Whenever the MTA’s five-year capital plan comes up for debate and discussion, some familiar proposals re-enter the public sphere. The Triboro RX circumferential line made headlines during last year’s mayoral campaigns while the idea of Utica Ave. or Nostrand Ave. extensions were bandied about amongst transit-watcher circles. Ultimately, the MTA unveiled a plan with only one new extension — Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — and while many were sad to see their pet projects omitted, Staten Island expressed its displeasure with a sigh louder than normal.
Vincent Barone of the Staten Island Advance set the stage:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled its $32 billion, five-year capital plan this week with no aim to fund either the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or West Shore Light Rail projects. Staten Islanders have rallied behind the two major plans over the years in order to create more public transportation options in booming Island areas.
Allen Cappelli, Staten Island’s MTA board member, was outraged by the exclusion of projects, calling the current budget a “betrayal” to Staten Islanders. “[The New York Wheel and Empire Outlets] are going to exacerbate transportation conditions on North Shore,” he said. “This is a continuation of the neglect of serious mass transportation needs on Staten Island.”
The West Shore Rail Line is in need of $5 million for an Alternative Analysis study, while the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit needs about $365 million in funding for construction to begin. The original MTA plan was to use Sandy recovery money to build the BRT line, but the proposal hit a wall last year when the MTA decided not to submit the project for federal funding.
On the one hand, considering the relatively modest pricetags, that these projects should be included is almost a no-brainer. The $370 million in total expenses would amount to approximately 1 percent of the proposed $32 billion total. On the other hand, I’m holding out hope for some sort of rail restoration along the North Shore line and am not totally disappointed this project won’t see the light of day quite yet. It could also come about through later joint efforts with DOT as part of Mayor de Blasio’s promised 20 new SBS routes. Why the West Shore Rail Line Alternative Analysis wasn’t included is a good question. We should also look at bring the Hudson Bergen Light Rail line into Staten Island as well.
What Staten Island is getting includes $300 million for brand new rolling stock for the Staten Island Railyway. While we don’t know full details, these new cars will be compatible with Staten Island’s new real-time arrival system. According to the MTA’s capital plan, “other SIR work includes mainline track replacement, radio system enhancement, and component repairs at various stations.” That’s not much of an investment, but it’s something about which borough officials care deeply.(It’s worth noting that SI will also get two new ferries as part of a federal grant for storm resiliency.)
The question is though why isn’t Staten Island getting more, and while I haven’t had many conversations about this with many people, I believe it’s a political matter driven by the fact that many prominent Staten Island officials do not embrace transit. I use State Senator Andrew Lanza as a frequent example and that’s not without reason (1, 2). When these State representatives use their platforms to advocate against incremental transit reforms and do not fight for state dollars that could be used to expand transit, the MTA doesn’t respond. They’re not in the business of always lobbying for new projects without political support and until someone on Staten Island starts arguing for a North Shore or West Shore reactivation (let alone a connection to the subway via the harbor or the Narrows), the MTA won’t allocate money on its own.
This discussion also implicates the ferries in a tangential way. As part of a mid-1990s campaign promise, Rudy Giuliani dropped any fare on the ferries, and they are now a subsidized means of transit for everyone. I continually question why the ferries should be free; after all, people live on Staten Island knowing that the connections to Manhattan job centers are a boat ride away, and others who live in areas of the city isolated from the subway system sometimes have to pay multiple fares. Lately, the Borough President asked the city’s Independent Budget Office to assess a tourist-only fare, and the IBO determined that such a fare could generate as much as $67 million over 15 years [pdf]. Imagine what a marginal fare for everyone could do.
Maybe it’s time to have those difficult conversations with Staten Islanders. Maybe it’s time for those who want transit upgrades to propose ways to fund them. It’s not always easy to realize, but nothing comes to New Yorkers for free, especially in the transit realm. I don’t have the answers; I have only some thoughts. But to me, it starts with the elected officials. As long as the Senator Lanzas of the world are getting reelected, we’ll never have conversations regarding funding, fare policies and transit expansion that Staten Island needs and deserves.