Home Staten Island On SI, it’s bus vs. light rail as post-Sandy money flows

On SI, it’s bus vs. light rail as post-Sandy money flows

by Benjamin Kabak

A May 2012 report called for a busway rather than light rail for the North Shore right-of-way. (Click to enlarge)

The MTA has a lot of federal money on hand to build up its — and the region’s — resiliency in the post-Sandy world. Expanding transit access and reducing auto dependency is a major part of that resiliency as it better equips the city to deal with both the aftermath of storms and the build-up to them. But some of that spending is coming under fire in a rather nuanced way.

The project at issue concerns Staten Island’s defunct North Shore Rail Line. The MTA has proposed turning it into a busway and ruled out light or heavy rail due to costs. Staten Island politicians and transit advocates are not keen to pave over a rail right-of-way for a bunch of buses, and as the MTA looks to move forward with the busway thanks to an infusion of Sandy recovery dollars, these Staten Islanders are crying foul.

Mark Stein of the Staten Island Advance had more:

The MTA has approved a plan to construct a North Shore bus rapid transit (BRT) system and pay for it with Superstorm Sandy Recovery Funds, according to an agency capital program report obtained by the Advance. While Assemblyman Joe Borelli said the agency’s board-approved project is important for the North Shore, he believes the money isn’t being properly spent, especially since the area where the BRT system will go wasn’t affected by the storm the way the South and East shores were.

“If you’re going to include Sandy money, at least include us folks down here,” said Borelli, adding that while the project is necessary for the North Shore, the money being spent should go to resiliency projects that cover the geographic area that suffered transit losses during the storm.

“What we’re looking to do is in terms of resiliency, in the event of a network failure, travel would be impossible between parts of Staten Island and Manhattan,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “This busway would remedy that. It would offer an alternate means to the ferry for Staten Island customers going into Manhattan.”

The bus path that runs parallel to the Kill van Kull would also be available for emergency vehicles to use at all times, said Ortiz.

It’s easy to see how this project can benefit everyone and be a part of resiliency planning. It is, in fact, the point of resiliency money. But while these objections are easy to dismiss, Borelli raises another point: Moving forward with the North Shore busway could put an end to discussions concerning a light rail network for Staten Island that connects over the Bayonne Bridge with the Hudson Bergen Light Rail system.

“Advocates of the project would prefer that the West Shore line link up with the proposed North Shore light rail, as part of an Islandwide mass-transit transformation,” Stein explains. “Borelli said the West Shore rail system could be lost because the former North Shore line would be paved over with asphalt for the BRT, ending the possibility of a linked West Shore and North Shore rail system.”

I understand why DOT and the MTA have engaged in a love affair with buses of late. It’s far cheaper, quicker and easier to implement than it is to build a subway line or install a light rail system with the necessary infrastructure. It’s a change that, despite the horrendously slow rollout in Brooklyn, could happen in the span of a few months. Yet, it’s a poor substitute for something with higher capacity, more frequent service and the potential for connections to another service.

New York has resisted the allure of light rail as cities as transit-starved as Phoenix and Houston have turned to it as a potential solution to congestion. Staten Island deserves the same before the MTA paves over a rail right of way for a bunch of buses.

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Patrick October 14, 2013 - 12:48 am

I smell another Busway Boondoggle.

ajedrez October 14, 2013 - 1:25 am

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: That should be heavy rail, not light rail.

I don’t really see what resiliency a busway/rail line would offer, though. Much of the ROW is below-grade (meaning it could flood easily), though I hope that at the very least, they’ll elevate it east of Port Richmond.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 10:09 am

It has zero to do with resiliency. If they truly wanted to improve resiliency, they’d add or expand the bridges off the island to facilitate evacuations and resupply. Neither the busway nor light rail will do an iota in the area of storm preparedness.

Brandon October 14, 2013 - 1:38 am

Not so sure that the higher capacity is called for in SI.

As for the other boroughs, the big issue as far as starting LRT is where to do the maintenance. Any new LRT line will have to be linked into a maintenance location, whether thats a current bus yard or a subway maintenance facility. I would guess that founding one of these would call for multiple LRT lines (or at least single one of fairly high frequency) in a single area.

lawhawk October 14, 2013 - 9:41 am

Higher capacity is absolutely needed on Staten Island despite it having fewer people than the other boroughs.

The existing through-routes are maxed out with capacity. The SIE is a mess during peak periods and the West Shore Expressway isn’t much better. Richmond Ave, Victory, Forest, Bay Terrace and Hylan are already a mess during the best of commuting times. Higher capacity can take any number of options, but bus is easiest for the MTA to get going, even though it would have higher costs over long term due to personnel costs.

But this fight is going to take on North Shore vs. South Shore parameters despite the need across the entire borough.

Hylan Blvd should get BRT, not the SBS that the MTA is trotting out as a poor-bastard-stepchild of true BRT. But then you’d get NIMBY along those routes complaining, so they water it down to the SBS we have all come to malign and denigrate (rightfully so for doing so little with so much potential promise if only they made true BRT).

A true step up from BRT would be light rail that links to St. George, with additional routes that run down Hylan, Victory, etc. And crossing routes that add actual capacity and/or more reliable mass transit. Separated bus lanes would accomplish this and reduce congestion in a way that the existing proposals the MTA is considering wouldn’t.

If I were a South Shore politician, I’d be complaining as their existing representatives are that the aid isn’t getting to where the damage was at its worst. But I’d also work towards getting these identified projects done on the North Shore too. Adding capacity to the entire network is laudable, particular with the development coming to St. George.

The South Shore folks are worried that the money will simply not be there to address their needs if it goes to the North Shore.

And I would suggest that if they’re contemplating paving over the North Shore route, that they do provide the ground work to establish light and/or heavy rail by putting the infrastructure in place to do the rail – embedding the rail, ties, and setting conduit in place for activating a rail network at a point in the future when funds are available instead of precluding it entirely or forcing the entire right of way to be torn up to be replaced with light rail.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 10:10 am

The West Shore being 2 lanes in each direction is truly idiotic. The circumferential highway network needs to be built out as well. Staten Island is a mess.

VLM October 14, 2013 - 10:11 am

Oh, yes. Let’s add more highways to Staten Island. That’ll really help with resiliency.

makes wanking motion

Boris October 14, 2013 - 3:27 pm

The only major transportation project going on today on Staten Island is a highway expansion. A bunch of on/off ramps are being redone, and the HOV lane is being expanded. The remains of Willowbrook Parkway (a barely begun Moses project where only a bridge over the SIE was built) have been removed, despite their value as a potential ped/bike bridge and greenway connection. For better or worse (mostly worse), SI highways are being expanded.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 3:39 pm

“SI highways are being expanded”

Not “highwayS”, but “highway”. And the S.I.E. was originally built to be a 4 x 4. The current “expansion” makes it 4 x 4 in part, 3 x 3 in remainder, and the added part is putatively HOV only. Not much of an expansion.

ajedrez October 14, 2013 - 6:25 pm

Actually, the Willowbrook Expressway would’ve extended the MLK Expressway through Willowbrook Park and the Greenbelt, ending it by Hylan Blvd. Those bridges that they (foolishly) removed over the SIE would’ve been an extension of the Richmond Parkway.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 10:56 am

There may be upgrades or more likely downgrades of existing routes in coming decades, but it’s probably safe to say the day of mass highway expansion in NYC is positively over.

And good riddance too. Has there ever been one example of a highway expansion causing a net improvement in traffic?

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 11:21 am

Staten Island needs a network commensurate with it’s population. The circumferential network would be a huge boon to island mobility and make the surface streets safer for buses, bikers and short-hop trips.

I’m not anti-light rail, I just don’t see a light rail addition as addressing the most obvious mobility problem on Staten Island.

The answer to your question is very obviously yes. For a current example, see the recently-added HOV lane on the Long Island Expressway in Nassau makes a very obvious difference in traffic movement. Traffic crawls through Queens and then opens up at Little Neck where the HOV lane starts. It’s a very pronounced and consistent phenomena.

But, yes, highway expansions have been nixed for the last 50 years in NY. This has dramatically cut down on congestion . . . right?

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 11:49 am

An HOV lane is by nature a restricted lane, so I guess that makes sense. But even then, it’s not reducing traffic in the other lanes, so it’s not improving congestion. In fact, it is most probably adding it elsewhere. So where has a new highway been built that reduced congestion on an old one? Or where have unrestricted lanes been added that improved throughput?

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 12:57 pm

The L.I.E.’s segment possessing an HOV lane has a greater proportion of free-floe traffic throughout the day than the adjacent 3 x 3 segment. It very much improves congestion.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 2:09 pm

But, can it be shown to do so without increasing congestion or at least moving it elsewhere (“net improvement”)? That’s has always been the major with any highway project. The LIE feeds Manhattan congestion, for instance.

Even Moses was always saying that the next highway project would provide enough capacity to finally fix all the congestion. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 2:35 pm

“But, can it be shown to do so without increasing congestion or at least moving it elsewhere”

I have no idea where I’d look for the congestion that the free-flow causes. I don’t even know what that means.

If my 737 is crowded, so the airline uses a 777 to fly the route, it just makes for a less congested plane.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 2:57 pm

Unless enough additional people show up to fill that 777, which is what tends to happen with highways.

Boris October 14, 2013 - 3:30 pm

A good analogy is the escalator analogy. Ever been on an escalator which leads into a crowded space, like a check-in area at an airport terminal, or a theater? The escalator keeps depositing additional people even though they have nowhere to go.

Adding a lane (even an HOV lane) is the same as proposing to speed up the escalator (and deliver more people) as a solution to crowding in that room where the people have no escape. Not a very smart idea, but so many people fall for it.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 3:41 pm

“Unless enough additional people show up to fill that 777, which is what tends to happen with highways.”

EXACTLY!!! That’s why 8 car train sets should not be expanded to 10 car sets. Or does this only apply to roads?

VLM October 14, 2013 - 3:45 pm

Eric: You are exceptionally good at ignoring the fact that any city with half a brain would want to encourage transit use while discouraging auto trips. It’s amazing to me that you’ve read this site for so many years and fail to grasp basic concepts of urban planning and city life.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 4:36 pm

EXACTLY!!! That’s why 8 car train sets should not be expanded to 10 car sets. Or does this only apply to roads?

Induced demand is relevant to rail as well, but the difference is that trains still run effectively when they’re crowded, which is not the case with highways (where congestion actually reduces capacity). Plus, the marginal cost of adding cars to trains is small if the platforms allow it, whereas adding highway lanes in urban areas tends to be quite expensive (ROW acquisition, grade separation modifications, …). Also, adding cars to a road creates a lot more pollution.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 4:21 pm

[General response to everything downthread from and including this.]

A full airplane is a terrible comparison, and Boris supplied the right analogy to roads. In fact, a full plane is necessarily part of the optimal revenue model for a flight. It is better to sell an empty seat for a very low price than to have an empty seat. Google “yield management.”

Full roads are the result of vehicle congestion, not passenger congestion. Every individual vehicle averages less than two (maybe barely more than one) passenger. It is neither a positive nor a negative for the highway system if a POV is full or just has one driver. If airlines were to be compared, it would be like having a bunch of empty planes in the air circling the airport waiting for empty planes on the runway to take off, and the planes on the runway would be hindered by the onees in the air.

Trains and transit actually benefit from having spare capacity. A railroad/transit agencies wants its vehicles heavily utilized, but never full. There should be room for extra passengers. (Long-distance buses are perhaps a little more like airplanes, in that you want to fill every seat, at least if there are no intermediate stops.)

JMB October 14, 2013 - 11:23 am

I’m not a fan of highways, but I wouldnt mind a double-decked BQE where feasible (kinda like how they did the LIE near the BQE junction). That is such an important artery and having an express level above the current level could certainly help. Maybe that tunnel idea that was talked about last year could be a good start. The BQE is just so poorly engineered but nearly everyone uses it. However, adding a whole new highway to be torn through neighborhoods should never happen again.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 11:33 am

New capacity should probably be done via tunnels. I could also see some adds through raised viaducts. The Air Train viaduct over the Van Wyck would be a decent model for adding express alignments through bottle-necked areas. I’d love to see a 2×2 viaduct on the SIE getting all the express traffic out of the mainline.

JMB October 14, 2013 - 11:42 am

Tunnels would be ideal, but seem so costly to ever be a reality. I like your viaduct approach though. There is a section just before the belt merge with bqe that created a viaduct for the HOV land. This should be replicated at all the trench sections. I wouldnt mind seeing additional viaducts for where the killer merges occur, especially the terrible crawl over the Kosciusko bridge.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 1:02 pm

Any expansion in this day and age will cost a fortune. An obvious place for a tunnel extension would be on the Clearview to hook up southern Queens and balance out the Van Wyck.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 11:52 am

Nobody wants to admit it, but “arteries” are just the wrong way to handle urban surface traffic. It doesn’t take a particularly big population to overwhelm even a large multi-lane highway, especially when the users aren’t even expected to pay for their use.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 1:03 pm

Right, but you have a transit network, and the two work complentarily. The area needs more of everything.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 4:40 pm

Why expand highways, when they have so many negative social and environmental consequences? Divert as many trips as possible to transit, then the existing, extensive road and highway network is free to be used for trips which are impossible to serve with transit.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 5:23 pm

Congestion causes more social and environmental problems than free-flowing traffic. The road network was built for a nation of 200 million people. We will hit a half billion by mid century and thus we need to add a lane every so often as we do our duty to accommodate the world’s huddled masses.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 5:49 pm

It’s already over-built. Other countries with smaller networks and higher population densities see significantly less congestion by simply charging users most of the costs of using the system.

It’s our transit network that’s inadequate, not our highways.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 7:21 pm

Congestion causes more social and environmental problems than free-flowing traffic.

Yes but, (1) Adding capacity to highways is well known to not ease congestion and (2) Having fewer cars on roads is preferable to having more cars on roads.

Given the premise that congestion exists and additional capacity is needed (reasonable), it’s much more space and cost efficient to add that capacity with transit rather than with additional roads. A single rapid transit track has perhaps 10-20 times the capacity, in passengers per hour, of a highway lane (even more on the latest automated systems). So by building rail rather than another highway lane (or a few), you have increased the capacity of the whole system by perhaps a few hundred percent – enough to overcome induced demand and decrease congestion for everyone. Highway users benefit too – if enough trips are diverted to transit, then people whose trips can’t be served by transit have less congestion to deal with.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 1:41 am

I understand why DOT and the MTA have engaged in a love affair with buses of late. It’s far cheaper, quicker and easier to implement than it is to build a subway line or install a light rail system with the necessary infrastructure.

That’s already sorta debatable on the street-running SBS routes, turning on route characteristics and how you define “cheaper.” It doesn’t even seem debatable in the case of the North Shore, with its intact ROW.

They want buses, higher costs be damned. Who is making money off that? :-O

Alon Levy October 14, 2013 - 4:59 am

What Bolwerk said. On-street, buses are cheaper. This turned into a mantra about how buses are always cheaper, fueled by the fact that Jaime Lerner is doing a lot more international speaking and touring than Manuel Melis Maynar. So even when buses are not cheaper, as on the North Shore Branch, the honchos think in terms of mantras.

And once the decision to build buses has been reached, all other options are ignored (SIR-compatible heavy rail) or sandbagged with unnecessary cost-raising scope (the West Shore segment of the light rail alignment). Decide, announce, defend.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 11:30 am

Seems to me like a busway would be a way station to eventual fixed rail of some sort if it’s a hit with the locals.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 12:15 pm

So: spend tens of millions$ per km paving over a rail ROW for a busway; then, if people like it, demolish it and build the conventional rail you could have had in the first place for a lower price? Rail shouldn’t be treated as premium service rewarded to densely populated, wealthy neighborhoods.

And this “we can replace it later” meme is the ultimate in wasteful government spending.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 12:59 pm

Just a suggestion. The alternative is to hold out for what the transit enthusiasts on this board seem to want: fixed rail with ADA-accessible stations, 24/7 frequency, and a hook up and over the Bayonne Bridge. I am going to posit that you are in store for a long wait.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 1:30 pm

It’s a suggestion that makes it harder to do rail in the future, probably precludes it entirely, and costs more. But a busway is a great giveaway to the union-contractor class: more costly to maintain, and more drivers need to be employed to move fewer people.

I can’t speak for others, but I’d rather just have the project done as cheaply as possible. In this case, that probably means LRT, perhaps with bustitution on parallel streets at night. ADA compliance on LRT is probably easier and cheaper than with buses.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 1:36 pm

Re-activation of just the North Shore branch between St George and Arlington using SIR standards wouldn’t be terribly expensive. The eastern section would have to be rebuilt to an extent, but that’s true for SIR, light rail, or BRT.

Boris October 14, 2013 - 3:46 pm

“fixed rail with ADA-accessible stations, 24/7 frequency, and a hook up and over the Bayonne Bridge.”

Anywhere else in the First World, these would be just the basic requirements of any new transit system. I don’t see why in a supposedly wealthy capitalist country we should settle for anything less. And, in recent years such systems have been built in LA, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Houston (like Ben mentions), among others. NYC is unique in its transit dysfunction, even among US cities.

JohnS October 14, 2013 - 7:37 pm

Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis…

Nathanael October 14, 2013 - 9:29 pm

Yes. New York City governance is exceptionally broken in some ways which no other city in the US or Western Europe or even Eastern Europe or China is, and it’s most obvious in regards to public transportation.

To be fair,though, San Francisco has exceptionally horrible, broken governance too, and it also shows up most obviously in public transportation — though the breakage is *slightly different* in style.

The rest of the country is not as dysfunctional in this matter.

Alon Levy October 14, 2013 - 7:22 pm

No, the alternative is to build SIR-compatible rail on the North Shore Branch only, which is cheaper (if you’re building rail) than having to deal with the West Shore tail. On an existing rail ROW, even an abandoned one, it is cheaper to build rail than to pave it over to build a busway.

Part of the DID strategy is constraining the available options until the chosen one is the only one left. So there’s no option to limit construction to the developed part of Staten Island and bag the least-developed-in-the-city parts on the way to the Teleport.

Anon256 October 16, 2013 - 2:34 am

Better to built nothing at all. Perhaps someday a less dysfunctional generation will be able to make decent use of the right-of-way if we don’t mess it up now. Or perhaps not, but the busway would have been a useless waste of money regardless.

Alon Levy October 14, 2013 - 7:19 pm

Seems to me like a busway would be a way station to eventual fixed rail of some sort if it’s a hit with the locals.

On the contrary. In LA, the presence of BRT is an obstacle to rail conversion, because construction would have to be in an active ROW without nearby alternatives, and as a result the Orange Line is still a bus.

Eric October 15, 2013 - 6:32 am

I believe it’s also illegal to build LRT there.

Joey October 14, 2013 - 5:07 am

Isn’t light rail over the Bayonne Bridge effectively dead now, since it’s going to be raised rather than reconstructed?

Jeff October 14, 2013 - 8:14 am

Yeah, it is.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 1:04 pm

It wouldn’t have been built anyway.

Nathanael October 14, 2013 - 9:30 pm

Light rail over the Bayonne Bridge is still possible with a new bridge. And it’s the only transit improvement proposed for Staten Island. All the rest of this bus garbage is just bullshit.

ajedrez October 14, 2013 - 6:37 pm

Supposedly, the deck could still handle the light rail.

Fool October 14, 2013 - 8:31 am

Why not both?

BrooklynBus October 14, 2013 - 9:33 am

Light rail causes revitalization which the North Shore is badly in need of. Busways cause no revitalization. There are other factors here besides costs and the MTA is once again being shortsighted. They do their planning backwards by first coming to their pre-determined conclusions, then they collect data to support those conclusions.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 11:36 am

“Light rail causes revitalization”

I think mobility improvements CAN cause revitalization, but it’s certainly not an axiomatic rule. The HBLR and River Line light rail lines go through areas that have been on the upswing but were seeing vast improvements regardless of the rail. They also go through areas that have not improved despite the presence of the light rail. If you go stop-by-stop along the HBLR line you’ll see some areas bursting with new development and some areas that have not improved and are quite scary to be in.

BrooklynBus October 14, 2013 - 2:53 pm

It may not be axiomatic, but it certainly won’t happen because of a busway.

Eric F October 14, 2013 - 3:40 pm

There are certainly areas that have used bus transport to increase their desirability.

Bolwerk October 14, 2013 - 5:42 pm

There are certain areas that needed mobility and had it provided by buses. But doing that cost-effectively still means minimizing infrastructure investment. Otherwise using buses is doing it wrong.

It’s why BRT is such a silly proposal in NYC. You can spend that kind of money, and it can make a workable solution, but it’s still inferior to a cheaper solution that the riders ultimately like more.

Nathanael October 14, 2013 - 9:31 pm

Actually, Eric, there are basically no areas which have increased their desirability with smelly diesel buses.

Eric F October 15, 2013 - 8:43 am

What about diesel trains? Do they increase desirability, or do they just smell?

Bolwerk October 15, 2013 - 9:44 am

Diesels are louder and less environmentally friendly, but I don’t find them to be very smelly these days – though they were smelly as recently as the 1990s. Of course, buses can be electric too, but that takes away or at least diminishes the one tenuous advantage of buses: the ability to use any roadway it wants.

In practice, though, diesel trains tend to run less frequently and in less populated/congested areas. The only frequent urban transit train service I can think of using diesel trains in the USA is RiverLINE.

Eric F October 15, 2013 - 9:59 am

Ok, so just the buses then. I had a feeling. LIRR uses diesels all over Suffolk. NJT uses them all over Bergen County and the Raritan Valley. Luckily those type of diesels use Fabreeze.

Bolwerk October 15, 2013 - 5:46 pm

I would venture to guess that natural fleet turnover has at this point made most of the buses in the region into the fairly modern clean-burning kind. But that wasn’t true until relatively recently.

And can you learn to answer without the reaction formation? Diesel trains are used in the region, yes, but not in people’s faces. I don’t agree with Nathanael entirely on this one, but it’s a legitimate problem that buses sit in traffic near crowds of people. The externalities are more heat and noise than Stink, but still.

Lady Feliz October 14, 2013 - 12:37 pm

Good God, anything is better than an abandoned, trash-strewn right-of-way. I wouldn’t care if they put a line of horse cars on the along the damn North Shore line, just please put SOMETHING instead of talking about if for another 40 years.

And yes, SI needs more highway capacity also. The West Shore Expressway having two lanes in each direction (when they built space enough for three lanes) is ridiculous.

BrooklynBus October 14, 2013 - 2:52 pm

Actually, I think all highways are built with enough space for four lanes (in undeveloped areas) to accommodate future development.

Mark Lacari October 14, 2013 - 7:17 pm

And this is why I intend to move off Staten Island when I get the chance. I mean no offense, but we have a Rail Right of Way that could be restored and instead they’d rather throw down the pavement instead. If that is not short sighted thinking I don’t know what is. What makes this disturbing even more is they’re using Sandy related funds to help the project, which it is no wonder why the MTA is now coming under fire by Staten Island citizens. We want our light rail and instead we are being thrown into a trash can and forgotten. Sorry, but if that’s the case I’d rather move to a city that at least has a brain, cause the MTA is starting to remind me of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz that doesn’t have a brain.

Phantom October 14, 2013 - 11:19 pm

If it is a dedicated path, why ie light rail supposed to be better than buses?

Especially if the costs are so very much lower?

Is it a phony status thing?

You can have a sharply improved service, soon, after 60 years of nothing, and we actually hear complaints?

Come on.

Bolwerk October 15, 2013 - 8:52 pm

Light rail is better because it’s faster, higher capacity, more comfortable, and cheaper. The complaints are that they are spending more for less.

Phantom October 15, 2013 - 11:16 pm

–Faster, cheaper–

Does everyone agree with this? Do non partisan groups agree with this?

Why would light rail be cheaper? You’d think that asphalt would be much cheaper than rails, signals and electric power for it. And bus could connect with any route on the island the day it opened, a huge advantage.

I like light rail- was really impressed by the Luas system in Dublin – but this does not seem like any cheap technology. Are our friends lowballing cost estimates big time?

Alon Levy October 16, 2013 - 10:31 pm

Rails, signals, and electric power cost very little – on the order of $1-2 million per km each. What’s expensive is retrofitting all that into an active street, especially one that’s not a straightaway built to the standards of rail operations. The lower costs of BRT do not come from lower asphalt costs, but from the lower cost of already using paved street infrastructure. On an abandoned rail ROW, the BRT cost advantage disappears, and paving one over has the same cost range as BRT, as is happening in Hartford right now.

Alon Levy October 16, 2013 - 10:32 pm

Correction: “paving one over has the same cost range as light rail.”

Bolwerk October 17, 2013 - 12:16 am

Besides what Alon said, there is also operating and replacement cost. LRVs can pull more people per vehicle, and require fewer operators. Vehicle life is potentially decades longer. It doesn’t even seem that unusual to justify rail replacement of bus services in countries that keep their costs under control.

The routing advantage is just overplayed. It’s probably nice sometimes, but in most cases you want your vehicles to stick to a fixed route regardless. And if you actually have an LRT network, you can do the same thing.

Phantom October 17, 2013 - 9:28 am

I think that the routing advantage could be huge.

Half the buses in SI go to St George, and it is just painful getting into and out of that bottleneck at peak hours. Can take 10 minutes to go a few blocks

A whole bunch of those bus lines could be altered to get on the new roadway, which would help the traffic flow a whole lot IMO.

Bolwerk October 17, 2013 - 12:49 pm

Actually, with Bank Street and Richmond Terrace, there are already low-traffic roadways that could do exactly what you’re talking about without spending hundreds of millions squandering the potential for a future rail connection, either to SIRT or HBLR.

Alon Levy October 17, 2013 - 4:06 pm

The more you alter the new roadway to have onramps and offramps and a bus terminal at St. George to connect to, the higher the costs are.

One hidden cost advantage of rapid transit over roads is that the interchanges are cheaper, because when you ride the subway you transfer at an interchange whereas when you drive you drive through one. As a result, railroads do not require anything like this to ensure adequate capacity.

Spendmore Wastemore October 14, 2013 - 11:38 pm

Unasked, at least here, is why does light rail cost so insanely much? I’m sure that was not the case in 1913.
It’s a set of rails, ties, a few signals and overhead wire. With regen, 40 not 80,000lb cars and maybe capacitor banks there would not need to be nearly the level of electric support as on installed for nyc subway line.
There are more parts than a pavement road and trains tip over quite easily so the roadbed needs more rigid maintenance. Otherwise a simple line without the many interchanges, crossovers and so forth as in the NYC subway is appears to be just a road plus wire and rails.

In any case, there’s already a rail roadbed. It seems pretty obvious to use what’s already there.

Joey October 15, 2013 - 2:34 am

My understanding is that a lot of the cost comes from carving a new ROW between Arlington and the Teleport, i.e. the most expensive and least useful part of the proposed route.

Alon Levy October 15, 2013 - 4:34 am

The MTA’s cost estimates say that part is actually cheaper (and I don’t believe them). Modifying the current maintenance yards to also accept LRVs is a chunk of the cost, too.

johndmuller October 15, 2013 - 4:49 pm

I’ve got a picture of what seems to be a part of the ROW (somewhere east of the Bayonne Bridge); it shows a narrow right of way squeezed between the water and a retaining/sea wall. There is a single track there – and clearly no room for another within the limited field of view. The track is clear and at least somewhat maintained; while there is grass growing on top of the (presumed} ties, it looks like it has been cut (unless it is early spring). The track shows some rust on top, but also some shine, as if it has been used at least a little.

Clearly it needs substantial work in this location before two way traffic for any kind of vehicle is possible. At minimum, (a good bit of) additional land would need to be (re?)claimed from the water and stabilized with some kind of seawall. While you were at it, it would seem to make sense to raise the level of the existing land a little higher above the water. You would end up with something resembling a curvy version of MN’s Hudson line.

The point is that, at least in this section, the ROW is not exactly ready to go for anything, so just converting it from a notion into a real right of way of any kind would be an accomplishment.

As to using Sandy funds, the people on the opposite shore deserve to feel ill-used to say the least, but this particular portion of partial ROW definitely needs some additional protection from future washouts if it is going to be used for anything, so I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to use some Sandy money for non-committal preliminary ROW work while the decision process percolates some more regarding the type of transit to be constructed.


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