Archive for Queens
As bad transit ideas go, New York City has had its fair share in recent years. While it shouldn’t have been canceled, the ARC Tunnel featured a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Macy’s, and it was topped by only the ongoing money pit that is East Side Access, a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Grand Central. The BQX, likely the city’s greatest bit of vaporware ever, still hasn’t been canceled, and then we have the Laguardia AirTrain in a class all of its own.
The Laguardia AirTrain is the stubborn bad idea that just won’t die. It came out of nowhere in early 2015, and while it could have been a good idea pushed by a strong state leader, Cuomo’s plan sent the AirTrain in the wrong direction. The system would connect LaGuardia with the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point. So while most LaGuardia travelers just want to get to Manhattan, this thing will take them further away from where they want to go. When the plan first came out, I discovered how, in a true alternatives analysis, the no-build option would be best.
The idea fell by the wayside for a while, but now it’s back. Cuomo, who could have tried to push through an N train extension to the airport, seems intent on realizing this cockamamie transit plan. “The millions of passengers who travel through LaGuardia each year deserve a convenient and reliable mass transit option that connects this key transportation hub to the heart of Manhattan,” he said in a statement a few weeks ago. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway, and an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring rail mass transit access to the airport. With this action, we’re taking the next major step toward making this a reality.”
The latest announcement concerned the RFP for the entire project. It will eventually involve significant work on the current Willets Point station and construction of the AirTrain over the Grand Central Parkway. Cuomo’s release claims this new AirTrain will provide a ride of less than 30 minutes to Midtown, but that relies on a significant increase in LIRR service along the Port Washington line or an impossible two-way express service on the 7.
The costs meanwhile have, not shockingly, creeped ever upward. What was once billed as a $400 million project is now budgeted for over $1 billion in the latest Port Authority capital plan, but it’s not clear exactly how much the LaGuardia project itself will cost. The budget includes money for AirTrain improvements at both LaGuardia and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia proposal will cost at least $1 billion.
So why is this plan proceeding? Over at The Village Voice, Max Rivlin-Nader offered up his view. He writes, “Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.”
The problem, of course, is that once this train is built, we’re stuck with it. The N train will never go to Laguardia; a potential routing from Jackson Heights will fall by the wayside. Cuomo won’t be the governor forever, but New Yorkers will have to live with a Laguardia AirTrain routing that makes sense for umpires tasked with games at Citi Field, U.S. Open fans, and the Braves trying to get back to Atlanta. It will, in every sense of the word, become a transit boondoggle, used by few and scorned by many, another arrow in the quiver of the argument that we can’t build useful transit projects at reasonable costs.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Cuomo could use his political capital to push back on whoever remains from the late 1990s Astoria NIMBYs who fought against an N train extension. He could promote something useful and direct, that would benefit workers and travelers. He could leave a positive legacy on Laguardia and its accessibility. Instead, the AirTrain to nowhere inches closer to reality. It just won’t die.
Tuesday dawned with some odd news: An unsigned New York 1 reported alleged that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was gathering officials and dignitaries in Queens to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Laguardia AirTrain. This did not make sense. The AirTrain plan is still half-formed with no firm cost estimate or any sort of plan. Cuomo wants to build a leg from the Willets Point subway/LIRR stop to Laguardia via the Grand Central Parkway because there are no NIMBYs to upset, but that’s about all we know.
As the day unfolded, I wondered what was happening. Cuomo has been known to push through projects without clarity regarding funding sources (hello, New New York Bridge), but even the AirTrain would require some sort of environmental impact study. And so as the press event unfolded, it became clear that it wasn’t about the AirTrain and rather about Cuomo’s $4 billion public-private partnership that will fund the Laguardia rebuild. The AirTrain is still simply in the works, but how firm those plans are remains to be seen.
The plans involve a new Terminal B and Central Hall that should mesh with Delta’s own proposal to renovate its terminal. It’s being funded through private investment (though Cuomo’s statements made it sound like he called in a favor for some federal dollars too), and the project should wrap by 2021, just shy of the end of Cuomo’s potential third term. During the press conference, Cuomo briefly touched upon the idea of an AirTrain. He also claimed it would provide a ride to Penn Station and claimed that East Side Access would connect Penn Station and Grand Central. It was not a banner presser for Cuomo and transit. In the press release, the word “AirTrain” appears exactly once in a quote attributed to State Senator Jose Peralta.
All of this leads me to a question: Is the Laguardia AirTrain proposal real or is it simply vaporware from a governor looking to be viewed as “strong on infrastructure” so that he can position himself for a run at the White House in four or eight years? It is of course far too early to judge, but while the Laguardia overhaul is moving forward, the AirTrain is heading for purgatory.
For now, the only money allocated to the project is a $78 million item in the MTA’s approved capital plan for “replacement and upgrade” of the Willets Point LIRR station. The project will support full-time service for a “large volumes of railroad customers” with “seamless, direct access” to the AirTrain. The LIRR is to perform the preliminary design and environmental review work before transferring the AirTrain project and oversight of the Mets-Willets Transit Hub to the Port Authority for the procurement and construction phases.
So where does that leave us? I’ve written extensively about how the no-build option is likely better than the Willets Point routing for a Laguardia AirTrain and how the time is ripe for an N train extension to Laguardia rather than a Willets Point AirTrain. Yet, Cuomo has an idea for this project stuck in his head, and he has shown a willingness to push through this type of work. It may be right to call it vaporware simply because Cuomo is behind it, but for now, it looks awfully akin to transit vaporware.
As now, the LIRR expects to spend the money for the Willets Point work in 2017 and 2018. So it’s likely to be a few years before we even know what the EIS assessment for this LGA AirTrain concludes. For now, then, the best and only transit upgrades that will accompany the new Laguardia is a rebranding of the Q70 as the Laguardia Link complete with pre-board fare payment. It’s a step in the right direction and one that can be implemented in a few months. It’s not a substitute for a real effort to improve transit to the airport, but then again, neither is the Willets Point AirTrain, whenever it rolls around.
We’ll start with the better known of the two, in Queens where neighborhood transit groups have been fighting with national parks advocates over the LIRR’s disused Rockaway Beach Branch Line. Connecting Queens Boulevard to the current IND Rockaway Line, the ROW has been subject to a tense debate over its future. Parks advocates want to turn it into a linear park on the model of the High Line while transit advocates in Queens and politicians in the Rockaways want to understand if rail reactivation is feasible and beneficial. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had funded a pro-parks study, and the rail contingent wanted their say too. Now they’ll get their chance (even as QueensWay proponents grumble loudly about the state’s spending its money to study rail use of its underutilized rail rights of way).
As Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder announced today, the MTA will now conduct a full transportation feasibility study for this right of way. The report, due by June 30, 2017, will assess not just heavy rail reactivation but other potential modes of transit as well, including, I assume, light rail and a busway. The MTA will also explore “issues identified with reactivation” which could ran the gamut from recalcitrant residents to the costs associated with restoring a right of way that can kindly be characterized as in disrepair.
Goldfeder had been instrumental in securing language in the Assembly’s budget draft focusing on this corridor, and he celebrated in turn. “For tens of thousands of Queens families forced to endure some of the longest commutes in the city, this announcement by the MTA is real progress,” he said in a statement. “A comprehensive study of the Queens Rail will give voice to our transit concerns and bring Queens one step closer to having the transportation infrastructure we need and deserve. I have no doubt that this study will prove once and for all that reactivation is the best and most cost-effective way to speed commute times for our families and boost our local economy. I applaud Chairman Prendergast and the MTA for their foresight in recognizing the value of this old right-of-way, and I look forward to working with them as they complete this study.”
Meanwhile, the Staten Island West Shore rail line, recently the source of some interborough sniping, will get a similar treatment. Unfortunately, as the Staten Island Advance’s coverage of the story indicates, this is viewed as a victory for Sen. Andrew Lanza, he of the patently absurd transit obstructionism, but we shouldn’t penalize New Yorkers for voting to send a clown to the Albany circus. Lanza used his power in the Senate to hold up the MTA’s capital plan until the agency agreed to fund an alternatives analysis study, and as the agency will do in Queens, the MTA will similarly study potential transit uses for this right of way.
“I, along with Sen. Lanza and so many of my colleagues in local and state government have advocated for a transit study of the West Shore corridor for many years and it gives me great pride to announce this commitment,” Assembly rep Michael Cusick said. “For far too long, Staten Islanders have suffered through heinous commutes which rank among the worst in the entire nation. This evaluation will provide us with a clear path forward toward alleviating this issue, and I am so proud of the real results we have obtained today.”
Proponents believe light rail could be initiated along the right of way for around $1.5 billion, but that plan is a few years down the road. Following the analysis the MTA plans to conduct over the next 14 months, the agency would need funding for an environmental impact statement and, of course, someone would have to pony up dollars for light rail. But at least in Queens and on Staten Island, two dormant rail corridors are getting the study and attention they deserve. We’ll find out next summer what, if anything, comes next.
When last I checked in on the Rockaway Beach Branch line toward the end of 2015, I had kinda sorta vowed to leave well enough alone. The debate has grown a bit toxic with park advocates fighting with proponents of rail reactivation who are fighting against proponents of Select Bus Service with motorists and NIMBYs hovering on the wings. But as Michael Corleone once bemoaned, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. The “they” this time is Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder, and the get is Assembly-approved dollars for a true study of the best uses of the fallow right of way.
For years, the one ask I’ve had for the Rockaway Beach Branch line is a refresh of a decades-old feasibility study to determine, based on current city growth patterns, whether reactivation would be feasible and at what cost. What we’ve gotten since this nascent effort to revitalize the right-of-way began was a one-sided study from a rails-to-trails advocacy group that was funded nearly entirely through New York taxpayer dollars. It was a rigged assessment from the start and ended with fanciful renderings and no realistic path forward for the so-called QueensWay linear park. Goldfeder is hoping to right that wrong.
In a budget passed by the state Assembly this week, the Assembly allocated funding for a feasibility study of rail reactivation and would direct the MTA to complete the study by March 1, 2017. It is, unfortunately, a one-house budget and it’s not clear if the State Senate’s measure will include similar funding (or if Gov. Andrew Cuomo would approve such a request). Still, it’s a sign that someone at least is thinking through this issue.
Goldfeder explained his support for the funding. “With so many families in Queens suffering through some of the longest commutes in the city, it’s important that we explore every option to improve transportation. A feasibility study of reactivation the Rockaway Beach Rail Line will do just that. This study will provide us with an accurate picture of the state of the line and show not just what it would cost to reactivate, but also the impact this would have on thousands of commuters in the community,” he said.
Goldfeder hopes that a study would provide a comprehensive overview of the state of the right of way. He wants a full assessment of the current condition of the infrastructure (which, in all honest, is not good) and he wants to understand the costs of reactivating the line for passenger service. We haven’t had a clear indication of these costs, potential ridership or the impact to the area in nearly two decades, and the last study was not well received by transit advocates or community activists who disputed its findings.
A rail use for this right of way seems like a long shot with many forces aligning against a plan, but it deserves a fair hearing. As I’ve noted in the past, money is the way to get that hearing. If the state does allocate the dollars, the MTA will follow through with a study. And then we’ll know if, in the late 2010s, there is a way forward for the Rockaway Beach Brance line or if this dream should be allowed to fade away while other, productive uses of the ROW are identified.
Don’t call it a comeback, but six years after getting unceremoniously dumped by a cash-starved MTA, the W train will make its triumphant return this fall, the MTA announced today. As part of the plan to maintain current subway service levels for Astoria once the Second Ave. Subway opens and the Q is diverted to the Upper East Side, the agency will restore the W train in a few months, before the Second Ave. Subway opens, effectively replacing the Q in Astoria. It’s a clear sign the opening of the Second Ave. Subway is drawing nearer and a welcome development for Astoria residents and businesses who were worried about the fate of their neighborhood’s subway service.
As of now, the MTA plans to restore this service ahead of the opening of the Second Ave. Subway so that the diversion of the Q to the Upper East Side is a seamless one, and while rumors of delays have swirled for months, the MTA still plans to open the Second Ave. Subway by year’s end. Along with the re-introduction of the W train, the BMT service patterns will revert back to their old configuration as follows:
- W trains will make all local stops between Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard and Whitehall St. during weekdays. There will be no W service on weekends or late nights (which is in line with current Q service to Astoria).
- N trains will run express in Manhattan between 34th St. – Herald Square and Canal St. on weekdays. N trains will run local on weekends and late nights.
- Q trains will continue to run local in Brooklyn and express in Manhattan to 57th St./7th Ave. until the Second Ave. Subway opens, and then, Q trains will run to 96th St./2nd Ave. with additional stops at Lexington Ave./63rd St., 72nd St./2nd Ave. and 86th St./2nd Ave. The Q will not stop at 49th St.
- R train service will be unchanged.
As the MTA notes in a release touting the news, “The changes, including the restoration of the W, maintain service frequency and loading guidelines for customers in Astoria and avoid significant deviations from current service that might confuse customers on those affected lines. Customers on the Broadway Line will also benefit from an increase in choices for express and local service in Manhattan.” The agency plans to hold a hearing on the new service patterns this spring, and the service additions, including operating the Q to Second Ave. and restoring the W, will cost around $13.7 million annually.
The good news here is for Astoria riders who were quite concerned with the planned diversion of the Q train. The MTA had stated its commitment to maintain service levels, and today’s news fulfills that promise. By restarting the W a few months before the Second Ave. Subway opens, operations will be seamless, and new signage will be in place throughout the system. (Never mind the reality that, just a few months ago, the MTA removed the last vestiges of the W train from strip maps on the 1.)
The bad news, if you want to call it that, concerns the W’s southern terminus. By ending the train at Whitehall St., the W does little for Brooklyn R train riders who have complained about unreliable service, long headways and crowded trains. Even some rush hour W service into Brooklyn would have been welcome, but that’s a battle riders can keep fighting. With W trains restored, the opportunity for those riders to make their case is stronger. Overall, though, this news is an expected and welcome development as the city inches closer to opening the Second Ave. Subway, 90 years in the making.
For those curious, the MTA’s press release on the W train and the latest on progress on the Second Ave. Subway is available here on the agency’s website.
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.