Archive for Staten Island
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.
What do you do with Staten Island? What is its role in the future of New York City? How does the city develop accessible areas while opening up other parts of the island? And should these other parts even be opened? These are the perennial questions facing the city’s isolated borough, and with development plans on tap and a mayoral election in full swing, Staten Island is inching, perhaps reluctantly, into the spotlight.
Over the next few years, for some reason or another, the St. George area in Staten Island may become a destination. Near the ferry terminal is a quaint minor league ballpark where some of the greenest prospects play, and in a few years, a 350,000 square foot outlet mall, a 200-room hotel and a 625-foot tall Ferris wheel are set to debut. These aren’t attractions for the natives; they are very much designed to attract tourist dollars to the area.
The city is actually being blatant in their attempts at drawing people to Staten Island. NYC & Co. recently unveiled a new initiative promoting day trips to Staten Island. The campaign encourages visitors to check out the North Shore, and The Wall Street Journal recently urged its readers to look even further than that. Anne Kadet urged her readers to dig deeper, and Staten Island’s politicians hopped aboard the effort.
“We welcome thousands of visitors who travel on the Staten Island Ferry every day, and we’re glad for this opportunity to show them a few more family-friendly reasons to visit with us,” Councilwoman Debi Rose said. “There’s no shortage of things to do, places to stay, and places to eat for visitors coming to Staten Island. We’re not ‘the forgotten borough’ but ‘the unforgettable borough.’”
So that’s all well and good, but what about Staten Island’s problems? We can send a bunch of tourists to Staten Island on the ferry, but then they will find themselves stranded at the norther end of the borough trying to decipher a convoluted bus map or relying on expensive cabs to get anywhere else. Tourists, by and large, don’t rent cars when traveling through New York, and the car ride to Staten Island — via congested roads in Brooklyn — is hardly an easy or convenient trip. The Staten Island Rail Road serves some of the island, but large areas are without easy transit access. What can the city do?
The easy solution is a North Shore rail line reactivation. Despite the glaringly obvious need, the MTA over a year ago issued a feasibility study promoting bus rapid transit instead. A subway connection, via the Narrows to Brooklyn or the harbor to Manhattan, is discussed only on message boards devoted to our transit dreams. Meanwhile, the plans for these St. George attractions call for a considerable amount of parking. Shocking, I know.
There’s no easy solution to this problem, and many Staten Islanders are OK with that. They don’t necessarily want the density that comes with transit or the crowds that come with tourist attractions. The city though is intent on turning at least a part of Staten Island into a destination for better or worse, but they’re doing it without addressing fundamental problems of access and accessibility. We may not want a giant Ferris wheel sitting in the harbor, vulnerable to whatever weather may come its way, and we certainly don’t want a Ferris wheel, mall and hotel without a way to get there that doesn’t involve more cars on the road. But that’s what we’re on the verge of getting.
For the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time examining the contradictions of Staten Island and the borough’s tenuous relationship with transit. Its residents want better options, but they panic once they realize adding something such as Select Bus Service may mean fewer lanes for cars. They ask for subway connections to the rest of the city but are worried it could disrupt their quasi-suburban lifestyle. What Staten Islanders want in principle isn’t always what they want in practice.
Now, it’s the Staten Island Railway’s turn to come under the microscope, and State Senator Diane Savino has supplied us with the perfect opportunity to assess the MTA’s southern-most subway. Savino, an on-again/off-again champion for transit who has thrown a fit over plans to send the subway to New Jersey but not Staten Island yet voted to steal money from the MTA without bothering to read the bill, has commissioned a report on the Staten Island Railway. Hardly scientific, it relies on anecdotes and assessments from the line’s riders, but it doesn’t paint a positive picture.
Staten Island Railway riders want better service. Period. They want better security, better lighting, better ferry connections, better station environments. They want rail — and not a bus lane — on the old North Shore right of way, and they seem to want a connection to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail in New Jersey as well. As I read the report, though, I kept wondering if they were all willing to pay for it.
The Staten Island Railway is a curiosity in New York City. It provides 4.4 million paid rides annually, but fares are collected upon entry or exit only at the two most northern stations. Not many do, but Staten Islanders are free to ride from Stapleton to Tottenville without paying as often as they’d like. To improve the Staten Island Railway — to eliminate odors many find pervasive and offensive, to improve security — would likely involve rethinking how the fare works.
So onto the report. You can read the whole thing right here on Savino’s website, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It’s white text on a blue background, and it’s poorly written. Yet, it’s earnest. It’s fighting for better transit and features the voices of the people who actually ride the Staten Island Railway. “We need a North Shore Railroad built, not a bus lane,” said one of them. “As a Staten Island resident who does not live near/use the SIRT, I would like to see more stations and lines extending to centralized parts of Staten Island like the North Shore. This will encourage more public transportation and dispel traffic,” said another. “The trains are over 40 years old They need new cars. They also need a public address system at each station so riders can be told of delays/problems on the line,” said a third. These are real complaints for real people.
These folks who ride though aren’t happy with the service. The trains are dirty, they say. They want express service from popular stations, new rolling stock, more frequent service and nicer station environments with better connections to buses and the ferries and perhaps park-and-ride options as well. The service received an F from its riders in an admittedly biased survey.
Ultimately, Savino’s suggestions are practical and reasonable. She urged upzoning around train stations to spur development, a train tracking app for the SIR, weather protection and concessions at high-traffic stations, security cameras and even a new station to serve the Rosebank area (with funding from bond acts and a governor’s transit fund). These are incremental changes that could drastically improve intra-borough travel along the Staten Island Railway. But does anyone want to pay for them?
With the chance to elect a brand new mayor for the first time in 12 years staring New Yorkers in the face, the vagaries of electoral politics with a mix of extreme weather-related concerns lead to an outsized focus on some minor issues. When it comes to transportation, we’ve seen candidates obsess about buses, and lately, ferries have garnered some headlines as well. Candidates and representatives just love to talk about ferry service.
Lately, two distinct ferry routes have taken center stage. One involves a current initiative to provide ferry service from the Rockaways to the isle of Manhattan. This route sprang up after Sandy cut off the peninsula’s subway connection, but it’s hardly a new idea. Time and time again, this ferry route has failed due to high operating costs and low ridership. The current service costs just $2 and has seen ridership of around 700 a day. It will be extended through Labor Day, but the city won’t say at what cost.
In the grand scheme of New York City spending, the $4 or $5 million spent on a stopgap measure designed to alleviate the stress of post-hurricane travel won’t make or break anything. It’s worrying to see the city stay mum on costs when ferry subsidies far outpace per-passenger spending on buses or subways. But if the Rockaway ferry is a short-term measure, that’s fine. Budget watchdogs and transit advocates can raise a stink if this goes on forever. That other ferry service, though, warrants more of a look.
Staten Island residents and politicians are calling for expanded Staten Island ferry service, and they’re making a compelling case for it. With a slew of candidates scouring Staten Island for votes, the time may be ripe for a movement toward increased ferry service. In mid-May lawmakers issued a call for added overnight and off-peak service. Right now, ferries operate just once per hour overnight during the week and after 7 p.m. on Saturdays. This past week, the Staten Island Advance’s editorial board picked up the call:
The fact is that a lot of people rely on the ferry during off-peak hours to get them to overnight jobs or return from a night on the town or visiting friends or relatives. They live in the city that never sleeps too. The administration certainly wouldn’t stand for one-hour waits for subway riders in Manhattan or Brooklyn, no matter what the time of day. But it’s only Staten Island, after all, and the members of this administration, who call the Upper West Side or Park Slope and Cobble Hill home, figure Staten Islanders have little need for round-the-clock transportation. Besides, then too, in their eyes, the ferry is primarily a tourist attraction, not a necessary a critical transportation service for city residents…
Another provision of the compromise back in 2004 was that the DOT had to conduct studies of ferry ridership and provide them to the Council. [Assistant DOT Commissioner Kate] Slevin cited low off-peak ridership at several points but couldn’t provide any data. Perhaps the fact that there are a surprisingly high number of people who take the ferry after 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and even after midnight on weekdays explains the DOT’s reluctance to provide the Council with a more thorough ridership analysis. DOT doesn’t want to know how many off-peak riders there really are.
But again, that’s not the point. People should not be stranded in a waiting room for an hour in the self-anointed “greatest city in the world.” All New Yorkers should be able to access adequate, reliable mass transit services from one borough to another. On Staten Island, with no subway, that’s the ferry.
The 2004 compromise mentioned by the paper involved an agreement between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council to increase peak-hour and daytime service while maintaining hour-long headways at night. The City Council had asked for service every 30 minutes, but the Mayor threatening to bring a costly suit to maintain service levels at every 60 minutes. The agreement rested on ridership levels that DOT is hesitant to release.
I certainly feel more frequent ferry service would behoove the city as a whole, and the mayor is pushing forward on a plan to bring a 625-foot-tall ferris wheel and giant shopping mall to within steps of the ferry terminal. Such attractions scream out for more frequent ferry service.
But let’s propose something else: Why not put this effort into some serious planning for a Staten Island subway connection — and one that would obviate the need for any ferry service? As it stands today, the city invests $108 million annually into ferry service. The initial capital costs for a subway to the ferry terminal would probably run upwards of $5 billion — or 50 years of ferry subsidies — but subway service would generate revenue. Fares would be collected, and the one-seat, high-speed connection would lead to an increase in property value and tax revenue for the city too. A more rigorous study for the ridership and cost projections could boost this argument, but you see where I’m going with it.
New York City has such a tenuous relationship with its waterfront due to years of development patterns that prioritized heavy industry and cars over people and job centers, but ferries still have their roles to play. It seems that Staten Island needs more frequent ferry service. With the increased attention over the next few months on what is often a forgotten borough when it comes to transportation, perhaps now the stars will align for a few more boats.