Archive for Staten Island

Following last week’s budget negotiations, the MTA has money to study transportation uses for Staten Island’s West Shore ROW. (Source: SIEDC)

As the dust from last week’s perfectly opaque New York state budget process continues to settle, we are learning more and more about what various neighborhoods are getting out of the plan, and so far the winner seems to be studies for future plans. Two contested corridors — Queens’ Rockaway Beach Branch line and Staten Island’s West Shore line — will undergo MTA-led feasibility studies for reactivation plans that have been percolating for years. Both have been debated for years with one nearly falling victim to a rails-to-trails advocacy group that would generally foreclose the rail option for generations if not ever, and the money and commitment for feasibility studies are victories for both corridors.

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.

Categories : Queens, Staten Island
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Some Staten Islanders hope to bring light rail to the borough via the West Shore ROW. (Source: SIEDC)

When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his Brooklyn-Queens light rail proposal earlier this month, various commentators latched onto the selection of the route. It may not necessarily be a bad routing for a light rail line, but as the city’s first and as the city’s transit deserts go, the waterfront from Sunset Park to Astoria is hardly the most wanting corridor. The proposal came about more because it had deep-pocketed champions willing to fight for it. Whether that’s reason enough to build a new transit route with a new-to-New York transit mode has been a topic of constant debate over the past few weeks, but one thing is for sure: Other transit-starved areas aren’t too happy with this approach.

Enter the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. For years, the SIEDC has been shouting into the void of New York politics. For years, the group has been urging someone in power to take up their calls for a West Shore light rail line. The group has asked for $5 million to perform the alternatives analysis for a proposed 13.1-mile route that could connect to North Shore transit corridor and over the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line. As now, it’s nothing more than a line on paper, and the group is growing frustrated.

They are so frustrated, in fact, that they are threatening to give up. I’m not sure who this threat is directed toward other than the few people at the SIEDC who keep fighting this good fight, but they’re going to give up if no one continues to listen to them. The group sent a letter to a bunch of city officials involved in the Brooklyn-Queens Connector initiative, and as you can see from the excerpts, they are not a happy group right now. Anna Sanders of the Staten Island Advance put together some of the letter:

“A decade of struggle in a world where state and city agencies and transportation groups don’t care about a population center of nearly half a million is just too much to bear,” board directors Ralph Branca, Stanley Friedman and Robert Moore recently wrote to a slew of transportation officials and regional planning organizations…

“Our disappointment is not in the fact that Brooklyn is getting a light rail and that Staten Island is not even getting study money. It’s that all of the excuses used by City, State and Federal agencies and authorities to shoot down the West Shore Light Rail were ignored when proposing the Brooklyn system…”

“We have heard for years that there was ‘No money to fund the West Shore Light Rail.’ Obviously, someone in City Hall found a creative way to make it happen. We have been told that ‘The route is too long, maybe you should phase it in.’ The Brooklyn proposal is the exact same distance as the West Shore Light Rail. We have been instructed time and time again that ‘No agency wants to sponsor, nor do they understand how to build light rail.’ Well, someone must be interested and have the knowledge … when Brooklyn and Queens ask for it.”

Oddly, the letter ends with a threat to abandoned the light rail efforts if no money materializes by the end of September, but that threat hurts only the people who are advocating for a West Shore light rail alternative in the first place. SI politicians who have expressed similar frustration haven’t thrown quite the same temper tantrum. Meanwhile, the Staten Island Advance, while also questioning the SIEDC’s threat, wrote a long editorial accusing the city of double standards and inequity. They’re not wrong, and the piece is well worth a read.

But ultimately, this issue is basic politics. First, Staten Island isn’t exactly a de Blasio stronghold, and certain borough politicians have spent as much time obstructing transit improvements (such as Select Bus Service) as others have spent fighting for more options. Additionally, a light rail line through Staten Island should spur a massive upzoning along its route, and that’s not really part of the conversation Staten Island has had yet. Finally, the reality is that there are no interests behind the a West Shore light rail line. Major players in New York’s development and transportation scene haven’t voiced support, and so it goes nowhere.

Rather than being discouraged by the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, the SIEDC should look to emulate that model and line up monied interests who would support a Staten Island light rail. That’s the political reality of New York’s transportation world where the MTA is controlled by Albany and the mayor isn’t an independently wealthy billionaire beholden only to the limit of his own bank accounts. Again, whether that’s a sound way to engage in transportation planning is a question open debate (and one where the answer is most likely a resounding no), but that’s where we are. Rather than threatening to give up, double down.

Categories : Staten Island
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As the efforts to bring plans for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel to fruition take off, political infighting is going to be a significant challenge. Just a few days after Gov. Chris Christie met with the feds, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer engaged in some unprovoked sniping over Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel and was appropriately dismissed by Christie’s team. While I’ve been long critical of the ARC move, at this point, Christie is willing to talk, and moving forward on a new tunnel is more important than rehashing the past over the old.

Stringer’s words and Christie’s response are both indicative of the petty bickering that could hamper this project. New York and New Jersey are going to have to present a unified front, and they’re off to a rocky start. But the Stringer incident is small beans compared with the in-fighting that could threaten New York’s side of this project. We’ve also seen Gov. Andrew Cuomo dig in on the funding issues, and now other New York City representatives are chiming in. The latest comes from — where else? — Staten Island. As first reported by Politco New York’s Dana Rubinstein, newly elected Congressman Dan Donovan is skeptical of the tunnel for all the wrong reasons.

In a press release, Donovan “voiced reservations” over the tunnel plans because he feels Staten Island’s priorities should come first:

“Modern, efficient public transportation is obviously critical to our region, and we need to do what we can to relieve congestion.” Congressman Donovan said. “But for decades Staten Island has been ignored and forgotten, and the results are clear: no community in the entire country faces a longer commute than us. It’s disheartening to sit in traffic while listening to news updates about multibillion dollar investments for another underwater rail tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. It’s time to get serious about viable transportation alternatives here at home.”

Through the gas tax, Staten Islanders likely pay more per capita into the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund than the residents of any other borough. The federal government distributes those transportation dollars to state and local governments, which then prioritize projects for funding. New York City’s OneNYC plan did not identify any near-term transit expansion projects for Staten Island.

Options exist for the borough, such as a light rail on the West Shore and Bus Rapid Transit along the North Shore. Both would bring relief and opportunity by providing what the rest of New York City takes for granted – meaningful access to public transportation. The West Shore light rail alone, which would connect the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system in New Jersey and stretch 13 miles to Richmond Valley Station, could see 13,000 riders per day. Congressman Donovan concluded, “I understand the importance of maintaining the regional infrastructure on which millions of people rely, and I will work toward a long-term transportation bill to provide funding certainty to regional planners. Still, it’s about time Staten Island got the attention it deserves. State and local planners have to prioritize this borough’s spiraling transportation challenges.”

On the one hand I understand Donovan’s call. He’s one of the few Staten Island voices actually arguing for transit for the borough, and his references to an expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail or the West Shore line are the right ones. On the other hand, he shouldn’t be couching this pro-transit argument in an anti-Hudson tunnel press release. First, there’s no reason we can’t have both, and second, the scale just isn’t the same. The trans-Hudson tunnel is a vital connection for the region that serves nearly 20 times as many people as an HBLR expansion might.

Now, I can forgive Donovan here; he’s a bit new to this game. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about how hard it is to take calls from Staten Island for better transit seriously. To rehash the near past, certain S.I. politicians have complained about nearly every transit improvements. State Senator Andrew Lanza railed against bus lanes and then had the audacity to call for more Staten Island transit. He’s also spearheaded a lengthy opposition to flashing lights on SBS vehicles, and he’s not the only State Islander similarly complaining. The borough wants more transit but doesn’t seem to want the density that comes with it.

Still, as the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation fights for light rail, Donovan should push the MTA to include funding for a study in its capital program proposals. But it doesn’t have to compete against trans-Hudson tunnels. That’s just counterproductive for all of New York.

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At least someone out there is fighting for better Staten Island transit. (Source: SIEDC)

It’s not a good time right now to be angling for projects that are not in the MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Program. Agency head Tom Prendergast has started to discus prioritization in the face of a $15 billion funding gap, and the MTA is — painfully, rightfully — going to prioritize system maintenance and modernization over expansion. This is a very costly decision as institutional memory and lessons learned from recent expansion projects will fade away as the MTA’s network doesn’t expand to meet growing demand. We could see a future without more phases of the Second Ave. Subway, B Division countdown clocks and other growth options unless Albany makes some tough but necessary decisions.

For those who want something not in the MTA’s capital plan (and who aren’t named Cuomo), times are even tougher. The MTA isn’t exactly receptive to ideas they haven’t put forward, and the agency is especially unwilling to look at plans without political backing and money behind them. Still, that’s not stopping the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation for continue its uphill fight for West Shore light rail.

Over the past few years, in fits and starts, Staten Island’s transit options have come under scrutiny. The MTA and NYC DOT have tried to bring Select Bus Service to the isolated borough, but politicians have pushed back hard on everything from dedicated bus lanes to flashing lights. Meanwhile, the MTA has examined reactivating the North Shore right-of-way, but the alternatives analysis disappointing picked a BRT option over light rail. Still, those fighting for more transit are eying the West Shore for light rail, and they’re not giving up.

Vincente Barrone of the Staten Island Advance has the latest:

With huge development anticipated for Staten Island’s West Shore, the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC) refuses to let its West Shore light rail proposal die. Steve Grillo, the SIEDC vice president, has been championing the service over the past decade, garnering support from virtually every local politician without successfully finding a financial sponsor. “It’s been really good in terms of support,” he said. “We recently had the letter of support from [U.S. Senators] Gillibrand and Schumer’s office. So that’s great having both senators on board. All local elected officials have supported this. So right now the obstacles are the transportation agencies.”

…The rail line would run a 13.1-mile route along the Island’s West Shore, with stops from Richmond Valley to Elm Park. The proposed line would carry Island commuters to the Bayonne Bridge to connect with New Jersey Transit’s Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line. Currently, the SIEDC needs $5 million to conduct an alternative analysis study. A necessary step to receive any federal funding, the study would offer a comprehensive look at the proposal that would determine the most feasible mass transit options for the corridor…

Grillo has talked about the plan with the state and city transportation commissioners in the past to no avail. He’s also spoken with high-ranking officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is currently dealing with its own funding quagmire…MTA’s Island board member Allen Cappelli says that the MTA should be able to find money for the study. “The funding needed is pittance,” said Cappelli. “We’re talking spare change that fell into the MTA’s sofa, which is why it’s so appalling that it hasn’t been picked up.”

The problem, as I’ve said before, concerns a champion. This West Shore line has no political champion. It has no one opening up the wallet to find money for a study, and it’s coming out at a time when the MTA is fighting for itself first and other projects second. It’s certainly worthwhile and deserves more of a look that anyone in the city seems willing to give, and that’s a shame.

Grillo, meanwhile, isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. In the piece, he calls Select Bus Service “bus rapid transit light, at best” and expresses his desire for better Staten Island transit. “We need 21st century solutions for 21st century problems,” he said. “What we’re getting from our agencies are out-of-date ideas.” Out of date and out of money.

Categories : Staten Island
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Whenever the MTA’s five-year capital plan comes up for debate and discussion, some familiar proposals re-enter the public sphere. The Triboro RX circumferential line made headlines during last year’s mayoral campaigns while the idea of Utica Ave. or Nostrand Ave. extensions were bandied about amongst transit-watcher circles. Ultimately, the MTA unveiled a plan with only one new extension — Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — and while many were sad to see their pet projects omitted, Staten Island expressed its displeasure with a sigh louder than normal.

Vincent Barone of the Staten Island Advance set the stage:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled its $32 billion, five-year capital plan this week with no aim to fund either the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or West Shore Light Rail projects. Staten Islanders have rallied behind the two major plans over the years in order to create more public transportation options in booming Island areas.

Allen Cappelli, Staten Island’s MTA board member, was outraged by the exclusion of projects, calling the current budget a “betrayal” to Staten Islanders. “[The New York Wheel and Empire Outlets] are going to exacerbate transportation conditions on North Shore,” he said. “This is a continuation of the neglect of serious mass transportation needs on Staten Island.”

The West Shore Rail Line is in need of $5 million for an Alternative Analysis study, while the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit needs about $365 million in funding for construction to begin. The original MTA plan was to use Sandy recovery money to build the BRT line, but the proposal hit a wall last year when the MTA decided not to submit the project for federal funding.

On the one hand, considering the relatively modest pricetags, that these projects should be included is almost a no-brainer. The $370 million in total expenses would amount to approximately 1 percent of the proposed $32 billion total. On the other hand, I’m holding out hope for some sort of rail restoration along the North Shore line and am not totally disappointed this project won’t see the light of day quite yet. It could also come about through later joint efforts with DOT as part of Mayor de Blasio’s promised 20 new SBS routes. Why the West Shore Rail Line Alternative Analysis wasn’t included is a good question. We should also look at bring the Hudson Bergen Light Rail line into Staten Island as well.

What Staten Island is getting includes $300 million for brand new rolling stock for the Staten Island Railyway. While we don’t know full details, these new cars will be compatible with Staten Island’s new real-time arrival system. According to the MTA’s capital plan, “other SIR work includes mainline track replacement, radio system enhancement, and component repairs at various stations.” That’s not much of an investment, but it’s something about which borough officials care deeply.(It’s worth noting that SI will also get two new ferries as part of a federal grant for storm resiliency.)

The question is though why isn’t Staten Island getting more, and while I haven’t had many conversations about this with many people, I believe it’s a political matter driven by the fact that many prominent Staten Island officials do not embrace transit. I use State Senator Andrew Lanza as a frequent example and that’s not without reason (1, 2). When these State representatives use their platforms to advocate against incremental transit reforms and do not fight for state dollars that could be used to expand transit, the MTA doesn’t respond. They’re not in the business of always lobbying for new projects without political support and until someone on Staten Island starts arguing for a North Shore or West Shore reactivation (let alone a connection to the subway via the harbor or the Narrows), the MTA won’t allocate money on its own.

This discussion also implicates the ferries in a tangential way. As part of a mid-1990s campaign promise, Rudy Giuliani dropped any fare on the ferries, and they are now a subsidized means of transit for everyone. I continually question why the ferries should be free; after all, people live on Staten Island knowing that the connections to Manhattan job centers are a boat ride away, and others who live in areas of the city isolated from the subway system sometimes have to pay multiple fares. Lately, the Borough President asked the city’s Independent Budget Office to assess a tourist-only fare, and the IBO determined that such a fare could generate as much as $67 million over 15 years [pdf]. Imagine what a marginal fare for everyone could do.

Maybe it’s time to have those difficult conversations with Staten Islanders. Maybe it’s time for those who want transit upgrades to propose ways to fund them. It’s not always easy to realize, but nothing comes to New Yorkers for free, especially in the transit realm. I don’t have the answers; I have only some thoughts. But to me, it starts with the elected officials. As long as the Senator Lanzas of the world are getting reelected, we’ll never have conversations regarding funding, fare policies and transit expansion that Staten Island needs and deserves.

At some point, I halfheartedly expect Staten Island voters to wise up to the ways of their politicians and stop reelecting them. But then I always remember that I value transit support more than most city voters. There is no hope, and Staten Island representatives are free to, say, take away Select Bus Service indicators on the one hand while whining about lack of transit improvements on the other. It’s a time-honored tradition like no other.

The details behind Senator Andrew Lanza’s recent comments almost don’t even matter. He’s complaining that the MTA eliminated a bus a few years ago that had around 700 riders per Saturday and 400 riders per Sunday — lowest among all SI buses. A bunch of Staten Island representatives gathered to protest the MTA’s decision not to restore the bus, and with the recorders on, Lanza went to town:

Senator Andrew Lanza and Assemblyman Michael Cusick joined Matteo, alongside the Amalgamated Transit Union at Saturday’s press conference, held at the corner of Manor Road and Croak Street. In the only borough without a subway system, Cusick (D-Mid Island) stressed the importance of bus availability, saying, “We need safe, reliable bus service here on Staten Island.”

Lanza (R-Staten Island) slammed the MTA for continuously “forgetting” about Staten Island and thanked Matteo for taking up the S54 issue.

“When it comes to transportation on the Island, we’ve been forgotten by the MTA,” Lanza said. “No where has the MTA failed more miserably to provide adequate public transportation than here on Staten Island. The message today is very simple: MTA, do your job.”

Even if you feel the S54 should be restored, these statements are rich comedy from Lanza. As you may recall (or can’t forget), Lanza used Tom Prendgerast’s confirmation hearing in 2013 to rail about transit improvements for six minutes without pause. He spoke for longer than the candidate, and he dismissed MTA promises to cut seven minutes off bus commutes. He has since vowed to attempt to roll back dedicated bus lanes on Staten Island.

Meanwhile, Lanza’s petulance has a city-wide impact too. Once upon a time, Select Bus Service vehicles had flashing blue lights that easily distinguished them from a distance from local buses running the same routes. But Lanza, who was somehow offended by these lights, discovered they violated a state law, and he essentially ordered the MTA to shut them off. He hasn’t permitted movement on a bill that would allow the MTA to use purple lights instead, and it’s been 20 months since the lights on the SBS buses last were on.

So it’s easy for a politician to believe past actions won’t come back to haunt him. More Staten Islanders feel the MTA “failed…Staten Island” because there’s no subway, but there’s no subway because politicians like Senator Lanza have never believed in funding the MTA or working to support incremental and important improvements. They want more now and they don’t want to pay for it. This is the behavior of a spoiled child, and Lanza continues to be the figurehead for Staten Island’s transit problems.

As an endnote, a few weeks ago, the New York State Assembly hosted a hearing on transit for Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. amNew York reporter Dan Rivoli was on the scene and offered up this take:

Need I say more?

Categories : Staten Island
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I’ve had a very tough time in recent months reconciling the attitudes of Staten Islanders with regards to transit, and whenever I point out on Twitter the inherent contradictions, SI natives get very defensive. To me, it seems that Staten Island politicians want to have their cake and eat it too. They want better transit, but then they complain when transit improvements don’t come around as they see fit through whatever narrow lens they view the transit world. Ultimately, they end up getting nothing, and it’s their own doing.

As you may recall, one of the leaders in the fight against better transit is Senator Andrew Lanza. He killed the Select Bus Service vehicles’ flashing blue lights because of trumped up complaints over confusion, and he has shown explicit derision toward the efforts to get the lights restored albeit in a more neutral color. During Tom Prendergast’s confirmation hearings, he took the floor for a lengthy diatribe on SBS while barely letting the MTA’s then-future CEO and Chairman say anything. It was an amazing display of misguided hubris and misplaced anger.

Now, Lanza’s back, and with the passion he’s shown in his quixotic fight against Select Bus Service improvements, you’d think one of these buses had ran over his childhood dog 45 years ago. He now wants to do away with basically all SBS improvements. Dana Rubinstein reports:

Staten Island State Senator Andrew Lanza, whose distaste for Select Bus Service is by this point well-established, is now trying to strip Staten Island’s only rapid bus line of what is arguably its most distinguishing feature. Lanza has introduced a bill that would bar the city from enforcing a bus-only lane on the Hylan Boulevard and Richmond Avenue Select Bus Service line, arguing that the service has been a “failure.”

Approached for comment on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Lanza produced a litany of complaints about the bus service, which relies on fewer bus stops spaced farther apart, bus-only lanes, and camera and police enforcement to provide faster bus service along a 15-mile stretch of Staten Island…

The Staten Island senator … thinks the Staten Island Select Bus Service line has created nothing more than “speed traps.” “Hylan Boulevard is worse than ever since they’ve done this,” he said. Also, he thinks the terracotta-colored bus lanes are ugly. “I don’t know if it’s water paint, I don’t know if it’s come from a kindergarten class,” he said, but it looks like “street graffiti,” is “pathetic” and “adds to the confusion.” Lanza’s bill would not eliminate the bus route, but it would eliminate the bus-only lane. Which is kind of a distinction without a difference.

The MTA has noted that SBS service along Hylan Boulevard has led to an 11 percent jump in ridership while bus speeds have increased by 13-19 percent depending upon the time of day. Lanza has no need for “facts” or “improvements.” He just wants them gone because buses, I assume, help improve mobility for people who aren’t going to vote for Andrew Lanza.

But again, I’m struck by these contradictions. In a similar vein, Nicole Malliotakis is spearheading an effort to put pressure on the MTA to restore the X18 bus service. This bus had an average weekday ridership of 303 in the last full year before it was eliminated, and officials estimate it would cost around $500-$600,000 to bring it back. On average, then, it cost around $8 per passenger to operate this bus. Now, the MTA can afford 600 grand, but should it be in the business of operating loss leaders? (That’s a very philosophical question about public transit’s role in society, and there’s probably no wrong answer. But I digress.)

I bring this up because while Malliotakis is agitating for a bus that she, and very few other people, used to ride, she has protested other transit improvements for her constituents. She whined about camera enforcement of bus lanes last summer and found some senior citizens who couldn’t figure out what a bus lane meant. (She also couldn’t figure out how to parse MTA’s public budget documents.)

This all leads to a very incoherent picture of transit. Staten Islanders have threatened to throw up roadblocks if the city were to extend the 7 train to New Jersey before sending the 1 or R to Staten Island even if ridership demands would warrant a Jersey extension well ahead of an underground route to Staten Island. They yearn for faster rides and better connections, but when given them, they balk. Now, I don’t mean to pick on Staten Island; it’s certainly drawn the short end of the transit straw. But the borough’s elected officials and those who continue to vote for them can’t have it both ways. If this keeps up, they’ll just have it no way at all instead.

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Will the New York Wheel give a boost to Staten Island transit options?

For better or worse, Staten Island has garnered a lot of ink lately. Gov. Cuomo’s toll giveaway garnered an intense reaction from New York politicians and media commentators alike. But for all the negative attention the toll measure has garnered, other forces are pushing Staten Island transit in a better direction all thanks to a giant Ferris wheel and an outlet mall.

As you may recall, toward the end of the Bloomberg Administration, the mayor, Staten Island politicians and some high-powered real estate folks got together on the New York equivalent to the London Eye. This giant Ferris wheel will sit above the St. George Terminal and abut a new outlet center. This being Staten Island, there will be more parking than any transit advocate would like to see, but the potential for these new attractions is also drawing ferry operators.

In a big piece in this week’s Crain’s New York, Lisa Fickenscher explores potential Staten Island growth fueled by better ferry service. The underlying premise is still shaky. We don’t know if the Ferris wheel or mall will actually become a reality or if 6 million people will make the long trek across the harbor to see these attractions. But relying on the Field of Dreams mantra, ferry operators believe that if you build it, they will come.

Fickenscher writes:

If the developers of those megaprojects are right, and some 6 million annual visitors begin flocking to sleepy Staten Island in two years – when the attractions are expected to be completed – every major ferry company in the city, including New York Water Taxi, BillyBey Ferry Co., Statue Cruises and Seastreak, will be dropping off riders at a dock just a short distance from the St. George Terminal, where the Staten Island Ferry lands.

All those businesses are currently in negotiations with the New York Wheel and BFC Partners, which is developing the outlet center, evaluating whether they need to purchase more boats and how much they should charge to transport tourists from points in midtown Manhattan, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens directly to the North Shore of Staten Island. There are no regulatory impediments standing in the way of expanded service. The city is seeking a developer to build and operate a new ferry landing…

The ferry operators’ main competition would not be each other but the Staten Island Ferry, which transports 20 million people a year to the borough on nine boats that operate seven days a week – and, most important, offers a free ride. “The big unknown is how many people will use the Staten Island Ferry,” said [Statue Cruises’ Michael] Burke. “I think a majority will go on the free boat.”

To keep the cost competitive with the free option, [Paul] Goodman of BillyBey said that subsidies either from the developers or from the city may be necessary. That could allow the boats to also cater to Staten Island commuters willing to pay a little more for direct service to midtown, for example. The city has already indicated that it will not subsidize new ferry service to St. George.

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Staten Island reacts to a potential invasion of tourists. At least the hordes of crowds will be confined to the St. George area, but the new attractions could create traffic problems across the Outerbridge Crossing or the Goethals, Bayonne or Verrazano Bridge. Meanwhile, the free Staten Island ferries will fill up with day travelers while regular commuters could find their rides far less comfortable. For a borough that has battled the tensions of development for decades, what lies in store could create some deep fissures.

More important though is the added ferry service. Can more ferries at St. George solve Staten Island’s transit problems? Can the city figure out a way to encourage ferries to eye alternate landings throughout Staten Island to better serve the borough’s commuting population? These aren’t questions we can answer now, but they are questions that deserve more thought and consideration before the New York Wheel and outlet mall open in 2016. Staten Island deserves it.

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As Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an election year giveaway to Staten Island drivers — at the expense of New York City’s subway and bus riders — yesterday, a few residents of the isolated borough accused me of harboring disdainful attitudes toward Staten Island. It is, after all, a equal among boroughs, as much a part of New York City as Brooklyn and Manhattan. I believe a borough of under 500,000 sometimes get more attention than it deserves in a city of eight million, but it certainly isn’t Staten Island’s fault that it has no subway connection to the rest of our extensive system. It would be a far different place with one.

It is, however, Staten Island’s fault that it’s such a car-heavy, transit-phobic place, and it is not appropriate for the Governor, even after a year of negotiating, to alleviate a toll burden just because it’s an election year. It’s also worth noting that Staten Islanders pay the least for their admittedly meager transit service with a free ferry and a railroad that charges fares only at a pair of stations. But that’s part of being an equal partner amidst the five boroughs that make up our city. Some will pay less; some more. It should generally balance out.

As you can see, from a transit perspective, I have decidedly mixed feelings about Staten Island. I don’t have these feelings about Gov. Cuomo. He has no transit policy for New York City, comprehensive, piece-meal or otherwise, and he seems more intent on governing for votes than on governing for policy.

The big news that came out of Thursday concerned toll relief. What was originally supposed to be a $14 million contribution from the state became a 50-50 split. Since the MTA has a shaky surplus, the agency will contribute $7 million and the state will fill the gap so that Staten Island residents in non-commercial vehicles will now pay just $5.50 to cross the Verrazano Bridge and, in order to combat commerce clause challenges, commercial vehicles that travel the bridge frequently enough will see a reduction in tolls. The Verrazano Bridge, for Staten Island residents, now costs half what, say, the Triborough Bridge does for Bronx residents.

The toll relief is likely to go into effect on April 1, though it may take longer to reprogram E-ZPasses. “The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a lifeline for Staten Island – for its residents, for its neighbors, for its businesses and for its economy,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “This toll relief will allow Staten Islanders to keep more of their money on the island and will make a real difference for companies that rely on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to keep their business thriving.”

Staten Islanders already enjoyed discounts rates on the toll, and that’s fine. I’m agnostic on toll relief by itself, but this move is a symptom of a bigger issue. As an editorial last week in the Staten Island Advance made perfectly clear, this is an election year move designed to help Cuomo shore up support in a more right-leaning area of the city, and it comes at the expense of everyone else. As Streetsblog notes, this is robbing a lot of Peters to pay off a few Pauls:

Make no mistake, though, the governor is undermining the MTA. For one thing, revenue from tolls is the only raid-proof source of funds for the MTA. The money goes straight into the agency’s accounts instead of passing through the state first, so Albany can’t pocket it. Cuomo may commit to “making the MTA whole” at his press conference, but any general funds spent this year won’t necessarily be there in the future. Albany’s support for transit has a way of shriveling up over time…

Other likely effects of the Verrazano toll cut: Tougher negotiations with the TWU, which can now point to what appears to be slack in the MTA budget (but isn’t really), and a slightly less compelling case for the Move NY toll reform plan, which swaps higher tolls on crossings into Manhattan for lower tolls on outlying bridges like the Verrazano.

Ultimately, $7 million in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to bankrupt the MTA, but it whittles away at the money that’s there. Cuomo claimed that the toll relief would disappear if the MTA’s finances declined, but that’s a political fight for another era. Meanwhile, with the MTA’s tenuous financial picture driven by debt, using surplus funds to cut a deal simply weakens that surplus.

Sam Schwartz has floated a plan that lowers preexisting bridge tolls and raises others to create a more balanced transit policy. It has its flaws, but it supports modes of travel that are better for the city and should reduce congestion. What Cuomo did yesterday contained no elements of that plan or any sense that he had a plan in the first place. It was a giveaway for drivers at the expense of subway and bus riders, and it sums up his approach to transit in a nutshell. How utterly disappointing.

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I’ve been sitting on a bunch of open tabs for a little while and thought it would be a good idea to get around to sharing these. These are stories I found interesting or newsworthy but just haven’t had an opportunity to post here.

$500 million from unused MetroCards

I’ve talked a bit about the MTA’s new green fee and the money realized from unused MetroCards, and a recent piece in The Times put those dollars into context. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the MTA collected half a billion dollars from unused fares. Since straphangers have to pre-pay for MetroCards, dollars that are left on the cards long after their expiration dates remain with the MTA, and on an annual basis, the money is a small, but important, part of the agency’s annual budget.

Unused fares isn’t something that’s come about because of the MetroCard era. Back in the day, New Yorkers would buy tokens and never use them. They would get lost, get forgotten, get overlooked, and the MTA could collect those fares. But today with uneven bonuses that make the math of a free fare more difficult, more dollars are left on cards that expire, and the $1 fee for new MetroCards means revenue as well.

As the MTA phases out the MetroCard — the topic of my March 19 Problem Solvers session — these unused fares may diminish a bit. The next system may well be a pay-as-you-go set-up that doesn’t focus around any proprietary fare collection system. While the MTA will lose the money from unused fares, it will also drastically reduce the amount it has to spend to collect fares. That’s a win for the customers, and a win for the transit agency as well.

Send the 3 to the Bronx

As New York City subways go, the 3 train runs an odd route. It stretches deep into Brooklyn but then stops short of anything in Manhattan. It terminates at 148th St. near the Lenox Yard and goes no further north. In a piece at Welcome2TheBronx, Richard Garey argues for extending the train to the Bronx. With the need for some cross-Bronx subway service and the incoming soccer facility near Yankee Stadium, the time may be right to look at some subway extension options.

Garey’s post focuses on the 3 train as a way to serve neighborhoods that once enjoyed streetcar service and now don’t, but I think he has the routing wrong. The 3 shouldn’t end up as another north-south route in the Bronx but could instead cut across the borough, serving areas that don’t have good cross-Bronx transit options while boosting subway service. It is, after all, a fast ride downtown on the IRT express. Without a massive infusion of cash, we’re just dreaming, but it’s an intriguing proposition after all.

Unhappiness at 149th Street

For years, I’ve been using the 149th Street-Grand Concourse subway stop as a transfer point on the way to Yankee Stadium, and for years, it has been one disgusting station. The walls were marred by leaking pipes, and on the way home from a World Series game in 2001, my sister and I saw squirrel-sized rats on the uptown 2/5 platform. It was very, very unpleasant.

Recently, the station underwent a renovation, but a few area residents are unhappy. One transit buff took a video tour of the station post-renovation and discovered some subpar work. Meanwhile, another group of residents wants to restore elevator service that was shuttered 40 years ago. As best as I can tell, the elevator in question went from the 2/5 platform to street level. The MTA has no money, and protestors hope Mayor de Blasio can help out. I wouldn’t hold me breath.

Countdown clocks for the SIR

Thanks to an infusion of funds from Council member Vincent Ignizio, four stations along the Staten Island Railway — Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale and Huguenot — now have countdown clocks. The work is part of a $675,000 initiative funded by Ignizio’s office that will eventually include a Subway Time component that will add these SIR stations to the MTA’s tracking app. For now, the information is available on the St. George-bound side, but Tottenville-bound service will have its time in the sun as well. If you pay for it, it will come.