Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway project will eventually extend the route north to 125th St. and west to Lexington Ave., but due to MTA capital funding disputes, construction won’t begin until the early 2020s.

Nobody ever likes to grovel. It’s that antiestablishment aversion to brown-nosers we all develop in middle school, but yet, there comes a time in every person’s career when, if one is not the ultimate, one must grovel. Thus, when the MTA sent out a press release on the MTA Board’s approval Wednesday of the revised and pared-down $29 billion five-year capital plan, agency head Tom Prendergast had to grovel.

“Thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the hard work of our dedicated MTA staff, this revised Capital Program will reduce costs and deliver projects more efficiently without cutting any projects or the benefits they will bring to our customers,” Prendergast said. You can almost hear him gritting his teeth via press release.

Cuomo played the part. Calling Wednesday a “great day,” Cuomo easily dismissed the months of childish fighting. “I challenged the MTA to revise its Capital Program in a way that reduced costs and delivered results more efficiently, without cutting any major projects or the benefits they will bring to commuters – and that is exactly what this new Program does,” he said. “Along with the State’s historic $8.3 billion investment and significant funding from the City to pay its fair share, this will mean a stronger, safer and more reliable MTA well into the future.”

Take that for what you will (and keep in mind that Cuomo’s funding solution likely just means more MTA debt). Now that the capital plan approval is on its way toward full approval, the reality is that the MTA isn’t exactly underfunded. It can tap into a massive amount of money to keep up current projects and implement future ones. Whether the agency spends well and gets bang for the buck is certainly in doubt, but the money, in some form or another, is there.

So with the capital plan approved — and one that relies more on city input — what’s changed? When the MTA first unveiled the 2015-2019 Capital Program during the summer of 2014, we delved into the request for funds for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and a variety of other measures, from signal work to Penn Station Access to the MetroCard replacement and beyond. The new plan shows how even a contribution of just a few billion dollars, as Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually ponied up, can skew things.

Notably and most importantly, the idea that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will see shovels enter the ground before the end of the decade has gone up in smoke. Instead of proposing $1.5 billion for the northern section of the long-awaiting subway line, the MTA has pared down its request to slightly over $500 million, and nearly all of this money is expected to come from federal sources. Here’s MTA-speak on the project:

The proposed 2015-2019 Capital Program provides $535 million to commence SAS Phase 2. This is a reduction of $1.0 billion compared to the previous 2015-2019 capital plan proposal that was submitted in September 2014, reflecting funding availability and the ability to implement scope within the plan period. Included are environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation. The balance of the work necessary for operation will be funded in future capital programs.

In plain English, this means that the MTA no longer expects to start the actual construction work on Harlem-bound part of the Second Ave. Subway until the 2020-2024 capital plan comes due. Previously, the MTA had expected some contracts for tunneling to be issued by 2019, but in the capital plan and subsequent comments on Wednesday, officials indicated that this was no longer a realistic timeline, considering the MTA’s ability to undertake the work and available funding. For what it’s worth, the billion-dollar reduction for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is the single biggest line-item cut in the new capital plan.

Now, this move doesn’t mean that the Second Ave. Subway extension to 125th St. and Lexington Ave. is dead. In fact, it commits the MTA to spend half a billion dollars on this vital part of the line. Rather, it means New Yorkers will have to wait longer for those stations at 106th, 116th and 125th, and, as time leads to more dollars spent, it’s likely to cost more as well. This is a symptom of the phased approach indicative of the funding constraints placed upon the MTA. It’s also a result of the ballooning East Side Access costs as the MTA needs to secure the dollars to finish that project. So we’ll wait until the mid-to-late 2020s instead. What a crazy thought.

Meanwhile, the new capital plan has more projects worth considering over the next few days. As a laundry list, the MTA, under pressure for some reason from de Blasio, will spend a whopping $5 million on the initial studies for a Utica Ave. extension (something I’ll revisit shortly) and will spend the same amount on studying converting Staten Island’s North Shore rail right-of-way to a bus rapid transit route. Investments in the new fare payment system have jumped from $250 million to $419 million, an indication that the MTA actually wants to see this project through, and the agency has yet again vowed to deliver countdown clocks throughout the subways by 2020 as well.

The agency has also signed up for a few more long-awaited subway-related projects. After years of requests, the agency will finally offer a connection between Livonia Ave. on the L and Junius St. on the 3 for a cost of $30 million, and the 42nd St. shuttle may see a big overhaul. (Look for more on that project soon too.) The MTA will also spend $740 million — up from $561 million — on ADA-related projects, including new entrances for the L train at Avenue A.

So that’s a lot to digest, and it barely scratches the surface. You can read through the revised booklet if you wish; the MTA has published it as a pdf. I’m not thrilled about the elongation of the Second Ave. Subway timeline, and I feel it’s indicative of the way the MTA operates (or doesn’t) these days. That’s the cost though of a 10 percent reduction in budget. If that’s the “bloat” Cuomo referred to when he bashed the initial capital plan, I don’t have high hopes for subway expansion until a more transit-friendly governor takes over in Albany. Either way, though, $29 billion is nothing to scoff at.

As something of a follow-up to Monday’s post on the status of the trans-Hudson tunnels, take a gander at this video the Regional Plan Associate has produced. As part of its effort to drive the conversation regarding both rail capacity and a new Penn Station, the RPA has created an easy-to-understand video highlighting why they think we need to invest sooner rather than later in the infrastructure necessary to overcome capacity constraints and stability issues regarding Amtrak’s tunnel. We can debate what should happen to Penn Station (and how much it should cost) for hours, but the video helps put into image the countless words that have been written on the tunnels.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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An update in the MTA Board materials shows how the MetroCard replacement has been delayed six months.

An update in the MTA Board materials shows how the MetroCard replacement has been delayed six months.

When the Mayor and the Governor magnanimously set aside their unnecessary differences to come to an agreement on the MTA’s capital funding gap, it seemed as though a victimless dance had ended. The MTA had its money; the governor had his political victory over the mayor; and most New Yorkers wouldn’t notice any difference. But everything comes with a cost.

For the MTA, the capital funding crisis could have been worse. Though we still don’t know exactly where the money will come from, by reaching an agreement in October, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio avoided a slowdown of work. Had the political bickering over the money stretched into December, the MTA’s authority to pay for ongoing capital work would have run dry, and the agency would have had to shutdown some projects. As it stands, the MTA had to curtail some impending work, and one of those victims was the MetroCard replacement effort.

When last we visited this topic, the MTA had issued plans to institute a new fare payment system by the beginning of 2020 and phase out the MetroCards by the end of 2022. Now, though, thanks to Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s delays, the MTA had to hold back the RFP for the new fare payment system. Thus, the MetroCard replacement now won’t be ready for customer use until mid-2020, and the MTA expects to complete deployment of whatever the next gen fare payment technology will be until the middle of 2023. Six months may not sound like a lot, but it could potentially be a costly half a year for the MTA and its riders.

It’s not clear how much this will cost the MTA, but there’s certainly a cost involved. When the MTA began the latest push to implement a new fare payment technology, they originally targeted late 2019 as the date for deployment date. After 2019, the cost to maintain the current MetroCard system will skyrocket, as the MTA’s original contracts expire. With what will be a 30-year-old technology still in use, the cost to keep everything up and running will be high, and a six-month delay adds to these expenses. One way or another, riders will be footing the bill, and all of that political bickering will have a real consequence long after Cuomo and de Blasio are no longer holding their respective offices. Don’t let anyone tell you these funding fights don’t matter.

For the MTA, the problem is still one of execution. Ideally, in eight (!) years, the new fare payment system will be ready, but the MTA is still struggling with what this system will be and how it will be implemented. The agency wants to implement a system that relies on a contactless bankcard, smartphone or MTA-issued card, and it must include a new back-end system supporting payment and other financial functions along with a web-based interface for users to refill cards. Certain board members — such as Fernando Ferrar — have begun to question why the MTA is reinventing the wheel when contactless fare payment systems have become the norm throughout the world, but the agency is intent on finding that gem.

If all goes according to the new plan, the MetroCard replacement contract will be awarded in January of 2017 with design, development, testing and installation set to last around 42 months. The MTA’s best laid plans gang aft agley, and they aren’t being helped by recalcitrant politicians using budgetary debates to further petty political disputes. But here we are, and another six months we must wait. That is a real, tangible consequence with real, tangible costs which all will fall on transit riders’ wallets come 2023.

Categories : MetroCard
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It's not entirely clear what problem Amtrak is trying to solve with its Gateway Tunnel or how urgent the problem may be.

Amtrak was briefly in the news over the weekend when Chris Christie made a stir in the Quiet Car. Rushing for an Acela from D.C. to the Garden State, the New Jersey Governor either didn’t realize he was in the Quiet Car or didn’t care. One story has him huffing his way out of the Quiet Car after complaints of loud phone calls while another has him apologetically leaving once he realized his mistake. He’s no stranger to Amtrak, and I’m inclined to believe he simply didn’t notice at first that he was in the Quiet Car. The way the story went viral on Sunday though is indicative of the way the Quiet Car has been a success story. If only the rest of Amtrak were this successful.

Meanwhile, the long-range plans for Amtrak’s Hudson River tubes were in the news last week as Crain’s New York took a look at ways the region can increase trans-Hudson capacity before Gateway comes to fruition. Noting that the current condition of the North River Tunnels is “a daily threat to transport and commerce,” Veronica Vanterpool, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued that we could and should act now. Generally, she argued for ferries (…) and prioritizing buses through current crossings. I’ll come back to her ideas later this week as they’re worth revisiting on their own.

Let’s look though at the argument surrounding the condition of the North River Tunnels. As now, it’s not exactly clear what the risks are to Amtrak’s tunnels. Seemingly in order to spur political action, the company has warned of potential defects and urged timely action. They’ve been pursuing this line of argument since Hurricane Sandy swept through the 100-year-old North River Tunnels, and in doing so, they’ve obscured the debate to their benefit.

There are essentially three different but intertwined arguments. The first is that trans-Hudson capacity is a problem because it limits the number of people who can enter into and pass through Manhattan in a timely fashion. This is a hinderance to rail expansion and a high-speed rail network running along the Northeast Corridor. The second is that a lack of redundancy makes the Hudson River chokepoint particularly vulnerable to disruptions both now and in the future. The third is that the aging infrastructure needs to be updated but can’t if there isn’t enough redundancy to weather the traffic. By conflating the three, Amtrak can argue that it needs more tunnels because the old ones are in danger of damage, and the system doesn’t have the redundancy required to pick up the load.

That’s all well and good (and perhaps, in a sense, true), but if Amtrak is truly worried that its tunnel is going to collapse, why is it running trains through it on a daily basis? Is this some sort of Russian roulette with rail passengers or a ploy? If the tunnels are going to fail in the future, the argument for investment can focus on needs; if the tunnels are at risk of failing tomorrow, then the time to act was yesterday. One way or another, Amtrak should be clear on these risks. Support for a multi-billion-dollar tunnel hinges on it.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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Late on Friday, the MTA sent out a press release announcing that Virgil Conway, the MTA Chairman from 1995-2001, passed away earlier this week at the age of 85. At some point soon, we should assess Conway’s tenure. He was a Pataki man through and through and ushered in an era of political pressure to cut costs in the wrong way. He was a big proponent of the early planning for the East Side Access project, and he played a big role in securing funding for the Second Ave. Subway. His legacy reverberates today.

“Virgil was a hugely influential and effective chairman, and many of the successes and accomplishments the MTA celebrates today are the result of his hard work and his heartfelt service to the region,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said. “He remains a beloved member of the MTA family, and he will be sorely missed.”

Thoughts are with his family right now.

* * *

Click through the jump for this weekend’s service changes. Read More→

Categories : MTA, Service Advisories
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Over the past decade, the MTA has ping-ponged through an era of uncertain leadership. The agency has burned through Lee Sander and Jay Walder and Joe Lhota, along with a few interim heads, and Tom Prendergast, now on the job for nearly three years, is the longest tenured MTA Chair since Peter Kalikow stepped down toward the end of 2007. With such frequent turnover, it’s been exceedingly hard for the MTA to plan for now or the future, and it’s starting to show.

October is the busiest time of year for subway ridership, and the last few days have been absolutely brutal. I can tell you what it’s like to ride from Brooklyn to Midtown and back every day, and while my tales are simply one person’s experiences, I’ve heard from many riders throughout the city who have experienced the same frustrating commutes. At 8:20 a.m., I’ve had to let B or Q trains pass me by; at 8:10 a.m. at the 6 train’s 4th uptown stop in Manhattan, I’ve been packed tighter than a sardine in a tin can. At times when I used to be able to grab a seat on the way home at night, I’ve had to stand from Grand Central to Nevins St. Wait times are long; trains are crowded; and there’s no relief in sight.

This problem — of uncomfortable rides, disgruntled customers and every-increasing ridership — is one of both the MTA’s doing and a lack of investment. The MTA sets its own load guidelines, and trains are crowded because that’s how the agency can wring every dollar possible out of the system. Service was far more frequent when the subways first ran in the early 1900s than it is today, but with the MTA’s budget operating on razor-thin margins, the MTA has to run what a consultant would call efficient operations. That means riders don’t get more more train than they want, even if it means a six-minute wait for a packed 6 train during the a.m. rush.

The other MTA problem is a lack of foresight and money. The agency hasn’t planned for a spike in ridership, and the crowds in the subway, as Charles Komanoff recently discussed, are approaching something akin to gridlock. There’s no room for more passengers, and the technology that enables the MTA to run trains more frequently is years away from implementation. It is also, as I’ve discussed recently, far too expensive for the MTA to implement these upgrades and far too late to be planning them only now. Planning for today’s crowds tomorrow is a recipe for failure, and we are up a creek without a paddle.

There is some modicum of relief on the horizon as the MTA announced some service increases on Thursday, but for some reason of economics, these changes don’t go into effect for another nine months. So that’s nine more months of overcrowded trains (that also seem to run slower than ever). Transit says they are adding service on 12 lines though the “most significant changes” are on the 42nd St. shuttle — hardly a move that does much for the rest of us. The C train will see three additional trips on Sundays as well.

The MTA summed up these service increases “Other major lines that will be increasing service include the Seventh Avenue 1/2 lines, with a total of five additional round trips during peak and evening hours; the Eighth Avenue A/C/E lines, with three additional round trips during midday and evening hours and three more round trips on Sunday mornings; the J/M/Z lines, with a total of three additional weekday round trips; and the system’s busiest route: the Lexington Avenue 4/5/6 lines, with seven additional weekday evening round trips.”

For the meager cost of just $5.8 million annually — barely a fraction of 1% percent of the agency’s budget — headways will be shortened by around 30 seconds in the evening. This is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving commutes.

Even in announcing these upgrades, Transit officials seemed to nod more toward the constraints of improving service than toward the benefits of these added runs. “Our subway system is more than a century old and even where we are aided by new technology, we are still limited by the overall age and condition of the system and the maintenance that is needed to run trains safely,” James Ferrara, interim president of Transit, said. “Making these service changes wherever we can lets us make the best use of existing resources as we expand to keep up with private sector development.”

There’s no good answer here. Unless there is a mass migration away from New York City, the subways will remain crowded. Ideally, Transit is assessing how to deal not with 6 million daily customers but with 6.3 or 6.5. It’s really only a matter of time unless the system — and the city — simply cannot handle that volume. But that’s a future we’d all rather not contemplate.

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The topic of MTA debt is not a particularly sexy one. I’d rather write about how the subways are unsustainably crowded and how the MTA has no real plan for immediate relief. I’d rather write about light rail efforts through Queens, the latest goings-on in London with regards to overnight Tube service or some thoughts on closed entrances. But MTA debt is too important to ignore. Even if you’re tempted to close the tab or allow your mind to wander, stick with me for a few hundred words today.

The latest round of news about MTA debt comes from — you’ll never believe this — Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A few weeks ago, when Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio magnanimously did their jobs and came to an agreement on MTA capital funding, the two politicians hailed the deal as something groundbreaking. The MTA, the argument went, had unprecedented support from the state and unprecedented support from the city. Everyone wins!

If that sounds too good to be true, well, you’ve been paying attention. Despite announcing around $9 billion in state support for the MTA, Cuomo has not once said how he plans to generate this money. Had he wanted to see through a Move New York-style traffic pricing plan, he could have, but that would have gone against the ethos of Mr. Muscle Car Governor Cuomo. Instead, he’s like to turn to the tried-and-truth method of totally screwing over New York City subway riders: debt.

Bill Hammond, now writing for Politico after his unceremonious ouster from the struggling Daily News, had the story:

At best – and assuming it holds up – the deal settles only the latest turf squabble between feuding politicians: With a $10 billion hole to fill in the MTA’s $26 billion five-year capital plan, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed that the state will contribute $8.3 billion while Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to chip in $2.5 billion from city coffers. But this divvying-up exercise was a crisis only to the extent that governor made it one, as a tactic to offload a fraction of the headache onto his declared friend, fellow Democrat and favorite punching bag at City Hall.

The real political heavy lifting to be done involves not who collects that $10 billion tab, but who gets stuck with paying it – and how and when. And whether the MTA will walk away with a short-term cash infusion, or with the sustained base of funding necessary to build and maintain a halfway up-to-date mass transit system…The overdue debate on covering the $10 billion gap should begin to get serious in January, when Cuomo is promising to spell out, as part of his annual budget proposal, exactly how he intends to raise the $8.3 billion. De Blasio, too, will have to account for his share in budget documents due in the next three months.

This should be interesting. The Daily News has reported that Cuomo will likely borrow some or all of his amount – which is legitimate, given that it will be used for long-term investments in infrastructure – and that he is ruling out tax hikes. But $8.3 billion would add 15 percent to the state’s already prodigious debt load of $55 billion. Even if spread over a 30-year term, the annual payments on those new bonds would be roughly half a billion dollars – corresponding to nearly a 10 percent increase over current debt service.

The Daily News report Hammond mentioned is right here, and it’s a tells a tale of more debt. The MTA may have to borrow to cover the state’s contributions, and it’s not clear if the MTA or the state would fund the debt. The MTA simply cannot afford more debt. The agency is already carrying $35 billion in debt — debt that’s funded through fare revenue. More would simply push the cost of the capital plan onto the shoulders of riders, no matter what Cuomo says.

So Cuomo’s solution has been anything but a solution. Without identifying a revenue stream, debt simply becomes something we must fund in the future, and that’s no way to solve transit funding problems. Will New York wake up the problems of debt? It’s not looking good for the near future or the far future, and that’s not a positive development for anyone.

One Queens politician wants to convert this LIRR ROW into a light rail running from Glendale (shown here) to Long Island City.

Now that the head of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has opened the door to a light rail study, the floodwaters of potential political requests have been let loose. Barely had the pixels burned on Ydanis Rodriguez’s request when another council member — this one from Queens — called for a light rail investment in her borough. This one comes from Elizabeth Crowley, and it may highlight the pitfalls of Shiny New Thing syndrome.

The story comes to us from Gloria Pazmino and Dana Rubinstein writing in Politico New York. The two report:

In order to provide additional public transportation options, Crowley is proposing to use already-existing railroad tracks in her district to build a light rail line between Glendale and Long Island City along the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch. “It’s a railroad that is in excellent condition that has no rail cars on it, so it’s a waste of track. It has no real use and there is potential for park-and-rides and development around the rail,” Crowley told POLITICO New York.

The rail line carried passengers between Long Island City and Jamaica stations in Glendale and Maspeth until the late 1990s, but service was discontinued due to low ridership. Currently, the track is used to transport freight overnight for only a few hours, Crowley said.

Citing the borough’s rapid growth and the increased need for public transportation, Crowley said installing a light rail would be much easier in her district due to the already-existing infrastructure and right of way. “We are very, very close to the city but it’s very difficult to get into Manhattan because it’s a transportation desert,” Crowley said. “More and more people are using their cars because it takes too long to take public transportation.”

This is a bit more of a problematic request than Rodriguez’s desire for a study. Crowley seems to have identified a route by examining a right of way that exists without really delving into why this right of way has no passenger service, and she doesn’t really explore a need here. Her idea seems to be to create a feeder light rail line from Glendale to the 7 in Long Island City via Maspeth. For what it’s worth, the Glendale LIRR station had just two daily riders at the time of its closure in 1998.

Would this help people get to Manhattan faster? What affect would this have on the already-crowded 7 train? Is it worth navigating the issue of shared freight and passenger service? And why would anyone spend the money to convert a heavy rail ROW that shuttered due to low passenger service into a light rail service that may not fair much better? These are questions that demand a rigorous analysis before this idea is anything more than idle musings, and while Crowley said the MTA “seemed receptive” of the idea, it’s not clear if there’s demand for this service or if Crowley is trying to think outside of the box (which in the realm of NYC transportation politics is much appreciated).

Meanwhile, there is some opposition brewing to the idea of light rail. It comes from Joan Byron, the Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a major proponent of bus rapid transit. Without holding her punches, Byron charged that light rail is simply a class-based approach to transit adoption. “Poor people and people of color ride the bus,” she said. “But we want something shiny and new that young white millennials will ride…You have to do something really shiny to get them not to drive.”

What’s particularly strange about Byron’s statement is its invocation of millennials. This generation — and in particular those who live in New York City — aren’t drivers or car owners. They already use transit at rates much higher than older residents of NYC (and cities in general across the country). Byron, who has a stake in beefing up the bus network, also undersells the psychological advantages of system that runs as a fixed-rail one via a dedicated right-of-way. Numerous studies have shown that these two elements alone draw ridership across racial and class lines. Buses simply aren’t the be-all and end-all of urban mobility issues.

Ultimately, light rail could be an answer to the city’s transportation cost and mobility issues, but it’s clear that many issues remain to explore before we understand where light rail would work and how. Both the Bronx and Staten Island are better candidates than one corridor in Queens, especially when you consider network effects, but perhaps light rail could work all over in various permutations as potential solutions. That’s what DOT will need to identify if they take up Ydanis Rodriguez on his request. It’s certainly worth considering.

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The Train of Many Colors will celebrate the Mets' NLCS appearance this weekend.

The Train of Many Colors will celebrate the Mets’ NLDS appearance this weekend.

The Mets don’t make the NLCS too often these days, and the MTA is pulling out the stops to celebrate. On both Saturday and Sunday this weekend, the 11-car Train of Many Colors will run from 34th St.-Hudson Yards to Willets Point-Mets via the 7 line. If last week’s 4 train ride to the Bronx is any indication, the 7’s own Nostalgia Train will be packed full with Mets and rail fans alike. Unlike the 4, this one ain’t running non-stop. The train will make express stops along the 7 en route to Citi Field, and you can catch it at 6:30 p.m. each night from the newest subway station in the system. That will be quite a sight.

On another note, this weekend is Open House New York, and it’s also the last chance for New Yorkers to check out the old TWA Flight Center in front of JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK Airport before it turns into a hotel. It’s open from 11-3 p.m. on Sunday, and no reservations are required. I’ve seen it twice, and I can’t recommend the trip enough. Check it all out right here on OHNY’s website.

Meanwhile, there are some service changes this weekend. You know the drill. Click through for all the details. Read More→

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Rode the light rail a few times while visiting the Midwest this week.

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

As New York politicians look around the country (and hopefully the world) for ideas on expanding transit, they often find themselves drawn to light rail. The revival of the old streetcar networks along fixed rail routes has been en vogue in recent years as cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Minneapolis to D.C. and beyond have installed new systems. In our city, light rail has lived among the margins of transit advocacy with a the Vision42 initiative and Bob Diamond’s Red Hook trolley idea the only streetcar/light rail plans out there. Now, a few months after developers discussed the “cool idea” of a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront route, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez wants NYC’s Department of Transportation to explore light rail in New York City.

The ask is a modest one. As Politco New York’s Gloria Pazmino reports, Rodriguez, the chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, has asked for a feasibility study. Where to begin is the tough part, but Rodriguez is, at least, thinking about means to improve mobility. “This is not a new idea in New York City,” Rodriguez said. “There have been advocate groups and others who have wanted the city to install a light rail corridor around 42nd Street in Manhattan and other areas. This is an effort to begin a discussion about an alternative way to improve transportation in New York City.”

Whether NYC needs to reinvent the wheel or improve the efficiency of the one it already has is up for debate, and Pazmino tackles the challenges an effort to introduce light rail to New York City may face. She writes:

Building a light rail system in the already crowded streets of Manhattan would be no small feat. Rodriguez’s bill would direct DOT to begin a one-time study to build the rail, include recommendations for how to do it, and if it would help to increase mass transit in areas of the city that are currently underserved by other forms of public transportation. “That system would allow pedestrians to use the light rail to transport to other places and in areas that are isolated and not connected with trains, and that can benefit them,” Rodriguez said…

Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area. First, he wants to learn what it would cost and how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters. “The whole idea is to get DOT to conduct the study. Based on the study, we will have a better idea on the feasibility of bringing in a light rail. I do not want to jump into conclusions about any particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Rich Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, said the idea is worth studying, but the question will be whether a possibly massive first investment will be worth it in the long run. “A light rail in the city is something that is reasonable and could be explored, but we have to consider the cost, and consider the infrastructure you would have to put in to support the service,” Barone said.

As with any new transit system, the biggest challenge is developing a network from the get-go. We can talk about installing light rail along 42nd St. — certainly a worthwhile project that would improve river-to-river mobility while cutting down on traffic — and we can talk about a waterfront line. But these two divergent systems wouldn’t rely on shared infrastructure, thus raising initial capital costs for shops and rolling stock considerably. (Any new light rail system should also be integrated into the MTA’s fare network so that riders aren’t double-charged, but that’s a different concern.)

That is not to say we should rule out light rail for New York City. It’s shown tremendous potential for urban growth throughout the country, and it could be a way to combat the MTA’s unsustainable capital construction costs while reengineering NYC’s street space. Imagine, for instance, instead of a 2nd Ave. Subway, a 2nd Ave. dedicated to two-way light rail and full-length bike lanes with cars eliminated from that north-south route, all for far less than the cost (but also far less the capacity) of the 2nd Ave. line. Or, more feasibly, imagine a light rail through less dense parts of Queens and Brooklyn that aren’t connected to the subways.

The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option that a bus network. There is a psychological element involved as riders prefer the reliability of a fixed-rail system with dedicated running spaces, but real BRT could address those concerns as well without the capital outlay. Ultimately, it may make more sense to reform MTA spending and examine unused rail ROWs throughout the city, but studying light rail has its place in the NYC transit dialogue. I hope something interesting comes of Ydanis Rodriguez’s request.

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