A bunch of years ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg released his comprehensive plan for New York City’s immediate future. Awkwardly called PlaNYC, it introduced the city to the idea of a congestion pricing charge for Manhattan’s Central Business District and tied in the revenue from this fee to transit upgrades designed to secure the city’s environmental future while cutting down on crippling congestion. The centerpiece failed, but the overall master plan concept has stuck around. It was refreshed four years ago and overhauled this year as Mayor Bill de Blasio released OneNYC on Wednesday.
The idea behind OneNYC is similar to PlaNYC but with de Blasio’s imprint. It is concerned with raising New Yorkers out of poverty while paying nod to growth, sustainability and resilience. While politicians sometimes hate to admit it, all four of these goals are focused around mobility, and transit necessarily has to grab the spotlight. In his OneNYC report [pdf], de Blasio doesn’t mention congestion pricing or the Move New York plan. In fact, he later claimed, perhaps to save political capital in the face of a recalcitrant governor, that he’s never read the Move New York proposal. But de Blasio did turn his attention to transit.
“Reliable and convenient transit access to employment and other activities remains stubbornly out of reach for too many New Yorkers. This problem is particularly acute for low- and moderate-income residents in areas poorly served by the subway or buses. For seniors and those with disabilities, this can affect their ability to simply get groceries, or see family and friends,” the report notes.
To correct these problems, the Mayor’s Office offers up some familiar solutions. The report discusses the new citywide ferry network that won’t actually correct the problems, and it again reiterates plans to bring 20 new Select Bus Service routes to the city within the next three years. Where things get interesting though is with the MTA’s unfunded capital plan. The OneNYC report says the city will “support full funding of the MTA capital plan.” The report dances around direct fiscal support though and states that “the City will also work closely with the MTA to identify significant savings and improve operational coordination in areas of common interest, such as bus rapid transit, other bus services, and Access-a-Ride. Any savings we achieve together can be leveraged to create new capital support for the MTA.”
In exchange for this support, the city wants something. They always do. In this instance, the city proposes the bombshell: a study of a subway down Utica Ave. in Brooklyn. The report calls for faster CBTC adoption, new or reopened entrances that are ADA-compliant, randomly a free transfer between the Livonia Ave./Junius St. L and 3 stations, and subway-fication of the LIRR between Jamaica and Atlantic Ave. after East Side Access opens. But the Utica Ave. line is the centerpiece.
The document doesn’t go too far here. The mayor wants simply “a study to explore the expansion of the subway system south along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the densest areas of the city without direct access to the subway,” and on its face, it’s exciting that someone in City Hall is talking about this idea in an official document. It is so far unclear how a Utica Ave. subway would take shape. It could involve an extension of the 4 train from the Eastern Parkway line. It could call back to Second System plans to run trains from 2nd Ave. through South 4th St. and, eventually, down Utica Ave. But there you have it.
As The Times noted, this is far from the first time this idea has arisen. A Utica Ave. subway was part of the early 1900s plans for the subway and were included in expansion plans in the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s. Another study today seems like overkill, but it’s the first step toward securing funding. It’s a very preliminary first step though.
In discussing this idea, the transit cognoscenti were surprised. “No one expected this,” the Rudin Center’s Mitchell Moss said to The Times. “It’s refreshing to see a proposal to extend mass transit into areas of Brooklyn that are transit-deprived. It’s obviously an idea that will take more than a decade to be carried out, but you have to start with an idea.”
The challenges being right there. One of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars. There is no political incentive to push through infrastructure projects if the only photo op will be a staged event 18 months before the real opening date (cough cough 7 line extension cough cough).
But there are other challenges too. The next concerns money. Who’s funding this subway extension? How? The last concerns priorities. The MTA has its own capital program wishlist and a 20-year needs assessment. The Utica Ave. subway featured on none of those documents, and adding it to the capital plan means more money would be required and more demands made. The MTA has identified the Second Ave. Subway as a need; the Mayor wants Outer Borough support and has plans for Utica Ave. It’s a push and pull that gets resolved through money.
So that’s the plan for One New York. A Utica Ave. subway would be intriguing, but without a new and dedicated East River tunnel, it would create more a capacity problem on whichever line the extension would be a part of. It faces many, many challenges, but it’s a start. At least someone’s talking about it.