barely had the pixels burned on Ydanis Rodriguez’s request when another council member — this one from Queens — called for a light rail investment in her borough. This one comes from Elizabeth Crowley, and it may highlight the pitfalls of Shiny New Thing syndrome.
The story comes to us from Gloria Pazmino and Dana Rubinstein writing in Politico New York. The two report:
In order to provide additional public transportation options, Crowley is proposing to use already-existing railroad tracks in her district to build a light rail line between Glendale and Long Island City along the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch. “It’s a railroad that is in excellent condition that has no rail cars on it, so it’s a waste of track. It has no real use and there is potential for park-and-rides and development around the rail,” Crowley told POLITICO New York.
The rail line carried passengers between Long Island City and Jamaica stations in Glendale and Maspeth until the late 1990s, but service was discontinued due to low ridership. Currently, the track is used to transport freight overnight for only a few hours, Crowley said.
Citing the borough’s rapid growth and the increased need for public transportation, Crowley said installing a light rail would be much easier in her district due to the already-existing infrastructure and right of way. “We are very, very close to the city but it’s very difficult to get into Manhattan because it’s a transportation desert,” Crowley said. “More and more people are using their cars because it takes too long to take public transportation.”
This is a bit more of a problematic request than Rodriguez’s desire for a study. Crowley seems to have identified a route by examining a right of way that exists without really delving into why this right of way has no passenger service, and she doesn’t really explore a need here. Her idea seems to be to create a feeder light rail line from Glendale to the 7 in Long Island City via Maspeth. For what it’s worth, the Glendale LIRR station had just two daily riders at the time of its closure in 1998.
Would this help people get to Manhattan faster? What affect would this have on the already-crowded 7 train? Is it worth navigating the issue of shared freight and passenger service? And why would anyone spend the money to convert a heavy rail ROW that shuttered due to low passenger service into a light rail service that may not fair much better? These are questions that demand a rigorous analysis before this idea is anything more than idle musings, and while Crowley said the MTA “seemed receptive” of the idea, it’s not clear if there’s demand for this service or if Crowley is trying to think outside of the box (which in the realm of NYC transportation politics is much appreciated).
Meanwhile, there is some opposition brewing to the idea of light rail. It comes from Joan Byron, the Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a major proponent of bus rapid transit. Without holding her punches, Byron charged that light rail is simply a class-based approach to transit adoption. “Poor people and people of color ride the bus,” she said. “But we want something shiny and new that young white millennials will ride…You have to do something really shiny to get them not to drive.”
What’s particularly strange about Byron’s statement is its invocation of millennials. This generation — and in particular those who live in New York City — aren’t drivers or car owners. They already use transit at rates much higher than older residents of NYC (and cities in general across the country). Byron, who has a stake in beefing up the bus network, also undersells the psychological advantages of system that runs as a fixed-rail one via a dedicated right-of-way. Numerous studies have shown that these two elements alone draw ridership across racial and class lines. Buses simply aren’t the be-all and end-all of urban mobility issues.
Ultimately, light rail could be an answer to the city’s transportation cost and mobility issues, but it’s clear that many issues remain to explore before we understand where light rail would work and how. Both the Bronx and Staten Island are better candidates than one corridor in Queens, especially when you consider network effects, but perhaps light rail could work all over in various permutations as potential solutions. That’s what DOT will need to identify if they take up Ydanis Rodriguez on his request. It’s certainly worth considering.
The Mets don’t make the NLCS too often these days, and the MTA is pulling out the stops to celebrate. On both Saturday and Sunday this weekend, the 11-car Train of Many Colors will run from 34th St.-Hudson Yards to Willets Point-Mets via the 7 line. If last week’s 4 train ride to the Bronx is any indication, the 7’s own Nostalgia Train will be packed full with Mets and rail fans alike. Unlike the 4, this one ain’t running non-stop. The train will make express stops along the 7 en route to Citi Field, and you can catch it at 6:30 p.m. each night from the newest subway station in the system. That will be quite a sight.
On another note, this weekend is Open House New York, and it’s also the last chance for New Yorkers to check out the old TWA Flight Center in front of JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK Airport before it turns into a hotel. It’s open from 11-3 p.m. on Sunday, and no reservations are required. I’ve seen it twice, and I can’t recommend the trip enough. Check it all out right here on OHNY’s website.
Meanwhile, there are some service changes this weekend. You know the drill. Click through for all the details. Read More→
Amongst certain corners of the Internet, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia Airport replacement plan is generating some mix of trepidation and excitement. Writing in New York Magazine, Justin Davidson called the plan flawed and vital, though he highlighted more of the former and not enough of the latter to make a convincing case, and other New York voices have generally praised the Governor’s plan for addressing the perceived problems with the airport. Still, one part of the plan — the Willets Point AirTrain — shouldn’t get a pass.
When word of Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain first came out earlier this year, I was very skeptical of the plan. As Yonah Freemark wrote at the time, sending an AirTrain from LaGuardia away from Manhattan to the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point is likely worse than the no-build option, and transit bloggers aren’t the only ones concerned with a plan that adds travel time to likely destinations from the airport.
Late last week, Jimmy Van Bramer, a City Council representative from Queens, expressed his own concerns with the plan. “Any proposal that adds passengers to the 7 line should take into consideration the maximum capacity at which ridership is currently at,” he said to the Daily News. Van Bramer is thinking about transit issues while Cuomo’s people, as one spokesperson said, is singular focused on how it “makes absolutely no sense” that LaGuardia isn’t rail-accessible. That said, bad rail connections are worse than no rail connections.
Since New York City and New York State have one chance to get this project right, it’s important to hash out these issues, and it seems as though Cuomo is taking the path of least political resistance. He seems to think that the idea of rail is better than no rail even if the routing is terrible, and he isn’t willing to wage a political fight. He’s also wrong.
The best routing for direct rail access to LaGuardia Airport likely involves the N train, and the plan isn’t a novel one. Over the nine years I’ve run this site, I’ve frequently returned to the idea of an N train to LaGuardia. As I detailed in 2010, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had hoped to build a subway to LaGuardia in the late 1990s, but he gave up that dream once Queens NIMBYs reared their hands. I recently revisited that story in 2014, and today, it seems like ancient history. Old-school political forces in Queens battled perceptions of a disruptive subway construction project, and yet again, the rest of New York lost at the hands of a bunch of people protecting their own self-interests.
It’s been nearly 15 years since that N train plan died, and it’s time to try again. In a post written shortly after mine last year, Cap’n Transit explained why the time is ripe to revisit an Astoria extension, and his reasoning applies today as we discuss LaGuardia’s future.
The train was indeed shelved due to community opposition, as everyone reminds us, but what they fail to note is that the “community leaders” are all gone. Read through the list of politicians who came out against the plan. Denis Butler and Walter McCaffrey are dead. Peter Vallone, Senior is retired, and so is George Onorato, and Vallone Junior has been term-limited out. John Sabini was hustled off to the Racing Authority after a DUI conviction in 2007.
Not only are these windshield-perspective politicians gone, but their replacements are much less wedded to the idea that cars are the future. Senator Michael Gianaris and his protégée Assemblymember Aravella Simotas are disappointing in some ways, but they’ve kept their car activism pretty low-key, as has Senator José Peralta. City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides are both progressive on transit issues… More importantly, the voters and donors in that area care more about trains than parking today.
Another baffling element of the 1990s opposition to the extension was that it seemed like the objections could all have been overcome with some thought, but the “community leaders” weren’t interested. The line could have been run entirely over the Grand Central “Parkway,” or put underground as far south as Astoria Boulevard. A solid proposal that addresses those objections, especially if it has the backing of business leaders like the Global Gateway Alliance, should be able to win over Gianaris, Simotas and Constantinides, and eventually the rest of Astoria. It’s not 1999, people, and we shouldn’t be acting like it is.
Cap’n Transit penned those words 15 months ago, and they are equally applicable today. It’s time to revive the idea of an N train extension to LaGuardia. If we’re going to spend $400-$800 million on an AirTrain that will lead to more problems than it solves, our leaders owe it to us and future generations of New Yorkers to fight for the right solution. The NIMBYs aren’t in power; let’s not pretend they are. The N train should go to LaGuardia, not an AirTrain to the 7 train and Willets Point.
And yet, it won’t die. As we learned on Friday, a new conglomerate of — transit advocates? people who want newspaper headlines? — has proposed studying a Brooklyn waterfront streetcar. Sally Goldenberg and Dana Rubinstein broke the story, and it’s a gem. As you will not surprised to hear in New York City 2015, it’s an idea spurred on by developers rather than people with actual transit knowledge, and the basis for the support is because it sounds cool.
If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. Here’s what David Lombino, the Director of Special Projects at Two Trees had to say: “It’s a cool idea. We’re a supporter. Could be transformative for Brooklyn and Queens someday. We’ll see.”
It’s a cool idea. Now that’s a great basis for transit development, especially for a project that would require the upfront investment that a new-to-New York transit mode such as a streetcar would present. The Capital New York reporters had more:
While the waterfront has decent subway connections to Manhattan, the paucity of north-west transportation connecting Astoria to, say, Red Hook, has long been a source of frustration. The G train alone just doesn’t cut it. And so an advisory committee of some of the city’s more prominent developers, transportation experts and community organizers has taken shape in an effort to find a remedy. Together, they’ve commissioned HR&A Advisors (planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod’s former employer) to study the economic impact of a streetcar or lightrail connecting Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to Astoria, Queens. The route could include hot housing markets like Red Hook, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn, as well as areas where commercial outfits and offices are setting up shop, such as Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
…The committee includes Regional Plan Association president Tom Wright, traffic engineer [Gridlock] Sam Schwartz, Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Tucker Reed, Industry City executive Andrew Kimball, urban planner Alex Garvin, Fifth Avenue Committee executive director and City Planning Commission member Michelle de la Uz and Red Hook Initiative founder Jill Eisenhard. Schwartz will conduct the feasibility study.
“I’m interested in seeing how the research comes out,” Wright said. “There’s the possibility of both connecting to other existing transit services—bus, rail and ferry—and complementing other proposals.”
The project’s advocates have no idea what the final recommendations will reveal, but already their claims are a mass of contradictions. They seem to feel that Industry City, with nearby subway service from the N, R and D trains, is isolated while they don’t know who would run — or more importantly fund — light rail. “One of the attractive alternatives is this wouldn’t necessarily be run and operated by the MTA, but that it’s open for a concession operation, which would probably be a good thing,” RPA President Tom Wright said.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this. Besides my belief that “it’s a cool idea” is never the basis for transit investment, I’m highly skeptical of modes of transit that aren’t operated by — or at least integrated into — the MTA network. Setting aside the fact that we don’t know who feels that subways that are 7 stops from Times Square aren’t sufficient for service to Industry City or how many people would actually need to go from Astoria to Red Hook or Long Island City to Industry City on a daily basis, it raises a red flag any time we introduce a second fare into the travel equation from areas that aren’t really that transit-starved in the first place.
Based upon current transit operations, our goals should be to improve current options. The B61, for instance, is painfully slow through Red Hook to its subway connections on either side, and it serves low-income workers who have few other options. Without figuring out a way to upgrade these transit services while introducing a “cool” waterfront streetcar because it fits with developers’ real estate ambitions would raise serious concerns about transit access and investment. If this sounds like a class issue, well, that’s because it is.
This isn’t to say that inter-borough connections aren’t sufficient. They suffer from the same historical problems that plague the subway and bus systems. But if advocates are lining up behind a waterfront study because everyone is only know just realizing that it might be an 8-10 minute walk from Two Trees’ Domino Sugar Factory development to the J/M train or an overcrowded L, well, I worry about what that means for better transit access for the rest of New York City. Let’s get it right because access matters for everyone and not because the company sinking money into areas with good views but long walks to the subway thinks it’s a “cool idea.”
As the public deadline for completion of the Second Ave. Subway nears, stories about the W train have been popping up with near-monthly regularity. So even though the MTA stated last month that Astoria service wouldn’t be reduced when the Q is re-routed to the Upper East Side, they were happy to reiterate this position when amNew York came a-knockin’. Although the MTA hasn’t identified just how service patterns will change or what the new Astoria service will be called, this time around, word on the street is that reviving the W is firmly under consideration.
Marc Beja’s story covers some familiar territory. The MTA isn’t saying much publicly about service patterns, but the agency has held various off-the-record conversations with rider advocates and neighborhood groups acknowledging that the current N train alone is not sufficient for Astoria subway riders. One of the ideas on the table is reviving the W — a local in Manhattan that terminated at Whitehall St. and ran to Astoria.
Reiterating the MTA’s position on subway frequency, Kevin Ortiz, a Transit spokesman, said to the daily, “The current level of service in Astoria will not decrease. Reviving the W, he said, “certainly has been discussed; no decision has been made.” That the MTA already has yellow and black W roll signs and route bullets in the BMT rolling stock is probably telling, but no decision has to be made until a few months before the Second Ave. Subway opens — which at best means next summer will be the deadline for the W’s rebirth.
While it’s always comforting for Astorians to hear that their subway service will not be worse off once the Second Ave. Subway opens, Beja’s article delves into the ins and outs of re-signing the system for a new service. In these paragraphs are some gems:
As far as communicating the W’s return, the MTA has already budgeted for new signs and maps once the Second Avenue Subway goes online. It shouldn’t create extra confusion or costs to make other changes at the same time.
John Montemarano, director of station signage since 1994 and an MTA employee of 35 years, has seen the birth of the W, V and Second Avenue Subway, as well as the death of the W, V and No. 9. Other lines have shrunk, grown and changed because of ridership shifts, budget changes, the 9/11 attacks and Sandy damage. Now, new stations are being finished along Second Avenue and the No. 7 line.
If the MTA adds or revives a line, Montemarano said he would need about four months to get the transit system ready. It would take that long for the 48 workers in his department to survey the stations, design signs, check their accuracy and then create signs in the Brooklyn shop that would be loaded into trains to carry them to each station for installation. A small station would need about 60 new signs, while a larger station like 34th Street-Herald Square will need closer to 800. Small circular decals cost about $5 to make up, while bigger signs can be upwards of $200.
This is a glimpse inside a bureaucracy at work, but there’s also a quote from Richard Barone at the RPA that highlights how cumbersome this four-month lead time for a service change can be. While the signage team says they have these types of changes “down to a science,” Transit has been loathe to experiment with different routing at different times a day. “In some ways,” Barone said, “I wish the MTA would play around with services more, sort of experiment with service changes more.”
With the need to bring online some new service in a year and a half, the MTA has a chance to play around with services. They could run the W through the Montague St. Tunnel and down 4th Ave. to Bay Parkway as supplemental local service. They could restore express service to the N while running the W local or use the W as an express in Manhattan with the N local. This is a great time to assess changing transit patterns and customer needs along a stretch of line many consider to be underserved right now. We’ll find out if the MTA’s hulking bureaucracy can think creatively for a few months as the W — or something similar — returns.
Despite the ongoing drama with the 7 line extension — the MTA now anticipates opening the 34th St. station in September or October, 21 or 22 months late — the agency continues to push the party line that the Second Ave. Subway will open by the end of December of 2016. A recent media tour of the construction site revealed significant progress, and the MTA says the project is 82.3% completed. Still, Upper East Side residents I’ve spoken with are skeptical as the work has been marked by constant missed deadlines and broken promises.
Meanwhile, across the East River in Queens, Astoria residents are beginning to take notice of the looming completion of Phase 1 of this project, and they’re worried. When the MTA first unveiled plans for the Second Ave. Subway, it was billed as a northward extension of the Q train from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. via preexisting tunnel to 63rd St. and new tunnel underneath 2nd Ave. This was 11 years ago when the W split the Queens load with the N train, and extending the Q north would have no affect on service to and from Astoria.
Since then, the W has gone the way of the dodo and the Q serves a vital part-time link for Astoria subway riders. In fact, the BMT trains from Queens have seen massive growth over the past decade, and residents and politicians alike have called for more frequent service, especially during off-peak and weekend hours. Thus, the threat of a Q train service diversion has many nervous. Today, Dan Rivoli, the new Daily News transit beat writer, and Chris Sommerfeldt delved into this issue and for some reason, the MTA played its cards awfully close to its chest. The two write:
In diverting the Q line to the East Side, NYC Transit has not decided if the N can handle riders in Astoria “or if there will need to be trains added,” according to an email obtained by the Daily News. The email was sent to at least two riders who inquired to the MTA about Q service in Queens by Joseph O’Donnell, outreach director for the megaproject.
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz stressed the transit agency is not planning a service cut. “While the route letters may change, and exactly what will happen hasn’t been determined yet, we have no plans to reduce service on the Astoria or any other line,” Ortiz said…
Sen. Michael Gianaris of Astoria said that while the MTA’s assurances sound good, he wants to make sure capacity on the Astoria train lines is maintained. But given the crowds of waiting commuters he sees from his district office, “what they really should be doing is increasing service,” he said.
As Rivoli and Sommerfeldt’s person-on-the-street interviewees note in the article, a service cut for Astoria seems ludicrous, and the MTA has maintained since eliminating the W in 2010 that the Second Ave. Subway opening would not lead to less service for Astoria. Still, I can see why some people in Queens may be unsettled by the MTA’s less-than-comforting remarks. At some point soon, the MTA should announce that some version of the W will return with part-time service into Astoria, and the MTA should consider restoring N express service in Manhattan during peak hours as well. For now, we don’t know what the service patterns will be, but in less than a year and a half we will. It should bring comfort to Queens even if the question remains unsettled for now.