Archive for Queens
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.
In the circle of transit life, popular local buses lead to bus rapid transit which leads to light rail which leads to subway lines. It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way of building a transit network, but it’s the flow of demand. Ideally, if a corridor is popular enough, we wouldn’t be watching politicians falling all over themselves to talk up a bus lane and instead we would go straight to the highest-capacity, highest-speed transit option. Could this play out along the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor?
For transit in New York, the biggest obstacles to growth are speed and cost. The MTA can’t get a handle on costs, and projects come with price tags significantly higher than they are in similarly situated countries around the world. Furthermore, the MTA can’t nail down timelines, and projects that should have been finished years ago are still inching toward revised finish lines. These are operational and political barriers, but if enough forces line up behind a project, it can become a reality.
Lately, deep into Queens, an unused rail right-of-way has emerged at the center of a storm pitting advocates who are usually on the same side against each other. One group wants to turn this valuable rail right-of-way into a linear park akin to the High Line. Their plan isn’t clear on funding and includes numerous contradictions — such as promoting the idea with a dedicated bike lane that parallels Woodhaven Boulevard while assuring neighbors the park would close early at night. Another group wants to do nothing, and a third group — also not so clear on funding — wants to reactivate the right-of-way as part of the subway network.
I’ve covered this debate for years and am a voice for subway reactivation to an extent. After Gov. Andre Cuomo threw taxpayer money behind a biased study conducted by a pro-parks group, I’ve called for similar funding for a true alternatives analysis. We can’t dismiss the rail reactivation idea knowing now what we know about New York’s need for a resilient rail network in the face of increasing storm threats, but no official study has been released in nearly two decades.
Recently, though, a new voice has emerged for rail reactivation. Last month in a piece I admittedly overlooked at the time, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen penned a piece for the Queens Chronicle advocating for rail. With BRT-esque plans for Woodhaven Boulevard back in the picture, it’s worth examining the union leader’s thought-provoking points:
On the surface, both parks and public transportation are similarly associated with safer streets, greater mobility, more walking, lower emissions and increased business activity. But the most meaningful, and often overlooked, difference between the two plans is the potential for increasing access to jobs. Reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Line, which was owned and operated by the Long Island Rail Road until 1962, would be far more economically advantageous for the 250,000 people residing within a half-mile of the existing right-of-way…
I would not be so quick to dismiss the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach rail line as too expensive and unrealistic. Notwithstanding the project’s necessity, phase I of the Second Avenue subway has a $4.45 billion price tag. In comparison, rehabilitating the rail’s existing infrastructure will cost about $800 million. This modest investment will significantly raise the quality of life in the far reaches of Queens. Furthermore, as suggested by a recent Queens College study done at the request of Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, up to 500,000 daily rides may be generated by the reconstructed rail line, and I completely expect ridership to grow over time.
This will directly produce the fares needed to sustain its ongoing operations and maintenance. As MTA and state officials work to figure out how to fund the MTA’s $32 billion five-year capital plan, they should consider prioritizing investment in the rail line. Residents’ overwhelming demand for public transportation in southern Queens will yield significant farebox revenues, minimizing the strain on the state budget. While it is tempting to choose parkland as the cheaper alternative, I doubt that the proposed park will see reliable income year after year…
Lastly, as a trackworker, I know firsthand that reconstructing the Rockaway Beach right-of-way is much more feasible than opponents claim. Following Hurricane Sandy, TWU Local 100 members rebuilt 3.7 miles of the A line (almost the same length as the Rockaway Beach segment) “from the ground up” within seven months. Restoring the damaged track, signal and electrical infrastructure with in-house labor cost the Metropolitan Transportation Authority only $75 million.
I’ve always been skeptical of the Goldfeder-funded study that claimed 500,000 trips per day. That would make it among the most crowded subways in the system, and the population of that area simply doesn’t support that kind of demand. Still, the ridership wouldn’t be insignificant.
To me, though, the intriguing aspect of Samuelson’s claim that construction wouldn’t be nearly as costly as opponents of rail reactivation claim. As New York State does not allow private entities to adversely possess government land, the acquisition costs even for land that isn’t currently physically reserved as the right of way would be slim to non-existent. Shoring up the structure for 21st Century rail operations and meeting federal safety guidelines would be more troublesome, but the A line to the Rockaways was part of the same ROW. Recent history may be instructive.
It’s ultimately an uphill battle for anyone to see anything happen here. The park plan is well over $100 million away from becoming a reality, and real reactivation would be, optimistically, ten times that amount. But without clarity, we’ll never know the costs, the benefits and the right way forward. At the least, people whose voices deserve to be heard are thinking about it. Considering the city’s needs, that’s a step in the right direction.
When I published my postmortems this week on the decision to halt subway service amidst the threat of snow and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting those topics any time soon. I knew they would both be in the news, but I thought we could let them rest. I was wrong.
The Snow Plan
I’ll start with the snow plan. MTA head Tom Prendergast journeyed to Albany on Thursday to discuss the state of the MTA’s budget. He was there to lobby for the capital plan, but the talk turned to the snow. Since Prendergast is in the position — as we all are — of answer to his boss, he did his best yet again to defend the MTA’s reaction, but it’s been clear that Prendergast is out there as much to protect Cuomo as anything else.
At one point during the State Senate hearings, Prendergast discussed the reasons for the closure and decided to argue for public safety. “If people were inconvenienced,” he said, “that’s far better than somebody dying.” Of course, this ignores 110 years of New York City history in which no one has ever died in a snow storm walking to or from the subway, and it is in fact, as I’ve said, safer to keep trains running in a storm than shutting them down for the simple fact that some people will have to travel and should be accorded the respect to make the decision to go out in bad weather conditions.
But that’s an argument I’ve exhausted. I want to instead talk about the MTA’s plans. I had the chance to read the MTA’s 2014-2015 Winter Operations Plan. It contemplates running service in all kinds of weather from cold temperates (Plan I) to a declared snow emergency (Plan V). This is a 360-page document designed to maintain subway service through inclimate weather while working to ensure that no one is stranded.
On Tuesday — during a planned snow emergency — here’s what should have happened: The MTA would have moved trains from outdoor yards to underground express tracks while all service ran local. If conditions warranted, the agency could “order the orderly closing of lines to prevent incapacitated trains and uncertain travel plans for passengers.” As the plan notes, “if weather becomes too extreme…the Brighton, Sea Beach, West End, Dyre, Rockaway, Culver, and Canarsie lines will experience outages so that lines can be cleared and back to full service as soon as possible.”
This wasn’t some fly-by-night plan, and the idea, as some have put forth, that the public couldn’t handle on-the-fly service changes betrays the daily reality of service changes. It is, frankly, insulting to the public. With proper communication, people can get around relatively safely, and service changes are less confusion than stranding people miles from home. Ultimately, the MTA had a plan, and Cuomo made them deviate. We should understand why, and the explanation, which may very well be a political one, should be thorough.
Early on Thursday, the Daily News reported that the MTA may explore running trains in snowstorms. It’s a funny way to put it because the MTA already has a plan to run trains through serious snow storms. Prendergast and Cuomo could certainly reconsider the plan and implement a Plan VI shutdown that’s a bit more thought-out than Monday’s decision. Ultimately, they should remember though, as Glynnis MacNicol wrote, not everyone has the choice to stay home no matter how bad the weather gets.
The Cost of the LGA AirTrain
At the same public hearing up in Albany, Prendergast got to talking about the Governor’s plan for the LaGuardia AirTrain, and, oops!, it might cost more than $450 million. Prendergast mentioned under questioning that the $450 million was at the low end of a cost range, and that the upper bounds of the project’s budget is closer to $1 billion. It made little sense at $450 million; it makes no sense at $1 billion. And does anyone believe the MTA, the Port Authority or whichever other entity the State of New York tabs to build this thing would deliver it at under half a billion dollars? I don’t.
For more on the Albany hearing and Prendergast’s answers on the AirTrain costs, check out Dana Rubinstein and Jimmy Vielkind’s coverage at Capital New York. The MTA is trying not to come across as blind-sided by Cuomo’s proposal, but it seems clear that they were.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to shut the subway system on Monday night wasn’t the most surprising transit development coming from the governor’s office this past week. Prior to this week’s snow brouhaha, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s other idea — an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport — dominated the transit press coverage. As you’ll recall, seemingly out of nowhere, Cuomo announced a plan to build an AirTrain for $450 million from Willets Point to LaGuardia via the Grand Central Parkway. In theory, improving rail access to LaGuardia is a great idea that needs a champion; in practice, Cuomo’s idea isn’t one we should rush to embrace by any means.
When I had a chance to delve into Cuomo’s proposal last week, I wasn’t too impressed. He picked the worst choice out of three or four possible routings, and the money seemed optimistically low. Since then, I’ve learned that, much like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s idea to send the 7 to Secaucus, the Govornor’s AirTrain proposal doesn’t have much backing it. The cost estimates can’t be traced to any recent (or, for that matter, old) study, and it’s not clear from those at the MTA how or why the governor chose this plan or why the Port Authority is not involved as it was with the JFK AirTrain.
I’m not alone in casting a skeptical eye toward Cuomo’s plan, and as part of today’s postmortem — likely not to be the final word on this idea — I’d like to look at three other takes. The first comes to us from Yonah Freemark who dusted off The Transport Politic to share his thoughts on the proposal. Freemark’s headline sums it up: The LaGuardia AirTrain “will save almost no one any time.” He writes:
Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities. These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions…
Transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.
Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.
That, alone, should be enough to doom the project, and based on Freemark’s study, both an AirTrain from Jackson Heights or a direct extension of the N train from Astoria would be the preferred build as both have essentially equal travel times from popular destinations. As Freemark states, “It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.”
Over the weekend, Nate Silver offered his analysis of public transit options for airport travel. Picking up on my piece and Freemark’s analysis, Silver determines, unsurprisingly, that transit options to U.S. airports are by and large terrible. Even with the AirTrain, most travelers would be far better off taking a cab from LaGuardia to popular destinations factoring travel times and cab fares in a cost-benefit analysis. A viable proposal would seek to flip that result.
Finally, I urge you to read Alon Levy’s analysis of the political theory behind Cuomo’s decision. Levy brings up the idea that, by starting the debate with the Willets Point plan, he has framed it in such a way that he wins. Cuomo’s approach to transit planning is a top-down one that omits community feedback and benefits a very specific constituency — airport travelers. With no stops in populated neighborhoods that need transit access, Cuomo can allege to stifle NIMBYism without actually offering anything useful.
Levy, in fact, thinks we should ignore Cuomo’s plan altogether. He writes, “In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.'”
I believe Alon has a very good point, but I’m trying hard, and usually failing, to be less cynical about this plan. LaGuardia access seems to have a champion even if we don’t know what his true motives or underlying rationale are. The key though is opportunity. If New York sees through Cuomo’s plan, we’ve built something, but is that something good or even good enough? We have to remember that we have only one chance. Once the first dollar is allocated and the first pylon is sunk, New York will stuck with whatever Cuomo has decided. Based on the current proposal with its circular routing, slow travel times, and mysterious budget, that’s a scary thought for our future.
After months of saying very little of anything while campaigning for a second term and hardly anything about transit for four years while governing, Andrew Cuomo stunned New Yorkers by announcing plans to build an AirTrain from the 7 train and LIRR station at Willets Point to Laguardia Airport. Cuomo, who has made modernizing New York’s struggling airports, said that the rail connection will cost $450 million and could be up and running within five years of the start of construction.
For transit advocates and, in fact, for travelers who frequent New York City airports, the announcement came as something of a bombshell. The is the first time in over four years that Cuomo has discussed a direct rail connection to Laguardia, and he seemingly announced it as a fait accompli without any detail as to how his administrative picked this alignment or, more importantly, how this project will be funded. In fact, while introducing the infrastructure elements of the 2015 Opportunity Agenda, Cuomo also discussed high-speed ferry service throughout the city, the Penn Station Access plan
The Laguardia AirTrain, Cuomo said, will be constructed by the MTA and Port Authority, similar to the JFK Airtrain, and the proposed routing is designed to avoid any NIMBY complaints. The proposal calls for a terminal at Willets Point above the Corona Yards in between the 7 line stop and LIRR station with a routing above the Grand Central Parkway to Laguardia Airport, under two miles away. “You can’t get to Laguardia by train, and that really is inexcusable,” the governor said.
The announcement seemed to catch MTA and Port Authority officials off-guard, and as with Mayor Bloomberg’s back-of-the-napkin plan to send the 7 train to Secaucus, the agencies had to scramble for a statement. This time, though, their boss had issued the challenge instead of just the mayor of New York City. Later in the day, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast issued a joint statement:
“Governor Cuomo has offered a clear vision and strong call for the transportation infrastructure that is absolutely essential for the New York region to compete successfully in the global economy. The Port Authority and the MTA are working closely to establish the scope, schedule and management of the LaGuardia AirTrain, just as they worked closely to create the successful JFK AirTrain. We will build this project in a cost-effective way that minimizes disruptions to nearby communities as well as airport operations, and we can get it done within five years of obtaining all necessary approvals. Both our organizations recognize the importance of these infrastructure projects and congratulate the Governor on his foresight.”
So does it work? Let’s drill down.
The Good: A Rail Connection to Laguardia
In a vacuum, a rail connection to Laguardia with political support, political capital and a political champion behind it is a good idea. The governor, who is, despite his flaws, a strong executive in New York, is talking about improving the way we travel to the airport, and he has a vision that is, compared with other New York City transit projects, affordable and practical. It doesn’t involve construction through any neighborhoods replete with NIMBY opposition and solves an immediate problem by improving access to Laguardia in a way that isn’t as stigmatized as bus service is. In broad strokes, a Laguardia AirTrain is a badly-needed service that should have been built years ago.
The Bad: The Routing
That said, Cuomo’s proposal is something of a mess from a transit planning perspective. By avoiding any battle with NIMBYs — except perhaps with those who live above the Grand Central Parkway with views of the Long Island Sound — Cuomo has essentially picked the worst of the possible Laguardia rail connection routings, and we don’t know why. As I mentioned, Cuomo didn’t discuss how other alternatives were eliminated or how he settled upon his proposed alignment.
The real issue is travel time. The 7 train from Times Square to Willets Point is a 25-minute express ride and a 30-minute local ride. AirTrain passengers would then have to switch to an AirTrain and backtrack to reach the airport. To make this work, the MTA would have to consider permanent super-express service to Willets Point during off-peak hours, and I’m afraid consider the peak-hour effect on already-crowded 7 trains. At least the nearby LIRR station can alleviate some of the pressure, but a trip that takes a good 45 minutes from Midtown can’t compete with the Q70 from Jackson Heights, a shuttle bus or even a taxi.
Now, in the past, as we know, NIMBYs torpedoed a Giuliani plan to send the N to Laguardia. You can read the original engineering report and my recent analysis of the old plan. That’s probably the ideal alignment in terms of speed as it is the most direct connection to Manhattan and major destination points from Laguardia. The second best choice would have involved staging an AirTrain station near Jackson Heights and providing service from the 7/E/F/M/R station via the BQE and Grand Central to the airport. Instead, we have a Willets Point-based plan, and we don’t eve know why. This isn’t something we should accept simply because a politician has proposed spending money on an AirTrain.
The Ugly: The Money
The money, of course, is another major issue. The MTA is in dire need of someone to address a $15 billion capital funding gap in its current five-year plan. They need to spend $32 billion but can only generate around $17 billion. Meanwhile, this $32 billion doesn’t include the capital costs for a new airport rail connection. Now, the agency is scrambling to update its documents, but the money for the badly needed parts of the plan — signal upgrades, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — still isn’t there.
The other issue is the cost. It’s optimistic to think that the MTA and Port Authority can build a rail extension on time for around $300 million a mile, and although the JFK AirTrain was on time and on budget, nothing else of this magnitude has been. I can run through the litany of problems that have plagued the 7 line, the Fulton St. Transit Center, the PATH Hub, East Side Access, and the Second Ave. Subway, but we know this story well: Nothing comes in on time or on budget, and cost projections often do not align with reality. Without a better understanding of the sources of Cuomo’s $450 million price tag, we can’t adequate assess this project’s chances either. Still, as I mentioned, the MTA’s current capital proposal should take priority.
The Unknown: What Happens Next
Right now, I have no idea where this goes. When Bloomberg announced the Secaucus plan for the 7 train late in his third term without the support of the MTA, Albany or New Jersey, it was obvious this plan would go nowhere. But Cuomo is at the start of this second term and has banked a lot of political capital on dealing with New York’s airports. He has the weight, the pull and the financial resources at his disposal to get this project off the table. It might just happen, and it just arrived out of left field.
Still, I have serious reservations about the way this came about. It’s not a great alignment, and it leaves commuters on a slow and crowded train. It’s a connection, but it’s not a direct one. It doesn’t help improve access to Laguardia for airport workers, and it shifts economic resources from other projects and proposals that should be a priority. Still, it’s heartening to see Cuomo paying attention to rail. Is there time to improve this idea or are we doomed to another airport connection that’s only just good enough?