Home View from Underground From Crain’s, a transit wishlist without subways or buses

From Crain’s, a transit wishlist without subways or buses

by Benjamin Kabak

With Bill de Blasio’s inauguration less than a week away, a bunch of news outlets are offering up their wishlists for New York’s first new mayor since 2001. Shortly after the election, I put forward a transit “To Do” list for de Blasio, and a few others have set out their ideas for improving transportation in and around the city. One, in particular, deserves some attention as it focuses outside the traditional realms of subways and buses.

As part of its package of articles previewing de Blasio’s administration, Crain’s New York polled a group of experts on a variety of topics and tried to propose innovative approaches to city problems. The transportation list is an intriguing one as it barely touches upon subways and buses. It seemingly recognizes that the MTA, a state agency, is somewhat immune to the charms and whims of Gracie Mansion and instead answers to higher powers in Albany. Rather it looks as approaches a new mayor could explore with the resources of the city at his hands.

The problem with this approach though is that subways and, to a lesser extent, buses are the backbones of city transit. The subways provide the best and fastest way to move a lot of people over greater distances in relatively short amount of times, and no amount of attention paid to or money spent on, say, ferries can change the fact that waterfront access is limited to people with relatively good transit options. Nothing can revolutionize transit in New York City quite like new subway lines.

That said, the Crain’s list touches upon ideas that should happen. Transportation Alternatives has proposed redesigning Queens Boulevard, Atlantic Ave., Grand Concourses and Manhattan thoroughfares with pedestrian plazas, bike lanes and extended curbs. I’d add dedicated and physically separated bus lanes to some of these routes as well. Residential parking permits is an idea whose time should have come years ago as well, and Dan Doctoroff found another outlet to spread his light rail gospel.

But one idea has me raising an eyebrow. Crain’s wants to see the mayor “Reopen trackless old subway tunnels for electric express buses.” This isn’t the first time Crain’s has beaten their drum, and it’s hard to say which expert is pushing this plan. The problem is that there are no trackless old subway tunnels just lying about. In their coverage, Crain’s links to this list of permanently closed subway stations, but despite repeated inquiries, no one has identified trackless subway tunnels that could support bus infrastructure (or any that couldn’t, for that matter).

As now, the only potential unused sections of tracked subway tunnel are on the BMT Nassau St. Line and consist of part of the Brooklyn Loops that weren’t intersected by the Chrystie St. Cut in the late 1960s. The second platforms at Bowery and Canal St. are currently unused, and of course, the Essex St. Trolley Terminal is unused. No one will be ripping out unused subway tracks, and it’s unclear if the Essex St. space could support bus infrastructure. It’s certainly nothing a new mayor should focus on at the expense of real solutions to the city’s transit problems.

Ultimately, it’s odd to see a wishlist that doesn’t focus on bus rapid transit or even more city-funded subways. Everything else seems more futuristic or “21st Century,” but the truth is that for New York to grow, it’s current high-capacity transit infrastructure needs to grow. Enough about ferries or seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that aren’t even possible. Let’s talk instead about real expansion and investment.

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Larry Littlefield December 26, 2013 - 8:05 am

“Crain’s wants to see the mayor “Reopen trackless old subway tunnels for electric express buses.” This isn’t the first time Crain’s has beaten their drum, and it’s hard to say which expert is pushing this plan. The problem is that there are no trackless old subway tunnels just lying about.”

Perhaps they are trying to show that New York City can still have something like a transit system 20 years after the 2015 to 2019 MTA capital plan is the first to be unfunded as a result of past debts.

Scott E December 26, 2013 - 8:15 am

Well, there is some unused tunnel along Second Ave north of 96th street, perhaps they’ve got that in mind instead of SAS Phase 2?

Personally, I’d like to see some of the unused infrastructure reopened, even if only for passenger use (see Gimbel’s Corridor, for instance)

BoerumHillScott December 26, 2013 - 8:41 am

Ever since that “Mole People” book came out a generation ago, people have this idea that there are entire systems of unused and forgotten tunnels under Manhattan.
The fact that 90% was false is irrelevant.

Graham December 26, 2013 - 10:18 am

Indeed, aside from the tunnels that run from 2nd Avenue (6th Ave Line) to Avenue A, little in that book has any validity.



for just how much damage a fantasy merchant can cause.

In any case I hope that one day someone finds a proper transit use for those tracks and the ones currently being fought over in Queens.

anon December 26, 2013 - 11:18 am

That link should be this I believe
In case anyone else wanted to look.

pete December 26, 2013 - 2:48 pm

63rd street line has tons of unused mechanical space, rooms, and passages and stairs. They never back-filled the trench with dirt when they C&C dug it along 63rd street. Its 10 floors of empty space all the way upto the street. http://www.ltvsquad.com/Missio...../index.php

BruceNY December 26, 2013 - 3:00 pm

Most of those photos would appear to show the future 3rd Avenue entrance (Lexington/63rd St. Station), which is now under construction, so much of this empty space is now spoken for. I was lucky enough to see this space on a museum tour many years ago.

Ron December 27, 2013 - 1:15 pm

That is correct. I’ve done some work at the bottom of these stairs. This has nothing to do with backfilling.

SEAN December 26, 2013 - 9:42 am

First it was that BRT propaganda lovefest from Pratt & now this from Crain’s. The next thing will be that the Manhattan institute will put out a report that states that public transit use is bad for the ecconemy.

Can we get some real transformitive transit projects off the ground once ESA opens? Or are we doomed to incremental projects here & there that don’t add up to much in the end.

Bolwerk December 26, 2013 - 10:22 am

Manhattan Institute might actually be more sensible about transit than a lot of the groups to the “left” of it. They don’t have rose-colored glasses about it, so they generally are willing to settle with just having it work well in the name of saving taxpayer money. Of course, none of that is a basis for serious reform either. But, as ridiculous as Nicole Gelinas’ ideology is, at least she seems to sincerely care about transit.

SEAN December 26, 2013 - 12:32 pm

Perhaps, but the problem is – we went from a liberal mindset to a neoliberal one over the last generation & a half. As a result, anything to the left of this way of thinking semes more liberal than it it actually is.

Bolwerk December 26, 2013 - 10:16 am

What? No talk of monorails?!

Another common delusion: somehow not building tracks when you build transit saves money. In reality, if we have old infrastructure to re-use, it’s generally best to keep it similar to what we have.

Still, there is a big gap in transit availability because there is no intermediate capacity option between low-capacity BRT and high-capacity subways. I don’t know what Doctoroff wants from it, but light rail is probably the only realistic option for filling that gap somewhat affordably.

lawhawk December 26, 2013 - 10:34 am

So many people think that there’s simply forgotten infrastructure that can support their views. There aren’t tunnels just lying around waiting for some alternative transit use.

But on the subject of cost-effective improvements to the mass-transit system, one might argue that adding bike racks to buses might help expand transit access/options on some routes especially in the outer boroughs. It’s one area where the MTA buses are significantly lacking as compared to other bus services around the nation and would fit in with the expansion of protected and sharrow bike lanes across the City.

Michael December 26, 2013 - 12:00 pm

But somehow there are still folks around claiming that the Staten Island North Shore Railroad be returned to service. That the QueensWay railroad tracks be restored to usage in Woodhaven, Queens. Or that the Triboro-RX route that uses old un-unused railroad tracks be created. Whether or not any of these ideas will see the light of day, there are a number of folks championing the revival of old un-used trackage. Then are the folks who look at the conversion of un-used trackage into park-land, for example, the High Line Park.

Then there are the ideas that the lower level of the 63rd Street tunnel, and the trackage under Second Avenue north of 96th Street finally could finally be used. There have been revivals of some railroad tracks in recent years, as well as improved connections between certain lines within the region.

So yes, one could be forgiven for thinking that there are “miles and miles” of un-used rail-lines that could be used. At the same time, there are a lot of transit fan folk out there who not only promote the building of new tracks, but also the usage of old track-ways. Another example would the revival of the old “K/KK” track pathway that allows the current M-train to run.

So the folks who just might not be a railroad scholar, knowing a lot about the railroad trackage in the region, just might be forgiven for thinking that there are miles of “un-used rails out there”. The idea simply did not come out of no-where.


Bolwerk December 26, 2013 - 1:59 pm

That is a fair point for about the lay population, but Crain’s is supposed to be a fairly reliable source of source of journalism. They could check.

The Chrystie Street connection, that K/KK/M trackway, probably was the only significant piece of infrastructure that could be used for revenue service that was just lying around.

I guess the unused part of the BMT Nassau Street line Ben mentioned might be pretty easy to recover – as in, with minimal capital expenditure. Probably no point, however, without finding a way to add another track of capacity across the Williamsburg Bridge.

Bolwerk December 26, 2013 - 1:43 pm

Since it would probably slow buses down even more, bike racks on buses seems like a bad idea to me (maybe with an exception for express buses). And, bikers can probably already outrun many buses anyway!

I think accommodating bikes on the subway makes sense, since at least the subway cuts across geographic barriers bikes can’t cross so easily. But any problem with riding a bike within a borough is for the most part the result of bad street/highway design.

pete December 26, 2013 - 3:03 pm

CTTransit buses to the north have bike racks, very few use them due to 30 minute headways outside of rush hour so its faster to bike than use the bus anywhere.

SEAN December 26, 2013 - 3:29 pm

Here in Westchester Bee-line briefly tested bike racks on a few busses, but quickly removed them. The county through up it’s hands & stated it couldn’t be done cheeply enough to make the investment worthwhile. Soon after the Journal News for what it’s worth had a scathing editorial on the counties inability to perform a simple service improvement referencing transit agencies who installed racks & saw a surge of riders as a result. Most of them were larger than Bee-Line’s 360 bus fleet & were able to spend around $200 per bus for parts & labor.

Eric December 26, 2013 - 11:14 am

“Crain’s asked dozens of experts for innovative ways Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio could make New York City a better place to work and play. The result is our list of more than 40 bright ideas,”

Subways and buses are necessary. But they are well understood and boring, not “innovative” and “bright”. So they aren’t good enough click-bait for an article like this.

Most of the ideas in the article are good rather than bad – they are just marginal and low priority compared to regular subway and bus service.

AlexB December 26, 2013 - 12:26 pm

What about the 42nd Street Shuttle? Could a bus use those lanes to bypass the busy intersections of 6th&42nd and 5th&42nd? You’d obviously need to squeeze in a ramp between Madison and 5th and between 6th and 7th. Theoretically you could even keep the shuttle. Combined with separated lanes on 7th and 8th, you could build a quick 1 seat bus ride between Penn and GCT. If you got rid of the shuttle entirely, the bus could use the GCT shuttle station and you wouldn’t even need the ramp between 5th and Madison.

Tower18 December 26, 2013 - 12:53 pm

All of what you said may or may not be possible, but would be worse than the shuttle train that’s already there.

This one-seat ride between Penn and GCT is overblown now, IMO, but will be even more so once LIRR gets ESA and MNRR gets Penn Station access.

SEAN December 26, 2013 - 3:40 pm

This one-seat ride between Penn and GCT is overblown now, IMO, but will be even more so once LIRR gets ESA and MNRR gets Penn Station access.

To that point, what’s going to happen to such stations as Kew Gardens & Forest Hills – will there be added service? In adition, what’s happening with the proposed transfer station in I believe Sunnyside?

AG December 26, 2013 - 8:48 pm

“This one-seat ride between Penn and GCT is overblown now, IMO, but will be even more so once LIRR gets ESA and MNRR gets Penn Station access.”

correct – except for those who use the Harlem Line.

Michael December 27, 2013 - 8:28 am

Just how is a bus supposed to turn around with the space allocated to the 42nd Street Shuttle? There is NO SPACE for the bus to turn around! Ever take a look at an actual bus terminal?

One feature that helps to make subways useful is the amount of physical space that they take up for routine operations, like reversing directions. As anyone noticed the multiple columns that really do not have much distance between the columns that are in the subways, especially the subway lines built and opened in 1904? Here we’re talking about an original segment from the first IRT subway line in the city! That subway tunnel was built as a subway tunnel!

Then there are the ramps needed to get buses to/from the underground space for maintenance, fuel, etc. This sounds like one of those ideas that the more one thinks about it, and reflects upon real world evidence, the more the whole idea becomes silly.


Bolwerk December 27, 2013 - 11:15 am

*shrug* Buses have become such a fetish for some transit advocates. They should stay where they belong, doing what they do well: on relatively low volume surface streets, moving passengers over short-medium distances.

That said, I could actually understand the argument for dual mode electric/diesel buses, except no such underground infrastructure exists.

Matt December 26, 2013 - 1:15 pm

It’s certainly not miles of unused tunnel or anything, but the trolley turn around and station under the Manhattan side of the 59th St bridge is, to my knowledge, fully intact and could be used to add express and local bus service across the bridge on dedicated lanes to help relieve crowding on Queens Blvd. This would require little more than the removal of the barriers blocking it from the LL outside lanes. Slap in an elevator and reactivate the stairwells, and you have the makings of a solidly updated piece of infrastructure.

Similarly, the Amtrak tunnel under the west side is 4 tracks wide with only two tracks installed and in service. This could be paved (or tracked, really) and service could be added from where Columbia is building in the Manhattan Valley all the way down to the 42nd St corridor with little interruption to current service patterns.

Alon Levy December 27, 2013 - 6:25 am

Re the Amtrak tunnel, it’s highly nontrivial to connect tunnels to surface infrastructure. The tunnel connects to Penn Station with a single-track connection, and could probably get a double-track connection to the northern tracks based on a service plan for through-running, but a new connection to 42nd Street is going to be expensive. Think of all the flyovers, portals, and street disruption that would be involved.

Matt December 27, 2013 - 7:48 am

I was thinking more about putting a platform below 42nd st, possibly in the spur that is down there. I guess the expensive part would be stairs and elevators down there, but I find it hard to believe 2 elevators and some stairwells would cost more than 5-10 million, and the marginal cost per new passenger mile becomes minuscule when compared to an expense like the 7 extension. On the north end, you’d need a ramp from the tunnel mouth down to 125th st (St Claire’s really). There’s room for this in the right of way between the HH and the current tracks. I think the place where this falls apart is that there isn’t really space in the new tunnels at 6Xth sts. I wonder if they make buses with train wheels the way they make trucks?

Either way, just having platforms in some of these spots would be great, since there is theoretically already hourly service from amtrak at each of these spots. If MNR/MTA could work out some kind of cross honor system with tickets, you could get half hourly service with just an additional train per hour.

Alon Levy December 27, 2013 - 11:03 am

Ah, sure, this is something different. It depends then on what you’re looking for.

It’s a terrible idea to add intercity service there, at any rate. Intercity trains have longer stop penalties – people have luggage and the train interior isn’t configured for fast boarding and alighting, and Amtrak’s rolling stock also accelerates very slowly. It’s unusual for intercity trains to make more than one stop in a city; it happens, but not commonly, certainly not to add commuter service.

Personally I think that if there’s Metro-North service there and room to add local platforms without interfering with intercity trains then there should be more local stations – possibly 42nd and 50th and Dyckman and not just 62nd and 125th. I’m not 100% sure about their merits. It couldn’t be a bus tunnel, at any rate – too much shared infrastructure with trains, no turnaround space.

Michael December 27, 2013 - 8:45 am

Matt says:

It’s certainly not miles of unused tunnel or anything, but the trolley turn around and station under the Manhattan side of the 59th St bridge is, to my knowledge, fully intact and could be used to add express and local bus service across the bridge on dedicated lanes to help relieve crowding on Queens Blvd. This would require little more than the removal of the barriers blocking it from the LL outside lanes. Slap in an elevator and reactivate the stairwells, and you have the makings of a solidly updated piece of infrastructure.


As I understand it, these local or express buses would simply dump riders at 59th Street and Second Avenue, as a method to reduce crowding on the Queens Blvd. subways.

The Queens Blvd. subway distributes riders in Manhattan along Eighth Avenue, Broadway and Sixth Avenue – while the proposed local/express bus terminal at the old trolley terminal at 59th Street and Second Avenue. This is a location that is the “transit equivalent” of the “middle of nowhere” – at least until the 57th Street station of the Second Avenue subway is built. Such a terminal (using the old trolley terminal which had connections with the old Second Avenue elevated line) does not really offer much potential for reducing crowding on the Queens Blvd. subways since all of the subway lines that service Queens Blvd. have subway stops nearby within walking distance of that location.

This might be an instance of not whether something can be done, but if it should be done, due to the few benefits to be achieved.


David Brown December 27, 2013 - 10:22 am

Sitting here in my new home in Glendale, Arizona with my girlfriend, I can be a bit more objective on this. First off, none of the “Pie In The Sky” ideas are coming to fruition, for quite some time. The main priority will be making sure the Tunnels are prepared for the “Next Sandy.” Followed by finishing up some of the projects already underway. If there was a project that is not “Pie In The Sky” and would improve conditions, it would be a Bergen Street Station rebuild coupled with an “F” Train Express, but that is not happening. As for the De Blasio Administration, he will have quite a bit to focus on instead of Subways (starting with the Municipal Union Contracts). How he handles that, will be an indication of how successful he will be? ps. Based on how he kept Interfaith and SUNY College Hospitals open, I give him a better chance than I would have Quinn.


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