• Williams out, Nowakowski in atop LIRR · With a potential strike looming and plans for substitute bus service starting to roll forward, the Long Island Rail Road has a new president. In a surprising announcement that came after the MTA Board voted today to issue an RFP for substitute bus service in the event of a strike this summer, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast announced that Patrick A. Nowakowski would take over as head of the LIRR from Helena Williams. It’s not clear why Williams is leaving, but her departure now leaves the MTA with no female agency presidents.

    Nowakowski, who was educated at the University of Delaware and Drexel’s business school, comes to the LIRR after spending five years as Executive Director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, more commonly known as the WMATA’s Silver Line. He spent 27 years prior to that working in various roles with SEPTA, and departs DC as questions and ambiguities surrounding the revenue service date for the Silver Line have started to mount.

    “Pat Nowakowski is a railroad expert with a rare mix of skills and a long career of accomplishments, and I am pleased to welcome him to the Long Island Rail Road,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Our customers have high expectations for safe and reliable service, and events last year throughout the MTA family have shown why we must always stay focused on the basics of how best to provide that service.”

    Meanwhile, the MTA offered no indication as to the circumstances surrounding Williams’ departure, but it’s likely that looming labor unrest played no small role in the move. Williams had served as LIRR head for seven years and spent a few months as the MTA’s interim Executive Director and CEO in 2009 following Lee Sander’s resignation. She was the first female to head an MTA agency and the first female LIRR president. · (33)

As the debate over the future of the Port Authority has roiled the region, local politicians have resisted putting forward calls for reform. Gov. Chris Christie a few weeks ago even warned of going “too far” with calls to overhaul the bi-state agency. That’s a laughable position coming from the Jersey side of the river, but it’s ultimately not one likely to win the day. Reform will come, one way or another, even if it takes a few years.

Yesterday, Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior senator, chimed in on the issue and offered up his seven-point plan to reform Port Authority. The speech is available on Schumer’s website, and he ultimately called for the PA to get back to its roots. “The Port Authority, in an era of growth and imagination, was hewed, indivisibly, to its core mission: improving the Port District and thinking deeply about its long-term infrastructure needs,” Schumer said. “Over the past several decades, the fabric binding the Port Authority to that core mission has frayed, slowly unwinding as states saw an opportunity to use authority funds to cover budget shortfalls and finance pet projects. More frequently now than ever, the Port Authority has come to be seen as the proverbial honey pot, a cookie jar, a rainy day fund – whatever metaphor you prefer – for state projects outside the Port’s core mission.”

In the speech, Schumer offered an olive branch to the Port Authority. He would see through legislative changes the PA needs to effect reform if the agency asks. Here’s his seven-point plan:

First, the Port Authority should come back with a process for the nomination and confirmation of an Executive Director by the Board of Commissioners, not by the Governor of one state or the other. Second, the Port Authority should propose administrative changes vesting full managerial authority and responsibility of the entire Port Authority organization with the Executive Director. Third, the Port Authority should establish a permanent process to nominate individuals as Commissioners to the Port Authority who possess a comprehensive financial, engineering and planning background, and no conflicts of interest related to the Port Authority’s core mission. It should be clear that these commissioners have a fiduciary duty to the Port Authority

Fourth, the Port Authority should submit procedures that will allow the Port Authority to have a detailed annual operating budget and a multi-year financial plan that can be adopted after opportunities for public review and comment. Fifth, they should establish procedures that will allow the Port Authority’s capital budgeting to be guided by a long-term capital strategy that is regularly revised – I suggest at least annually. This plan should show how the Port is prioritizing and financing projects, and only then should it be adopted after opportunities for public review and comment.

Sixth, the members of the board should submit a plan to end spending on non-revenue generating state projects that are outside the core mission. Seventh, the Port Authority should end the acquisition of new non-revenue generating facilities and projects outside the boundaries of the Port District that are not core to the Port Authority’s central mission.

Much of Schumer’s speech is targeted toward Christie’s pet projects — the Atlantic City Airport plans come to mind. But Schumer also issued his own call for a Stewart Airport rail link, a long-standing desire that I dismissed as early as August of 2007. He also discusses the long-awaited Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, a rail project that would create problems for the Triboro RX line. These are, Schumer argues, “just the kind of project that the early Port Authority leaders would embark upon.”

There was, however, one part of the speech I thought worth a second look. Although it’s been a while, Schumer spoke about the ARC Tunnel as well. He has not held back in his criticism of Christie’s controversial decision to cancel the tunnel and again spoke out against the move. “Diverting funds from the ARC tunnel for the Pulaski Skyway was the wrong move,” Schumer said. “The ARC tunnel was a high-priority and already fully funded. It was a bad idea to stop it and a worse idea to cannibalize it for projects that ought to have been funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, perhaps even with some help from federal highway dollars. The Port Authority should have pressed forward on ARC. As I said then, ‘It was like eating our seed corn.’”

Originally, the Port Authority had pledged $3 billion to the ARC Tunnel, and New Jersey had to pick up the rest of the money that didn’t come from the feds. This gave Christie the power to cancel the project, and as soon he could, he gave it the axe. While I understand the funding structure, I never could comprehend the insular nature of Christie’s decision. ARC wasn’t just a one-state project. It had an affect on New Jersey and New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland, and the entire Northeast Corridor. Anyone riding the Acela, the Empire and Keystone Services, the Crescent, the Vermonter and everything in between would have enjoyed the benefits of ARC, but Christie himself made the decision to kill it.

Going forward, we don’t know what the Port Authority will become after Christie and Cuomo are gone. Maybe New York and New Jersey can move beyond tit-for-tat land deals and can restore some luster to the Port Authority. Hopefully, when we do, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and think beyond the provincialism of state borders when major projects are considered, funded and seen through. That would be a strong lasting legacy for anyone looking to reform the Port Authority.

Categories : PANYNJ
Comments (75)

The new South Ferry is scheduled to reopen in August of 2016 after a near-total rebuild. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

It’s been a little more than four months since we last heard a full update on the status of the new South Ferry station. During an MTA Board committee presentation at the end of 2013, John O’Grady presented some options for an elevated and protected signal room and explained how the new station would likely open by mid-2016. In another update set to be delivered to the Capital Program Oversight Committee on Monday, Transit has provided more details on the work and underscored the 2016 date. The new station will reopen nearly four years after Sandy.

The timing on the station comes from an independent review of the status of the job. According to the presentation, Transit will award a five-month demolition contract this month and a 24-month General Construction project in August. The rebuild — which is still on budget — would then wrap around August of 2016, as the MTA said four months ago. There is, of course, plenty of time for this project to fall behind schedule, but with nearly $600 million of federal funding supporting it, the pressure to deliver on time will be strong.

Meanwhile, this week’s presentation lists out the major scope items for the general rebuild. At the top of the list is grouting and leak mitigation, two problems that plagued the new station before it had even opened. Since the MTA has to essentially strip all of the finishes out of the destroyed station, crews have a second chance to get waterproofing right.

The other items on the list are fairly standard for any new station build out but with some twists for resiliency. The plans include modifications to critical structures (including the signal room), replacement of all communications and fiber optics systems; new signals, relays and third rail; and various other flood mitigation work including resilient stainless steel and glass entrances.

What I find most telling about this project, outside of the price tag, is the timing. It will have taken nearly the same amount of time to build the station originally as it will to completely reconstruct it after Sandy. In one sense, I’m being admittedly hyperbolic it’s taken nearly a year and a half to spec the work and issue contracts. But on the other hand, that’s an “inside baseball” distinction. Outwardly, to the general public, the new South Ferry station is a memory, and it will be for some time still.

Categories : Superstorm Sandy
Comments (29)

Heading to Newark Airport after May 1? Boy, are you in luck. From May 1 through approximately July 15, the Newark AirTrain will be shut down, and Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains will not stop at the Newark Liberty International Airport stop. To access the airport, the Port Authority first, sadly, urges people to drive. Second, the PA notes that shuttle buses will provide service from Newark Penn Station. (For more details, check out the Port Authority’s website. This is a pretty big deal.)

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Manhattan-bound 1 trains run express from 145 St to 96 St due to steel repairs from 125 St to 133 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Bronx-bound 1 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St due to Mulry Square vent plan upgrade.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, April 27, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 27 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Bronx-bound 2 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St due to Mulry Square vent plan upgrade.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28 Bronx-bound 4 trains skip Fulton St due to Fulton Street Transit Center completion work.

From 5:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Saturday, April 26, and from 7:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, April 27, Bronx-bound 5 trains skip Fulton St due to Fulton Street Transit Center completion work.

From 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, April 26, and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, April 27, 6 trains run every 16 minutes between 3 Av-138 St and Pelham Bay Park due to track panel installation at St Lawrence Av. The last stop for some Pelham Bay Park bound 6 trains is 3 Av-138 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Flushing Main St-bound 7 trains run express between Mets-Willets Point and 74 St-Broadway due to CBTC signal work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, A trains are suspended between Jay St-MetroTech and Utica Av in both directions due to track tie renewal north of Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Transfer between A trains and free shuttle buses at Jay Street-MetroTech or Utica Av.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26, and Sunday, April 27, C trains are suspended between W 4 St Wash Sq and Euclid Av due track tie renewal north of Hoyt-Schermerhorn.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Manhattan-bound E trains are rerouted on the via the F line after 36 St in Queens to W 4 St Wash Sq (E trains travel via the 63 St and 6 Av corridors, stopping at F stations) due to Sandy related work in the 53 Street tunnel. Free shuttle buses operate between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.

From 12:15 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., Saturday, April 26 and Sunday, April 27, and from 12:15 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Jamaica Center-bound E trains run express from Queens Plaza to Forest Hills 71 Av due to tunnel lighting installation south of the Jackson Hts Roosevelt Av.

From 12:15 a.m. Saturday, April 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Queens-bound E trains skip 75 Av and Briarwood Van Wyck Blvd due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills 71 Av, and Kew Gardens Union Tpke.

From 9:45 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Queens-bound F trains are rerouted via the E line from Jackson Hts Roosevelt Av to 47-50 Sts Rock Ctr due to Second Avenue Subway work at Lexington Avenue.

From 12:15 a.m. Saturday, April 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Queens-bound F trains skip Briarwood Van Wyck Blvd and Sutphin Blvd due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills 71 Av and Kew Gardens Union Tpke.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, April 26 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, April 27, Jamaica Center Parsons/Archer-bound J trains run express from Marcy Av to Broadway Junction due to track work from Flushing Av to Myrtle Av, and track repairs near Broadway Junction.

From 4:00 a.m. Saturday, April 26 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, April 27, M trains run every 20 minutes due to track work from Flushing Av to Myrtle Av, and track repairs near Broadway Junction.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, Coney Island Stillwell Av-bound N trains run local between 36 St and 59 St due to track tie renewal south of 36 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight Saturday, April 26, and Sunday, April 27, Queens-bound R trains run express from Queens Plaza to Forest Hills 71 Av due to tunnel lighting installation south of Jackson Hts Roosevelt Av.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 25 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, April 27, and from 11:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 28, R trains are suspended between 59 St and 36 St in Brooklyn due to track tie renewal south of 36 St.

Comments (42)

Just a few weeks ago, the Rudin Center released a report on the future of the Port Authority that cast the PATH train’s fate into question. PATH, you see, is a drag on the PA’s finances as fares don’t come close to covering the exceedingly high operating costs and, unlike in New York with the MTA, there are no dedicated taxes or fees that support the popular trans-Hudson rail connection. The money for the system comes from the rest of the Port Authority’s user fees, and as more and more projects demand PA resources, PATH is starting to drag down everything else.

Yet, PATH is an important part of the New York-New Jersey transit picture. Despite recessions, terrorist attacks and massive hurricanes, ridership has increased by nearly 50,000 passengers per day since 1994, and as Jersey City and Hoboken continue to grow, PATH remains a vital connection to the region’s job centers. So how do you solve this problem? According to a new report released tonight by the Citizens Budget Commission, one solution could involve transferring control of PATH to New Jersey Transit to better align rail operations, raising fares and instituting a series of fees and taxes that would put the railroad on a more sound fiscal path.

“All other U.S. transit systems rely on tax subsidies,” Charles Brecher, CBC’s Consulting Research Director said. “PATH is the only outlier. The burden of funding PATH should not fall only on passengers and the Port Authority. A broader region benefits from PATH and should pay a fair share.”

The report — available here as a PDF — offers up a succinct summary of the current structure and the inherent problems facing PATH. It mentions that the cost per ride of operating the train system is over $8.40, third highest among U.S. transit agencies, and it doesn’t delve into ways to cut down these costs. To me, that’s a significant red flag. But still, the budget deficit of $387 million for 2014 is projected to reach nearly half a billion dollars in four years, and that’s a problem.

So what’s the CBC solution? As the nonpartisan agency notes, PATH is the only transit system in the U.S. that receives no state or local tax subsidies (while NYC Transit, for instance, relies on those fees for 52 percent of its revenue). Tax subsidies, the report says, “is appropriate because of the benefit the general public, including employers, derives from an efficient mass transit system and the broad labor market it supports.”

Meanwhile, the Commission recommends a steep fare hike in line with their 50-25-25 funding model. The idea is that the agency should draw 50 of its revenue from fares and 25 each from taxes and motor vehicle users. The taxes could come from a small bump of around .32 percentage points to the sales tax or a steeper increase to property taxes. The fares would likely climb to a single-ride price of $4.50 and an average cost of around $3.78. I worry that this amount is too high for a mass transit option and could lead to severe sticker shock that encourages more driving. An equal-shares approach would lead to higher taxes but only a $3 single ride.

Finally, the CBC recommends removing PATH from the purview of the Port Authority and transferring operations to New Jersey Transit. Notes the report’s summery, “New Jersey Transit trains and buses already account for 60 percent of the weekday commuters from New Jersey directly to the Manhattan central business district, and adding PATH would bring the share to 87 percent. New Jersey Transit could more effectively coordinate transit operations across the state while continuing to receive a guaranteed toll cross-subsidy from the Port Authority.” (Though we could debate for hours whether New Jersey Transit successfully runs its own transit operations and can effectively coordinate anything.)

No matter the outcome, though, as the report notes, something has to give” “Whether PATH stays in PANYNJ’s portfolio or is transferred to NJT, a rethinking of the system’s financing policy is appropriate. More equitably financing PATH’s significant annual deficits would enhance its long-term fiscal sustainability. Adopting one of the recommended guidelines ensures that no one group—PATH riders, toll payers, residents, or employers—pays a disproportionate share of the cost.”

Categories : PANYNJ
Comments (129)

I am an ardent acolyte of the Q train. Although I sometimes have to wait a few minutes than I’d like on the way home, the Q offers a speedy ride through Manhattan and into Brooklyn. Mine is only the sixth stop, and despite a slow crawl over the bridge and through the De Kalb interlocking, on a good day, I’m off the train barely 20 minutes after stepping on.

For years, the Q trains have run express in Manhattan regardless of the hour, and the ride home is always fast. But for those who board at a local stop, the wait for an N train in the middle of the night can seem interminable. In December, to respond to changing travel patterns, all Q trains between the hours of midnight and 6:30 a.m. will run local, Transit announced this week. “We are constantly analyzing service and ridership trends in order to provide the best service possible to all of our customers at all hours,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “As we saw increased ridership at local stations along the Broadway Line, it simply made sense to provide these customers with more service.”

According to the MTA, Transit’s Ops Planning Division looked at MetroCard swipes at local stations and found that overnight usage had increased by nearly 30 percent while express station usage had climbed by only 12 percent. Thus, Brooklyn-bound Q trains will switch from the express tracks to the local tracks south of 57th St., and the trains in both directions will stop at 49th, 28th, 23rd, 8th and Prince Sts.

For some riders, trips will be longer. The MTA alleges that customers at express stops will see average travel times increase by about one minute while customers at local stations will see average wait times cut in half and travel times reduced by six minutes. Overall, Transit estimates saving 6000 customer travel minutes per night. Though, I hope the local Q travels faster overnight than the local N train did at 6:30 yesterday. Even though dwell times weren’t extreme, the train seemed to crawl in between stations even with nothing in front of it.

According to the MTA, the service change does not require Board approval and will cost $73,000 a year. By December, only the D train and the 3 to Times Square will survive as Manhattan’s sole overnight express trains.

Comments (12)

For the past few years, through the tenures of three different MTA heads, “net zero” had become a mantra. Without a net-zero labor increase, the MTA’s budget would be deeply in the red with the costs expected to fall on the riders in the form of service cuts, fare hikes or both. As late as February, the MTA warned of steep fare hikes if they couldn’t toe the net-zero line. The Citizens Budget Commission has long since endorsed the approach, and the MTA and TWU were at war.

Then, suddenly, it was election season, and the MTA and TWU were, with the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shaking hands and best buds. Without exacting much in the way of labor reform — and certainly without anything close to net-zero — the MTA gave the TWU a new contract with only a few concessions. The raises — 8 percent over five years — are deserved, and there are some givebacks. But ultimately, the MTA’s labor costs are going to increase by $411 million through 2016. That ain’t net-zero.

In a document released yesterday to bond investors [pdf], the MTA offered the public its first glimpse at the ramifications of the deal. The Memorandum of Understanding won’t be released until after the TWU votes on it, and such a vote isn’t likely until after next week’s MTA Board meeting. So what we know is that the MTA is on the hook for a lot of money. The deal includes retroactive payments of $126 million and a current bump in labor expenses of around $55 million. In 2015 and 2016, the MTA expects to spend $116 million and $114 million respectively, though some experts — notably Nicole Gelinas — believes these estimates to be low.

To cover some of the costs, the new deal includes an increase in the amount of employee contributions to health and other benefits as well as a new “wage progression schedule.” Still, someone has to come up with $411 million, and MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast insists it won’t fail to the fare paying public this time around. So how is the MTA going to pay? Read it (and weep):

MTA anticipates that the onetime payment for retroactive wages in 2014 will be funded from monies derived from released 2013 general reserves budgeted for voluntary deposits to the MTA Long Island Rail Road Plan for Additional Pensions that would have reduced the unfunded liability and future expenses. Increases in current year and annual ongoing costs are anticipated to be paid from funds budgeted for voluntary deposits to the MTA Long Island Rail Road Plan for Additional Pensions, and a portion of monies earmarked for voluntary deposit into the OPEB trust for future retiree healthcare costs.

It gets better. If other unions that do not have contracts in place sign similar deals, the MTA would have to find another $300 million. This money, the agency says, will come from voluntary deposits into the OPEB trust and a reduction of PAYGO capital funds of approximately $70 million. To say this doesn’t fall on the riders is sleight of hand accounting. In fact, this entire budget is sleight hand accounting.

But now we know: The MTA is robbing future riders to pay for the present. It doesn’t bother Cuomo because he’ll be gone from Albany before the bill comes due, but for the rest of us, this isn’t a good deal. We may not pay now because the MTA will keep those looming fare hikes low, but give it a few years. We the riders will be paying then or else the system will suffer.

Categories : MTA Economics, TWU
Comments (9)

In the ongoing debate over the future of the Port Authority, Wednesday looms as a potential turning point as the PA’s board gathers to vote on the fate of a loan for 3 World Trade Center. With leasing at a near standstill in his 4 WTC (and in the PA’s 1 WTC), Larry Silverstein has once again come to the Port Authority for a multi-billion-dollar loan guarantee for an office building, and for once the Port Authority board is showing signs of fighting back. With politicians, transit advocates and Port Authority reformists watching, Wednesday’s vote could be a monumental one; it will definitely be newsworthy.

The immediate controversy at Ground Zero has come about due to Silverstein’s desire to keep building up. It’s not currently an easy one to fulfill as, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the other two WTC buildings — both constructed either with PA money or with PA loans — aren’t exactly filling up. “Neither One World Trade nor 4 World Trade has signed a lease with a private office tenant in nearly three years,” Eliot Brown reported. “Between them, that leaves more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space—double the size of the Chrysler Building—at a time of contraction of the big banks that are among such buildings’ likelier prospective tenants.”

With an increased attention on the desire to refocus the Port Authority on its transportation mission, Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker on the PA board, has led the charge against another tax giveaway to Silverstein. “We can’t have these peripheral distractions,” he said, calling the construction projects “an inappropriate investment” for the Port Authority.

In a column in yesterday’s Times, Joe Nocera expanded on this concept:

Whether or not building commercial skyscrapers was the right way to rebuild Ground Zero, what can be said for sure is that the Port Authority has shown, yet again, that it doesn’t belong in the real estate business. One World Trade Center is the most expensive high-rise building ever built in America, and it is costing the Port Authority a fortune. Only 55 percent of its 2.6 million square feet has been leased, and most of that is at a significant loss. Meanwhile, 4 World Trade Center, which was developed by Silverstein, has only 60 percent of its space leased. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, between the two buildings, there is more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space at Ground Zero.

So why in the world would the Port Authority be willing to back another $1.2 billion in loans to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center? Yet on Wednesday, that is exactly what the Port Authority board is supposed to vote on. Silverstein needs the loan guarantee for a simple reason: The market is saying that, with all that empty office space, this is not the time to be building another skyscraper downtown…This time, somebody on the board has finally stood up and said, “Enough.” That person is Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker and a former deputy mayor of New York, who was appointed to the Port Authority board last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

“There is simply no reason for the Port Authority to step in,” he told me on Monday. “The private sector is appropriately saying, ‘Not now.’ ” But he also had another objection, one that heralds back to the original purpose of the Port Authority. “Our role is to develop the transportation infrastructure of this region. We have more infrastructure needs than we can finance through our revenue base. As a result, we are triaging necessary transportation improvements to finance what will be an empty building.”

How this ends is anyone’s guess. While Lipper is leading the opposition, some PA board members seem willing to hand over a blank check to Silverstein, and Sheldon Silver, for one, is putting pressure on the board to approve the funding request. Silverstein and his team believe the loan will eventually be paid back down the line when the PA can realize revenues from these new office buildings, but between Ground Zero, Hudson Yards and a potential East Side rezoning effort, it’s not yet clear that all the square footage flooding the market over the next few years will go quickly.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge scandal, an independent panel has urged the PA to shed its shackles of governor control. PA doings should be public and books transparent. One way to start would be, as Lipper suggests, to refocus on transit and transportation at the expense of another World Trade Center building that may not be all that necessary.

Categories : PANYNJ
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In my write-up of Michael Kimmelman’s Times column on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route, I posed a question that would be answered by any study examining this proposal: What problem does this light rail/streetcar line solve? Intuitively, it seemed as though the biggest problems were at either ends of the line — Red Hook and Astoria — and the idea of an interconnected waterfront was otherwise a developer’s dream masquerading as a solution to something that isn’t actually a problem.

One of the bigger issues with The Times’ proposal is how the routing doesn’t connect to subways. While Alex Garvin’s original plan brought the streetcar through Downtown Brooklyn, Kimmelman swung west, away from badly needed subway connections and instead tightly hugging the waterfront. The Times scribe claims this will help serve areas that are “inaccessible” or served “barely” by the G train, referred to in the article as “the city’s sorriest little railroad.” It’s not clear how a low-capacity streetcar running at slower speeds will be better than even the much-maligned G train, but that’s besides the point for these so-called “desire lines.”

One of the biggest issues though with Kimmelman’s argument is that most of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t really that far away from the nearest subway (let alone feeder bus routes). I did some radius mapping tonight of the waterfront and various other areas in Brooklyn and Queens, and the resulting images are instructive. I cannot unfortunately embed the map so you’re stuck with some images. Take a look at what happens when you chart areas that are more than half a mile away from the nearest subway.

In Brooklyn, Red Hook and Navy Yards are far from the subway.

In Queens, parts of Astoria are a trek away from the nearest subway stop.

If we’re truly concerned about getting people from transit deserts to jobs, then there are three discrete problems: The Navy Yards, an actual job center, isn’t close to transit while Red Hook, where low income housing dominates, is physically and psychologically isolated. Finally, in Astoria, parts of the waterfront are far from the N and Q trains, but there is an area where a ferry would make more sense as a lesser cost option.

The truth is the waterfront is not, by and large, without access to transit, and the G train, as scorned as it is, provides an adequate crosstown connection. A shorter streetcar route could help solve Red Hook’s problems and make the Navy Yards more attractive; a long streetcar that snakes past luxury developments that are a 10-minute walk from the nearest subway seems like more of a bonus for developers than a solution to a problem. But it’s still worth studying, objectively and thoroughly, and then when we have cost estimates and ridership projections, we can talk. As an object of desire though, it leaves much to be desired.

* * *

For fun (?), I have two more screenshots of the radius maps. Take a look at South Brooklyn and Eastern Queens. Forget desire lines and the developing waterfront; these are massive areas of the two most populous boroughs where the nearest subway connections are miles away. No one seems interested in solving that problem though.

Lots of highways but no subways for eastern Queens.

Forget about catching the train in South Brooklyn (or East New York for that matter).

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
Comments (95)

The waterfront streetcar would make for a torturously long ride from Astoria to Red Hook, especially in mixed traffic. (Via Next New York)

As 2013 unfolded and the promise of a new mayor came into view, the Forum for Urban Design hosted a series of meetings on urban development. As part of the forum, a variety of planners and designers submitted ideas for the Next New York. I highlighted one of those ideas — Alex Garvin’s waterfront light rail — in a September post on light rail for Red Hook. It is, of course, an old idea that won’t fade away and could make sense as a speedier connection to the jobs, shops, restaurants and subways in Downtown Brooklyn if the costs are right.

Today, that idea — and the rest of Garvin’s impractical line all the way to Astoria — is back in the news as The New York Times has discovered it. It’s always dangerous when The Times latches onto an element of urban planning as they tend to push real estate interests over transit needs, and their coverage of this idea as a mixed-traffic streetcar connecting waterfront areas that don’t need to be connected to each other follows a similar pattern. This is a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas and not to solve a discrete problem.

The presentation comes to us in a Michael Kimmelman column. I’ll excerpt:

There’s a wonderful term for the dirt trails that people leave behind in parks: desire lines. Cities also have desire lines, marked by economic development and evolving patterns of travel. In New York, Manhattan was once the destination for nearly all such paths, expressed by subway tracks that linked Midtown with what Manhattanites liked to call the outer boroughs.

But there is a new desire line, which avoids Manhattan altogether. It hugs the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens, stretching from Sunset Park past the piers of Red Hook, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, through Greenpoint and across Newtown Creek, which separates the two boroughs, running all the way up to the Triborough Bridge in Astoria. The desire line is now poorly served by public transit, even as millennials are colonizing Astoria, working in Red Hook, then going out in Williamsburg and Bushwick — or working at the Navy Yard, visiting friends in Long Island City and sleeping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

They have helped drive housing developments approved or built along the Brooklyn waterfront, like the one by Two Trees at the former Domino Sugar Refinery. But this corridor isn’t only for millennials. It’s also home to thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force. So here’s an idea: bring back the streetcar.

The idea of a “desire line” is a literary device; it doesn’t mirror reality. Furthermore, the rest of Kimmelman’s column is replete with contradictions about this streetcar’s plan. Kimmelman opts for streetcars over buses because of “romance,” but and while there’s something to be said about the psychological impact of a streetcar, we’re talking about a half a billion dollars and massive upfront infrastructure needs for a mixed-traffic line that won’t do what Kimmelman wants it to do.

Here’s the question that needs to be asked first: Will the “thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force” benefit from this streetcar route? What problem is a line near the waterfront from Red Hook to Astoria trying to solve? One Twitter follower put together a Google Map of the proposed routing, and you’ll see that the best it does is provide direct access to the Navy Yard, a decent sized job center in Brooklyn. As passé as it may be, jobs are in Manhattan or generally along subway lines, and this route doesn’t help improve access to subway lines. (It’s also a mess operationally with tight turns along narrow streets that would limit rolling stock length. It also parallels some bus routes, raising even more questions of need and cost.)

While Cap’n Transit believes that any area that could support light rail would be prime for a subway, if costs are lower and ridership falls in between buses and a subway, light could work. As I mentioned, we can’t dismiss the psychological edge they hold over buses, and with the right routing — dedicated lanes that run, say, from Red Hook to the Navy Yards via subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn rather than via the waterfront — they could solve the gaps in transit deserts. But we shouldn’t, as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen does, love this idea simply because it’s new, romantic or big. Will the ridership justify the costs? Will the service connect to job centers and destinations or provide a faster way to get to New York’s developed subway network? Can we identify a need and support that need based on a thorough study? “Desire” isn’t enough considering how much this will cost.

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
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