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?