Archive for Staten Island
It’s not a good time right now to be angling for projects that are 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.
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:
For all the complaints about transit in Staten Island, no SI lawmaker is at this assembly hearing on transportation for SI, Queens, BK
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) August 7, 2014
Need I say more?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The MTA has a lot of federal money on hand to build up its — and the region’s — resiliency in the post-Sandy world. Expanding transit access and reducing auto dependency is a major part of that resiliency as it better equips the city to deal with both the aftermath of storms and the build-up to them. But some of that spending is coming under fire in a rather nuanced way.
The project at issue concerns Staten Island’s defunct North Shore Rail Line. The MTA has proposed turning it into a busway and ruled out light or heavy rail due to costs. Staten Island politicians and transit advocates are not keen to pave over a rail right-of-way for a bunch of buses, and as the MTA looks to move forward with the busway thanks to an infusion of Sandy recovery dollars, these Staten Islanders are crying foul.
Mark Stein of the Staten Island Advance had more:
The MTA has approved a plan to construct a North Shore bus rapid transit (BRT) system and pay for it with Superstorm Sandy Recovery Funds, according to an agency capital program report obtained by the Advance. While Assemblyman Joe Borelli said the agency’s board-approved project is important for the North Shore, he believes the money isn’t being properly spent, especially since the area where the BRT system will go wasn’t affected by the storm the way the South and East shores were.
“If you’re going to include Sandy money, at least include us folks down here,” said Borelli, adding that while the project is necessary for the North Shore, the money being spent should go to resiliency projects that cover the geographic area that suffered transit losses during the storm.
“What we’re looking to do is in terms of resiliency, in the event of a network failure, travel would be impossible between parts of Staten Island and Manhattan,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “This busway would remedy that. It would offer an alternate means to the ferry for Staten Island customers going into Manhattan.”
The bus path that runs parallel to the Kill van Kull would also be available for emergency vehicles to use at all times, said Ortiz.
It’s easy to see how this project can benefit everyone and be a part of resiliency planning. It is, in fact, the point of resiliency money. But while these objections are easy to dismiss, Borelli raises another point: Moving forward with the North Shore busway could put an end to discussions concerning a light rail network for Staten Island that connects over the Bayonne Bridge with the Hudson Bergen Light Rail system.
“Advocates of the project would prefer that the West Shore line link up with the proposed North Shore light rail, as part of an Islandwide mass-transit transformation,” Stein explains. “Borelli said the West Shore rail system could be lost because the former North Shore line would be paved over with asphalt for the BRT, ending the possibility of a linked West Shore and North Shore rail system.”
I understand why DOT and the MTA have engaged in a love affair with buses of late. It’s far cheaper, quicker and easier to implement than it is to build a subway line or install a light rail system with the necessary infrastructure. It’s a change that, despite the horrendously slow rollout in Brooklyn, could happen in the span of a few months. Yet, it’s a poor substitute for something with higher capacity, more frequent service and the potential for connections to another service.
New York has resisted the allure of light rail as cities as transit-starved as Phoenix and Houston have turned to it as a potential solution to congestion. Staten Island deserves the same before the MTA paves over a rail right of way for a bunch of buses.
After reading coverage of Wednesday’s City Council vote to increase overnight Staten Island ferry service, I’m beginning to believe that mentioning the potential 59-minute wait for a boat as a Staten Island rite of passage is required by law. So here you go: It is a rite of passage for Staten Islanders to mistime their arrival at Whitehall St., miss a boat and be stuck waiting around for an hour in a rather drab ferry terminal as 1 a.m. slowly turns into 2 a.m. Not any longer.
In what I believe was a unanimous vote, the City Council approved a measure to increase ferry service such that boats will leave no less frequently than every 30 minutes throughout the day. The new law contains phased implementation. Until May 1, 2015, ferries must run at least every 30 minutes until 2 a.m., and after May 1, 2015, service throughout the night must be on half-hour intervals. The law is set to take effect immediately, but the Mayor may not sign it immediately. Though the bill has enough votes to override a Bloomberg veto, it will likely be up to his success to implement — and pay for — the new service.
There is an out as well though in that if DOT and the mayor determine that “it is not economically feasible to fully expand service,” the city can issue a report explaining why they aren’t expanding all service and must reassess the decision every two years. Such a review will have to include ridership figures, economic development and population changes, and plans for future expansion of ferry service. It’s an intriguing loophole that relies on an interpretation of “feasible” that remains hazy. Considering the ferries are subsidized entirely by the city, what does “economically feasible” even mean in this situation?
SI politicians began to praise the move a few days ago when it became clear the measure would pass. “I think it is a very powerful message to send to the residents, the commuters and the potential investors in the North Shore — that it’s open for business and that there is a consistent means of transportation,” Council member James Oddo said.
Debi Rose compared the situation to waiting for a subway. “I am so excited that this long-awaited legislation is moving forward. This bill is about basic fairness — waiting an hour or more for the ferry at night and on weekends is an unacceptable situation which is not tolerated in any other borough,” the North Shore representative said.
Now, it’s all well and good to expand ferry service, and it’s a noble gesture. Does it make sense? City officials estimated that the full overnight service could cost $15 million per year more, bringing the total cost to run the ferry to $115 million. Meanwhile, an Independent Budget Office analysis earlier this year called for an end to overnight ferry service entirely. On a typical weekday, just 2-3 percent of the daily 61,000 riders use the ferry between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., and the smallest boats fit over 1100 people with nine crew members. Replacing these ferries with express buses would save the city around $4 million. Economically feasible indeed.
Meanwhile, I still wonder about the wisdom of a free ferry ride. It’s possible to get from a home near St. George to a job on Wall St. without paying a dime whereas anyone traveling via subway between boroughs has to pay a fare. Is there a way to capture some fare revenue on the Staten Island ferry while ensuring that daily commuters don’t suffer through a two-fare trip? It’s an operational challenge that isn’t impossible to overcome, and the revenue from, say, tourists or other non-regular riders could offset the costs of an increasingly expensive service. It’s also a political non-starter amongst a particularly prickly group of politicians.
The inherent contradictions in New York City’s approach to and embrace of transit are at their peak on Staten Island. The borough’s residents and politicians clamor for better transit. They want subways to span the harbor or the narrows; they want easier access and more reliable service. What they don’t want though apparently are incremental and easy-to-implement changes to the bus network that prioritizes road space at the expense of drivers. Anything but that.
The trouble, as we well know, started with Select Bus Service. The MTA and DOT worked to bring their baby to Hylan Boulevard. Dedicated bus lanes and some pre-boarding payment options along with, eventually, signal prioritization have led to faster buses and satisfied customers. The system has its flaws, and it shouldn’t be confused with bus rapid transit. But it’s working. The city’s notoriously slow and unreliable buses are getting faster.
Certain elements of Staten Island though aren’t happy. With the debut of camera enforcement earlier this summer, complaints skyrocketed. Earlier, Staten Island politicians had been responsible for a successful drive to convince the MTA to turn off SBS’ hallmark blue lights, and during Tom Prendergast’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Andrew Lanza went on a six-minute rant on Select Bus Service and the lack of space for cars. A few days later, Nicole Malliotakis bashed camera enforcement as a violation of civil liberties. All of this over a bus lane that’s designed to speed up travel for the masses.
Now, though, it seems as though the complaints are working. As the Staten Island Advance reported this week, DOT may change some rules regarding the SBS system on Hylan Boulevard. Michael Sedon reported:
In response to claims people have been unfairly ticketed by some Select Bus Service lane cameras on Staten Island, the city Department of Transportation is considering changing the rule slightly to better reflect reality. Instead of making the next immediate right-hand turn after entering the dreaded red bus lane — the current rule — motorists may be allowed to make a right-hand turn within 200 feet of entering the bus lane. “A vehicle may not be operated in the bus lane during restricted hours for more than one block or two hundred feet, whichever is less,” is the proposed amendment that the DOT discussed at a 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday.
The DOT confirmed that they took public comments Wednesday morning and have received written comments and will consider both as it “proceeds with the proposed rule amendments,” a spokesman said.
The possible change of heart came after local officials cited a Signature Bank in Grant City, just past Hunter Avenue on Hylan Boulevard, where bank customers were receiving tickets for turning into the bank’s parking lot, and on Richmond Avenue in New Springville, where motorists were being ticketed for not turning into a private parking lot near the next available intersection, which doesn’t occur until Platinum Avenue.
The bank’s parking lot has been a flash point in the debate over the bus lane. Politicians claim there isn’t enough space in between the turn for the bank and the turn for the private lot, and a few people who have gotten tickets have raised a ruckus. If it’s a safety issue unique to this intersection, I’m not going to argue against a change, but I can’t help but think that the NIMBYs are at it again.
Time and time again, we see transit improvements rolled back because a loud minority makes a stand. Along 34th St., there is no transitway because a handful of people were concerned about door-to-door access to their apartment buildings. On 125th St., buses are backed up from river to river because a few parking spots would have been taken away. It’s noble that DOT and the MTA involve the community and seek guidance and support from Community Boards, homes to some of the city’s most crotchety and progress-shy people, but at a certain point, the experts should be allowed to do their jobs. Progress is slow, and progress can be painful.
It involves recognizes priorities and learning that the thing you want isn’t the thing that’s best for everyone else who lives around you. When it comes to transit planning, New York City has a long way to go even though the city was built with a transit backbone that in no small way powers the entire city.