Home Asides A brief thought on transit costs and the Midtown East rezoning effort

A brief thought on transit costs and the Midtown East rezoning effort

by Benjamin Kabak

As the Midtown East rezoning vote nears, there have been a few articles published worth a bit of our attention. In today’s The Times, the City Club of New York takes centerstage as they bemoan the economic machinations behind Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.

The long-dormant good government group has issued a 24-page position paper on the rezoning plan, and essentially, they claim that the city’s plan amounts to an effort to sell development rights in the rezoned area for $250 a square foot. The money would go to transit improvements, but none of it, they say, is a constitutionally permissible taking. I’m not well versed enough in New York City property law to pass a judgment one way or another, but the point remains that this group is going after the fund designed to boost transit capacity.

If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, one more time, the rezoning and this fee could generate around $500 million for transit investment in the Midtown East area. The Commercial Observer recently ran down the list of improvements, and although it’s one I’ve covered before, it’s worth revisiting. For $465 million — not much less than the cost of the dearly departed 7 line station at 41st St. and 11th Ave. — the list features “widened stairways, additional escalators (leading to and from subway stations at Grand Central, Lexington Avenue at 51st and 53rd Streets and Madison Avenue and 53rd Street), and a pedestrian passage between the Grand Central subway and Long Island Railroad platforms.” Will these upgrades truly solve the capacity crunch and why does this cost so much?

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tacony palmyra August 28, 2013 - 3:34 pm

I don’t understand the response from the DCP spokesperson at the end of the Times article that they’re “voluntary payments.” Why would they pay them if they’re voluntary? The city’s own webpage says “The zoning text establishes the required contribution rate, initially set at $250 per square foot, which would be adjusted annually.” The contributions are “required” yet the payments are “voluntary”? Huh?

And if it’s illegal to require this kind of scheme (I didn’t know it was), why doesn’t the city just use some sort of TIF type program, like the 7 extension on the West Side? East Siders must want to get in on some theoretical future tax revenues too.

Ian Turner August 29, 2013 - 9:07 am

I think it’s voluntary in the sense that you don’t have to take advantage of the relaxed zoning rules if you don’t want to.

Stephen Smith August 28, 2013 - 3:45 pm

Will these upgrades truly solve the capacity crunch and why does this cost so much?

Why they cost so much is a bigger issue, but will they solve the capacity crunch – no. But the other $10+ billion in improvements for the east side (East Side Access, Second Avenue subway – which, even though it doesn’t go to midtown east, will take a lot of Upper East Sider traveling to the west side off of the Lex) might! Weird that everyone bitching and moaning about congestion on the east side seems to have forgotten about these projects. It’s almost like they’re implacably opposed to the upzoning and are just searching for pretexts to oppose it.

Benjamin Kabak August 28, 2013 - 3:47 pm

I’m certainly not opposed to the rezoning, but think bigger! Figure out a way to use this money to kickstart Phase 3 of SAS. You can bond out quite a bit of money with $500 million, and SAS is exactly the type of project that should be built on bonds and the promise of future fare revenue.

Stephen Smith August 28, 2013 - 3:56 pm

Huh, that’s actually a really good idea! Too bad we’ve gotta blow a few hundred mil on fixing East Side Access. I wonder how many other stealth ESA costs are gonna crop up…

John-2 August 28, 2013 - 4:46 pm

I get the feeling SAS Phase III is going to have to wait at least for ESA to arrive and obliterate whatever crush-load relief the Lex gets south of 59th Street from the SAS Phase I opening to 96th Street. Bloomberg’s Hudson Yards extension is probably the last project anyone here will see in their lifetimes where the new station is a proactive attempt to develop a destination, as opposed to lines that finally get funded because the existing transportation infrastructure is burdened beyond capacity.

Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 11:43 pm

Huh? The 7 extension is concretely scheduled to open. Unfortunately, it’s missing the 41st Street station, which we may not see in our lifetimes.

John-2 August 29, 2013 - 12:30 am

Which is what I said — the Hudson Yards extension will open next year, in an area that doesn’t need service due to crush loading right now, but is designed to develop the area in and around 34th and 11th, in the same way the outer branches of the original system developed those areas of the city.

We’ll set it, but anything that gets built in the future will be reactive, to oppressive crowding already on lines in the area (and the one thing Phase III of the SAS might have going for it is when ESA opens you won’t just have Metro North riders, East and Central Bronx residents and those from the Upper East Side bemoaning the jammed 4/5/6 trains, LIRR riders will now join in on the fun, which might add a few more pols on the side of extending SAS south of 63rd Street).

Bolwerk August 29, 2013 - 9:56 am

Oh, sorry, I misread a sentence.

We are really getting screwed by not making SAS four tracks.

Larry Littlefield August 29, 2013 - 1:25 pm

“You can bond out quite a bit of money with $500 million”

You are collecting $500 million one time and issuing bonds with an interest cost of $500 million per year? You should run for the state legislature!

Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 4:31 pm

From the looks of it, ESA does virtually nothing for east side congestion relief. I’m a little skeptical of everyone’s assumption that SAS even does that much, but, even if it does, it does very little about northbound Lex congestion for the foreseeable future.

That said, what if our assumptions are all wrong and the SAS has a some Braess’s paradox-like effect where it INCREASES congestion? Right now, I’m not inclined to think that will happen, but is that so impossible?

JMP August 28, 2013 - 7:54 pm

A great way to get a rough approximation of the number of riders from the 4/5/6 who’ll be siphoned to the SAS when Phase I opens, take a look at the number of people who get on the 4/5/6 between 68th and 96th each morning who then transfer to the N/R/Q at 59th or the shuttle at Grand Central. About half of those people will have shorter and easier commutes by taking the Q once Phase I opens.

If the Q proves to provide a very smooth commute to the west part of midtown, it will even attract some riders who would have to walk past the 4/5/6 to get to the Q.

That’s not an insignificant number of riders removed from the 4/5/6. If it really works that well, it will make the 4/5/6 more attractive to riders from points north.

Over time, it will make further development of York, 1st, and 2nd Avenues more profitable, which will increase congestion in the long term, but that would take 10-20 years to happen, and would create a real push for Phase III.

Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 11:40 pm

I think you’re more or less right, but I don’t know if it’s so simple. The SAS spur will induce its own demand, will to some extent feed the Lex, and will to some extent both siphon and bolster local bus use.

Phantom August 30, 2013 - 10:22 pm

How does the few SAS stations feed the Lex?

Wouldn’t the entire effect of it be to take the pressure from the Lex?

Bolwerk August 31, 2013 - 8:54 pm

Some people will presumably transfer to the Lex at 59th Street, at the very least. The hope is the net effect is to take pressure of the Lex.

What about longer term? Say, new development makes both teh Lex and the SAS busier?

Walt Gekko August 29, 2013 - 12:54 am

I will say it again:

If Midtown east gets re-zones as expected, then I suspect in addition to the full-length SAS, we will likely need a fully-rebuilt 3rd Avenue El no matter what some may have to say about it in order to handle all the new people working there and to handle what likely will become much more densely populated areas further uptown. A modern El if done right can be very quiet (especially since as I would do it, such would be to withstand storms far stronger than Superstorm Sandy and much better than the current Els handled Sandy, which they did very well). That could be the big blowback of what Bloomberg wants, as I suspect the needs for transit will increase tremendously to where both the full SAS AND a rebuilt 3rd Avenue El would be needed.

Tower18 August 29, 2013 - 11:27 am

With both the Q and an eventual T-2nd Av in your proposal, there is no need for (and certainly no desire for) a return of the 3rd Av El. None. Forget the noise, even if you make it silent, nobody living or working on 3rd Av wants an El over their street. Ain’t gonna happen.

nyland8 August 29, 2013 - 7:30 pm

I think most of us here – or at least many of us – understand how big an improvement modern elevated train construction is over what was done 100+ years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m astounded you haven’t let go of this fantasy. We can’t even get three blocks of elevated train – OF ANY KIND – built in Astoria. We’ll see hover craft 20 stories high on the 3rd Ave spaceway, a la the Jetsons, before we will ever see another elevated train built anywhere in Manhattan. And by then we won’t need it.

Noise and vibration alone are not the issues.

Walt Gekko August 30, 2013 - 12:20 am

To me, Sandy forced a re-evaluation of everything with the transit system, which is also why I would be looking at building a new 3rd Avenue El.

While I understand where you’re coming from, this is well thought out and the thinking is, if we see the kind of development that is likely coming, BOTH a full SAS AND a re-built Third Avenue El will be needed to handle the people working in Midtown East in these new buildings and living in parts of Manhattan likely to become even more dense than it already is. It also likely in the long term would be quicker to build a new 3rd Avenue El that would allow more people to be more easily transported and take pressure off both the SAS and the Lexington Avenue line.

Nyland8 August 30, 2013 - 11:01 pm

LOL … Seriously ?? Don’t tell me. You fell asleep with this on continuous loop?


I didn’t see your name in the credits, Walt.

You’re in total denial. The development that you claim will require it is the very development that will overwhelmingly prevent it.

The “T” LIne will go from Red Hook, to Red Bank, to Red Springs, to Baton Rouge before another elevated train rolls down 3rd Ave.

Guest #13 August 29, 2013 - 5:32 am

“departed 7 line station at 41st St. and 11th Ave.”

Is it gone forever??

Benjamin Kabak August 29, 2013 - 8:59 am

Not gone forever, but it would have to be a side-platform station constructed at some point in the future. Only the bare minimum of provisioning is in place for it.

Anonymous August 29, 2013 - 11:34 am

Now I am confused. Why did they do that? They could have drilled the two tunnels spaced further apart in that location leaving enough space for a center platform. I cannot see how doing this would have increased their current costs for the tunnels, while it is quite obvious that two side platforms will cost more than one center one.

Bolwerk August 29, 2013 - 12:11 pm

I don’t know if this is the answer, but they actually need to buy/condemn more private property make accommodations, which is expensive. The center platform accommodations were priced at somewhere near half a billion dollars. I don’t know how much of that cost is attributable to high real estate prices.

Are side platforms really a problem though? It’s still a deep bore tunnel, so there will probably be a mezzanine above the platforms, so I think swiping in on the wrong side of the street won’t be too big a problem.

All that said, they are probably looking at a station with a significantly smaller scale than the one originally planned too, which is also fine.


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