For the past few days, the idea of building out the 7 line to Secaucus has caught our collective imaginations. While that plan certainly has its appeal from a regional perspective, within the five boroughs, certain areas still suffer from subpar rail access though, and if it’s possible to improve access without spending billions on a cross-Hudson tunnel, the city should do so.
Prime for development is Staten Island’s North Shore. This underdeveloped area features a rail right of way that has had a mixed history. It opened to customers 120 years ago and served passengers for 63 years. From 1953-1989, the ROW serviced freight trains from New Jersey, but it shut for 16 years. Since 2005, the North Shore rail line has seen limited freight service, and the ROW has been problematic for community development to say the least. The rail line is in poor shape, and the ROW has cut off access to Staten Island’s waterfront.
Late last year, Staten Island pols and the MTA started making noises about reactivating the North Shore rail line, and early this year, the authority unveiled an alternatives analysis at an Open House. At the behest of and with money from Staten Island’s borough president, the authority delved into the island’s subpar mass transit. During the open house session, the authority presented various alternatives for improving transit along Staten Island’s North Shore. These plans included a light or heavy rail option for the ROW, turning the ROW into a dedicated BRT bus lane, improving local bus routes and expanding ferry and/or water taxi service. (For more on these options, check out the MTA’s NSAA planning page.)
Currently the MTA is working to turn the long list of potential projects into a short list before selecting a locally preferred alternative by mid-2011, but if the New York City Economic Development Corp. has its way, the locally preferred alternative will involve reactivating passenger rail service on the North Shore right-of-way. The NYCEDC has released preliminary results of a two-year study entitled North Shore 2030, and NY1’s Amanda Farinacci detailed, the study calls for rail service along the North Shore.
Unfortunately, the NYCEDC’s position is more nuanced that a flat-out call for rail service. They’ve identified what it would take to turn Staten Island’s North Shore into a more economically viable community and seem to believe that the rail line is in the way. At various points, the one-track route has a right-of-way of upwards of 100 feet, and the at- and below-grade areas block direct access to the waterfront, a vital part of the rehabilitation plan.
In its most recent presentation (PDF), the NYCEDC has urged the MTA to relocate the at-grade portions of the right-of-way. By doing so, waterfront businesses will see their land-use conflicts fade away, and the city will be able to improve the pedestrian and bicycle corridor along the shore. No cost estimates for the work have been released yet.
For now, the planning work will continue on this not-so-ambitious project. It should be a priority, but the MTA isn’t spending significant chunks of money on anything other than its current megaprojects. As this deal doesn’t have the same obvious real estate benefits as the Subway to Secaucus, the city won’t embrace it as readily as it has that crazy plan for the 7 train. Still, a direct rail line to the ferry terminal along Staten Island’s North Shore would serve as a prime impetus to development.
Perhaps then we should be thinking small and ensuring projects such as this are realized before we start sending the subway to far-off lands across the Hudson River. Perhaps we should ponder a subway tunnel to Staten Island instead of Secaucus. After all, it’s been nearly 100 years in the making.