Home Public Transit Policy Ydanis Rodriguez asks DOT to study NYC light rail

Ydanis Rodriguez asks DOT to study NYC light rail

by Benjamin Kabak

Rode the light rail a few times while visiting the Midwest this week.

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

As New York politicians look around the country (and hopefully the world) for ideas on expanding transit, they often find themselves drawn to light rail. The revival of the old streetcar networks along fixed rail routes has been en vogue in recent years as cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Minneapolis to D.C. and beyond have installed new systems. In our city, light rail has lived among the margins of transit advocacy with a the Vision42 initiative and Bob Diamond’s Red Hook trolley idea the only streetcar/light rail plans out there. Now, a few months after developers discussed the “cool idea” of a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront route, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez wants NYC’s Department of Transportation to explore light rail in New York City.

The ask is a modest one. As Politco New York’s Gloria Pazmino reports, Rodriguez, the chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, has asked for a feasibility study. Where to begin is the tough part, but Rodriguez is, at least, thinking about means to improve mobility. “This is not a new idea in New York City,” Rodriguez said. “There have been advocate groups and others who have wanted the city to install a light rail corridor around 42nd Street in Manhattan and other areas. This is an effort to begin a discussion about an alternative way to improve transportation in New York City.”

Whether NYC needs to reinvent the wheel or improve the efficiency of the one it already has is up for debate, and Pazmino tackles the challenges an effort to introduce light rail to New York City may face. She writes:

Building a light rail system in the already crowded streets of Manhattan would be no small feat. Rodriguez’s bill would direct DOT to begin a one-time study to build the rail, include recommendations for how to do it, and if it would help to increase mass transit in areas of the city that are currently underserved by other forms of public transportation. “That system would allow pedestrians to use the light rail to transport to other places and in areas that are isolated and not connected with trains, and that can benefit them,” Rodriguez said…

Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area. First, he wants to learn what it would cost and how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters. “The whole idea is to get DOT to conduct the study. Based on the study, we will have a better idea on the feasibility of bringing in a light rail. I do not want to jump into conclusions about any particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Rich Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, said the idea is worth studying, but the question will be whether a possibly massive first investment will be worth it in the long run. “A light rail in the city is something that is reasonable and could be explored, but we have to consider the cost, and consider the infrastructure you would have to put in to support the service,” Barone said.

As with any new transit system, the biggest challenge is developing a network from the get-go. We can talk about installing light rail along 42nd St. — certainly a worthwhile project that would improve river-to-river mobility while cutting down on traffic — and we can talk about a waterfront line. But these two divergent systems wouldn’t rely on shared infrastructure, thus raising initial capital costs for shops and rolling stock considerably. (Any new light rail system should also be integrated into the MTA’s fare network so that riders aren’t double-charged, but that’s a different concern.)

That is not to say we should rule out light rail for New York City. It’s shown tremendous potential for urban growth throughout the country, and it could be a way to combat the MTA’s unsustainable capital construction costs while reengineering NYC’s street space. Imagine, for instance, instead of a 2nd Ave. Subway, a 2nd Ave. dedicated to two-way light rail and full-length bike lanes with cars eliminated from that north-south route, all for far less than the cost (but also far less the capacity) of the 2nd Ave. line. Or, more feasibly, imagine a light rail through less dense parts of Queens and Brooklyn that aren’t connected to the subways.

The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option that a bus network. There is a psychological element involved as riders prefer the reliability of a fixed-rail system with dedicated running spaces, but real BRT could address those concerns as well without the capital outlay. Ultimately, it may make more sense to reform MTA spending and examine unused rail ROWs throughout the city, but studying light rail has its place in the NYC transit dialogue. I hope something interesting comes of Ydanis Rodriguez’s request.

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Bolwerk October 16, 2015 - 1:13 pm

The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option [than] a bus network.

The answer to that question is obvious: “No.” That’s because:

(1) it’s not binary choice of “LRT xor buses” and never has been. It’s a question of having an intermediate capacity mode, which is objectively in the interest of many transit riders, vs. not having one.

(2) We already have a bus network and it’s not going anywhere, even if some heavily used routes are railstituted because, again objectively, it improves service or cuts costs. Obviously our bus network has its blemishes, but credit where credit is due: by the standards of U.S. cities, it’s even reasonably comprehensive and frequent.

Really, name a city with light rail that doesn’t have a bus network too. If there is a single current example, I’d be surprised. The only people who demand modal uniformity either come from the Walter Hook/Enrique Penalosa spectrum of BRT-or-nothing ideologues or are simply people who aren’t paying attention or don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

The obvious challenge isn’t technical, or even financial (buses aren’t exactly run as cost-effectively as they could be in NYC), but NIMBYs.

Alex October 16, 2015 - 1:33 pm

What really is the advantage of a light rail on 42nd St when you already have both the shuttle and the 7 train right underneath? I suppose it connects to the waterfront but it still seems pretty redundant. I’d rather see one running on 34th. You could even potentially have it turn up Park so it can connect Penn Station to Grand Central.

In the boroughs, what about looking at light rail for the Triboro-RX line? I’d imagine that would reduce the costs of building it out, though the issue of a new yard is a valid one. I’ve also often thought that a light rail extended from Brooklyn Army Terminal along the Shore Parkway in Bay Ridge would be a good move. The Shore Parkway absolutely does not need 6 traffic lanes so it would be relatively easy to build the rail ROW in one lane in each direction out to the Verrazano.

Bolwerk October 16, 2015 - 1:44 pm

Accessibility is a huge advantage. I don’t know if the MTA knows why it does anything given their “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitude about everything, but throughout NYC transit history pretty much every subway route has been paralleled at least in part by surface routes. It’s not any different on 42nd Street; if you want to go from GCT to 5th Avenue, a bus is probably faster than descending into the subway and then ascending out. Surface transit isn’t simply “upgraded” to a subway when it gets busy enough. It’s a necessary complement with its own distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Granted, Vision42 would not be my first choice, at least not without tying it into HBLR or something. But there is a logic to it, and the Vision42.org people even explain it well.

Alex October 16, 2015 - 1:50 pm

Yeah, it’s not that there’s no advantage. It’s that if you’re going to do it, you should do it where there isn’t existing rapid crosstown service. 34th and 23rd seem to be better candidates based on that criteria.

Bolwerk October 16, 2015 - 2:10 pm

I liked their idea connecting GCT, TQ, and Penn by LRT, but you’re probably right.

Though IMHO the places that really call for light rail are not in Manhattan. Perhaps to Manhattan, to better utilize the East River Bridges, but not in.

AG October 16, 2015 - 3:35 pm

Vision 42 has more to do with foot traffic. The original idea is to close the street to cars completely so pedestrians could “take over”. The light rail would be the high capacity bus – so to speak..

Spuds October 17, 2015 - 11:16 am

But look at Buffalo’s Main St where they are now rebuilding the road to accommodate cars,again after years as a failed pedestrian mall. LRV or ones FRA compliant should be used as part of the Triboro RX first.

Eric October 17, 2015 - 1:35 pm

Buffalo doesn’t have the foot traffic to support a lively pedestrian mall. Midtown Manhattan most certainly does.

Kai B October 21, 2015 - 11:17 am

Buffalo politicians also used the light rail closing off the street for cars as an excuse for why business declined in the corridor, when in reality Main Street USA declined in almost all cities across the country due to suburbanization and its malls. Not to mention the whole Rust Belt population emigration…

Bolwerk October 21, 2015 - 12:56 pm

Well, it doesn’t have the ability to have a lively pedestrian mall because it doesn’t have foot traffic either. It’s a nasty feedback loop.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely to have the economic base to support many malls beyond whatever is demanded by people coming over from Ontario (and those people probably prefer suburban malls).

AG October 17, 2015 - 4:01 pm

You seriously tried to compare Buffalo Main St. to 42nd St. in Manhattan???? Fordham Road gets way more foot traffic than anywhere in Buffalo… It’s not even remotely close.

Spuds October 18, 2015 - 11:13 am

You are correct and that is my point but you couldn’t tell folks that back in the 80’s before they built the damn thing. The trolley is not the problem since it can move a lot more bodies after a sell out crowd at First Niagara.

Henry October 16, 2015 - 1:55 pm

The RX is already grade separated, so there’d be little to no additional utility gained by making it light rail. While I don’t personally know about Shore Parkway, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to route the RX south.

Alex October 16, 2015 - 4:23 pm

You’d still need to build stations and certain segments that fly over roads and other rail lines. My assumption is that doing so for light rail is cheaper, but maybe the savings wouldn’t be that significant.

As for the Shore Parkway, the planned terminus of the RX would be at the BAT which is just north of the beginning of the Shore Parkway. Connecting it there wouldn’t be too difficult and would provide a better connection for the westernmost parts of Bay Ridge which are pretty dense but a looong walk to the R train.

Alon Levy October 16, 2015 - 9:05 pm

Station costs depend on platform length (weakly) and not on whether the trains are classified as light rail or as heavy rail. Flyovers cost the same no matter what – they depend on train mass (very weakly), and that’s the same for light rail and heavy rail.

The planned southern terminus for Triboro RX is the correct one: at the junction with the R. You should not use a circumferential line to create a second radial, or else you’ll create the same problem that plagued the G when it ran to Forest Hills: people only rode it as far as the next express stop to Manhattan, because of the huge mismatch in radial demand to Manhattan and circumferential demand to Brooklyn. See post of mine on the subject here, with some additional examples.

Beebo October 16, 2015 - 5:52 pm

Yeah, light rail along 42nd is not needed. What IS needed is something that runs from Penn to Grand Central. No transferring between subways lines.

Agree on the second, but once you get to the Verrazano, you continue going across.

Eric October 17, 2015 - 1:40 pm

Or you could just automate the 42nd Street Shuttle and have it run every 2 minutes. That’s a transfer people would be willing to make. One stop on the 1/2/3 plus one stop on the S would be much faster than any surface light rail.

Henry October 17, 2015 - 2:49 pm

The 7th Av Line is too crowded during peak hours for that to actually be utilized the way a shuttle would. That being said, 42 St needs a streetcar, which is significantly different from saying that it needs a light rail.

Bolwerk October 18, 2015 - 9:01 am

The shuttle is probably just still there because it’s not worth abandoning. I don’t think the 7 is that crowded, certainly not in that segment.

Henry October 18, 2015 - 12:43 pm

The 7 isn’t currently, but the 1/2/3 most definitely are. The S is also significantly more convenient to most people than the 7, which is the deepest line in the Times Sq station complex. The need for some sort of surface or easily accessible subsurface circulator around Midtown has been recognized for at least the past 60 years.

Guest October 19, 2015 - 10:04 am

I suspect that the RX should be rapid transit because the potential ridership is enormous.

Larry Littlefield October 16, 2015 - 1:36 pm

If you get a really successful BRT line, the next logical step is to put down tracks. The advantage is that trains can be multiple-unit. Light rail only makes sense if ridership is high enough to make this desirable.

Bolwerk October 16, 2015 - 2:00 pm

FFS, no. Not everything is about costs. Design matters too. Service matters too. If people who fret so much about costs understood that, they’d have a better record of controlling costs than the tax ‘n spend liberals.

Buses are obviously an important part of the modal mix, but they start from the standpoint of offering the crappier ride. There is no reason not to spend some more if it’s in the interest of riders to get a significantly better ride.

AG October 16, 2015 - 3:29 pm

Yes… Higher upfront capital costs can be easier to swallow with lower operating costs

LLQBTT October 19, 2015 - 9:41 am

That can be mostly solved by better bus dispatching and management. A big problem now is bus bunching. The bus system is very unreliable, a major flaw in it. There have been times for example, when in the time I wait for a bus that’s not come, I can drive the entire length of my trip.

Provide people with more dependable buses, and some people just might leave their cars at home.

Bolwerk October 19, 2015 - 6:02 pm

What problem? The bus system is not *that* unreliable. Its problems are mainly at peak times because of crowds (on the bus) and traffic congestion (outside the bus). The latter is less a dispatching problem and more a traffic management problem, which puts it outside the MTA’s control.

JJJ October 16, 2015 - 4:05 pm

Buses can be multi units as well. See: Switzerland
And they can be electric.

Henry October 17, 2015 - 1:06 pm

Good, high-quality BRT costs about as much as good, high-quality LRT, if you end up having to build new lanes or specific stations for it. Most of the Latin American examples that get touted as true BRT were located in extremely highway like conditions where they could sacrifice two/three lanes in each direction and still have a six lane highway.

Eric October 17, 2015 - 1:44 pm

In this case, you wouldn’t be building anything new. The SBS lanes already exist. You would just run longer buses or “bus trains” on them, multiplying the capacity.

It wouldn’t be as quick as highway-style BRT, but Manhattan is not wide enough to need that speed.

Henry October 17, 2015 - 10:57 pm

The current bus lanes are not ubiquitous enough to provide significant congestion relief in and of themselves; in constricted areas or areas with a lot of turns, they tend to disappear (like the western half of the Bx12, the M15 south of Houston St, etc.)

While BRT-lite has definitely provided some relief, ultimately there will need to be some sort of grade separation of second-tier transit networks in congested/twisty sections of route, whether it is BRT or LRT; it just happens to be cheaper to do so when it’s LRT due to the lack of exhaust tunnels.

In the case of buses, there may also be legal limits on how long a motor vehicle can be; at least the path of a LRV is controlled by the tracks.

Eric October 18, 2015 - 3:44 am

If you’re going to build a grade separation for the M15 south of Houston St, it would be much more effective to use this grade separation for the SAS.

Henry October 18, 2015 - 12:45 pm

I’m not saying that we should railstitute every SBS line with light rail; that was merely to provide an example to show that current SBS with longer vehicles wouldn’t really cut it in terms of travel time improvements, at least definitely not over the current SBS arrangements, which provided middling improvements at best.

Woody October 16, 2015 - 1:38 pm

Let’s do it! And priority should go to areas with no subways.

But since I’m not so familiar with them, let’s look at all the cross streets in Manhattan, not just 42nd.

New technology (batteries and fast undercar-recharging methods) is almost eliminating overhead catenary wires from new European street cars and light rail. Nobody wants wires strung down Fifth Ave, or across 57th St. But now surface light rail is possible without the visual pollution.

The north-south subway lines mean any crosstown line would have to dive deep beneath them, ruling out cheaper cut-and-cover subways. Steep grades or deep stations would make them impractical. As in, forgetaboutit.

But light rail on the surface streets — how about Canal, Houston, 14th, 125th/135th, and 181st for starters — would attract far more riders than we’ll ever get with buses.

If you want to share the sheds and maintenance facilities, then one north-south light rail line could connect them. Put it on one avenue, or take half of two one-way avenues. LOL, I’d gladly give them Amsterdam Avenue to convert from a traffic sewer to a light rail line, or Columbus/Ninth downtown and Amsterdam/10th Ave uptown.


A sacred place might work for cut-and-cover: Look at possible routes sunk underground thru Central Park. Yeah, I know, the horror. So 72nd St is possible, with a route slightly south of the current cross-park road to avoid the landmark architecture, fountains, etc along it now. Both 86th and 96th Sts could be considered. One of those transverses might be converted to, or replaced by, sunk-and-covered light rail routes, actually expanding the surface parkland.

Eric October 17, 2015 - 1:52 pm

I had a different idea for crosstown trips: When stage 2 of the SAS is built, extend it west on 125th to St Nicholas Ave, and merge it into the 8th Ave local tracks just north of 125th.

This would let uptown C trains turn east on 125th and south on Second Ave, allowing you to get from anywhere on the UWS to anywhere on the UES with a single seat ride. This would be a great advantage over crosstown routes on 72nd, 96th etc, which would help crosstown trips but require a transfer for any uptown/downtown movement. Despite the detour north to 125th, since it’s a subway speeds would still be competitive.

It would be relatively cheap, about 1km of extra tunneling with just one new station (transfer to the 2/3) plus a grade separation with the 8th Ave line.

Ideally eventually, the Q train would continue to the Bronx, and the C/T train would make this loop serving the east and west sides of Manhattan.

Walt Gekko October 18, 2015 - 3:41 am

I’ve long-advocated a 125th Street crosstown myself, going to a terminal at Broadway-12th Avenue but also with a connection to the 8th Avenue line that could be used in an emergency or for G.O.’s, etc. to allow 8th Avenue trains to access the SAS before heading along 63rd Street and then going with the (F). This mainly is because of Columbia’s expansion that likely would be complete by the time such expansion is built.

Henry October 18, 2015 - 12:49 pm

Doing so would require significant engineering around an active station (125 St A/B/C/D), as well as preclude any sort of transfer to the Broadway Line. People could just be as easily served with a tunnel to 125 St/Broadway with properly designed transfers to this new tunnel. And, really, with SBS on the 86th St transverse, the travel time benefits of a subway loop wouldn’t be too great; in any case, subway loops throughout the system have not proven to be particularly efficient; see the Nassau St loops or the Crosstown Line.

You don’t really need to consider it a detour, since 125 St is a busy crosstown corridor in its own right.

Henry October 16, 2015 - 1:44 pm

A surface light rail would run into the same NIMBY problems that SBS runs into; people scared of taking lanes or parking. The only way light rail in New York would work is to railstitute where multiple busy bus lines merge into one location; railstitution would allow you to build a light rail tunnel in the most congested area with multiple surface portals, similar to the Boston Green Line. Such corridors exist, on Fordham Road between Webster Av and Southern Blvd, 181 St in Manhattan, and Main St/Kissena Blvd in Flushing.

BruceNY October 16, 2015 - 2:07 pm

I was thinking of Woodhaven Blvd. Maybe as it nears Queens Blvd. it could go underground for a relatively short distance and use that never-been-used terminal platform at Roosevelt Ave.

Henry October 16, 2015 - 2:18 pm

If you have the RBB ROW, which had turnouts built for it from Queens Blvd and is completely grade separated, then light rail is unnecessary and duplicative. Plus, a good portion of the bus traffic on Woodhaven is express buses, which you wouldn’t be able to railstitute anyways.

fdafsda December 14, 2016 - 3:11 pm

Do you think that would be a better idea than reactivating the abandoned tracks nearby Rego Park? I suppose you could do both and continue all the way to LIC if you really wanted to. You’d only need new elevated tracks in a couple of locations (which would have minimal impact).

Benjamin Kabak October 16, 2015 - 1:53 pm

I should also note that Staten Island would be an ideal proving ground and a potential network location for light rail if you can overcome driver opposition.

lawhawk October 16, 2015 - 2:12 pm

To say nothing of political opposition from SI pols.

There’s any number of routes on the Island that could benefit from light rail, including connections with an HBLR extension over the Bayonne (well into the future – and certainly beyond 2017 when the Bayonne project is now scheduled to be ready to accept post-Panamax ships as the PANY admits). But you’d find few on the Island willing to lose lanes to buses, let alone a light rail, even if it means a better commute. They like themselves cars, even if they’re sitting on the Gowanus in endless congestion.

AG October 16, 2015 - 3:25 pm

But wait – weren’t the pols and chamber of commerce begging the MTA to support the plan they came up with for light rail?

Chet October 16, 2015 - 7:33 pm

I was about to post that same thought.
There are several routes on Staten Island that could benefit from light rail.
1) Extend the Hudson Bergen line over the Bayonne Bridge down Richmond Avenue.
2) Kill the incredibly stupid BRT idea for the old North Shore rail line and make it a light rail system- that should go over the new Goethals Bridge and figure out a ROW to get it to Newark Airport.
3) Hylan Blvd- at 16+ miles, the longest street in the city could support a light rail system and cut down on the massive traffic that the road sees.
4) Finally, it would be great if there could be a light rail along Victory Blvd from Richmond Avenue to the St. George Ferry, but there are too many places where the road just might be too narrow and the hills too great.

Chris C October 16, 2015 - 2:09 pm

Oh Ben!

Thanks for the Friday night laugh !

Even from across the pond I know that Staten Islanders won’t like it let alone being used as some sort of test bed!

Chet October 16, 2015 - 7:37 pm

There are two kinds of Staten Islanders…

There’s those like me- Want to give us something new and shiny and useful… awesome.
Then there are the other people- (check out silive.com comments)… They know nothing but how to bitch and moan. An example: a recent article explained how the MTA has several projects over the next 20 years that will modernize the Verrazano Bridge, do the proper maintenance that 50+ year bridge needs.
The people commenting on the article are screaming holy hell about it. Now, if the MTA wasn’t going to do such work… they’d be screaming about that too.
Here on Staten Island, the first kind of people have a name for the second kind: morons.

Douglas John Bowen October 17, 2015 - 11:42 am

Anti-LRT sentiment rises almost no matter where LRT is proposed. That’s a given.

But Mr. Kabak, and the Staten Island residents here, are correct to note support for LRT in the forgotten borough is real, and even measurable. Perhaps that’s the best place to try something.

Not the perfect place. Not the ideal place. But some place.

That’s the view from across the Arthur Kill, where many in Staten Island actually can see how (HB)LRT could really help them, assuming that enormous bistate bias (“I can’t help the OTHER state, even if it helps US, no sir, not at all”) can be overcome.

AG October 16, 2015 - 3:21 pm

I’m unable to check right this minute – but wasn’t Vision 42 to be partially funded with private money…? That would be even better. I think that could work great regardless. That Brooklyn/Queens waterfront is a cool idea but shouldn’t get priority. There are other corridors more deserving. The A and 3 trains never went into The Bronx. The West Bronx has areas of density as high as parts of Manhattan. The 4 train is far from a lot of them (they used to have a trolley). That said Staten Island (with requisite rezoning) should be given priority. They are NYC taxpayers. They are disconnected from the rest of the subway. I say put the proposed corridor there to the top of the list

Seth R October 16, 2015 - 3:36 pm

The problem with light rail is that it’s just too high of an upfront cost for a service that you can’t guarantee will be a success. It’s the same reason that DOT puts down curb extensions with some paint and potted plants, so that they can rip it out if it doesn’t have the intended effect.

If we can put a separated BRT busway on 42nd street or 34th street, and the MTA increases bus service to match demand, the reduction in operating costs (bus drivers) will eventually be worth the upfront investment to put down track. Having this initial investment cost will be useful, but only once we have some ongoing BRT expenses to compare it against.

AG October 16, 2015 - 3:56 pm

Right but the idea is to close 42 to vehicles completely… No sense in allowing buses if you do that. A separated street car does. Plus is not like they would have to buy hundreds of cars… Vision 42 was really a completely separate idea to “just adding light rail to NYC”. That said there are no “guaranteed successes” in transit. The NYC subway was built mostly on speculation. That’s why I say Staten Island should get the first MTA consideration (barring 42nd street).

Kevin P. October 16, 2015 - 6:26 pm

How would businesses on 42nd Street receive deliveries if the street is completely closed to vehicles? For that matter, residential buildings need vehicular access for package delivery, moving trucks, ambulances, etc.

Douglas John Bowen October 17, 2015 - 11:34 am

Temporal separation (time of day) implentation, anyone?

Done in San Diego. Heck, done in southern New Jersey (the RiverLINE).

Douglas John Bowen October 17, 2015 - 11:35 am

Apologies; should be “implementation.”

Henry October 17, 2015 - 1:03 pm

You can do it during the off hours, or have delivery zones on the avenues.

AG October 17, 2015 - 4:09 pm

You could read the plan… It’s not complicated. As someone else noted – it is done elsewhere in the world. Interestingly enough – it is done in NYC – literally on a street that crosses 42nd. Part of Times Square has been closed to cars for a good while now. Business is booming there. Why? In a dense city – foot traffic beats car traffic.

Bolwerk October 16, 2015 - 5:36 pm

Do you apply that logic to skyscrapers too? It’s unfortunate we’re still in the dark ages, unable to pull up an Excel spreadsheet and calculate estimates of project NPVs.

JJJJ October 16, 2015 - 4:07 pm

Paris is the proper model. Subway in the core, a tram network surrounding it, and commuter rail to the suburbs.

If price is an issue, start with bi-articulated electric trolley buses. All the fun of light rail, none of the street digging

22r October 16, 2015 - 4:21 pm

Get light rail on Canal, Houston, 23rd, 34th, 10th Ave, 2nd ave… and let’s get rid of the cars, trucks, and busses while we’re at it.

adirondacker12800 October 16, 2015 - 5:51 pm

If you like to eat there will be trucks. All those goodies from Amazon and Ebay have to be delivered. The garbage has to be hauled away. Mail. Con Ed, Verizon.

Alon Levy October 16, 2015 - 9:14 pm

Hey, everyone: back in the day, the BMT already figured out that light rail should go on the busiest bus routes. The logic behind this – capital investment into surface transit should go into the surface transit routes that have the most proven ridership – hasn’t changed in the last century or so.

So, when thinking about where to site light rail in New York, start from the busiest buses, which are emphatically not the M42.

bigbellymon4 October 17, 2015 - 9:51 pm

Especially the B46 (if the Utica Ave Subway cant be built), B35, B41, and (maybe if SBS has been proven effective) B44. These routes (especially the B46) have some of the highest ridership. I don’t know bout other boroughs, but in Brooklyn, these routes see the highest ridership as there are people who take dollar vans along side these routes because the buses are slow.

Henry October 17, 2015 - 11:00 pm

The problem with light-railing the B44 or B46 is that once there is light rail, there is very little incentive to build a subway.

Light rail should really be restricted to routes where there is no feasible way the route could be served by an extension of an existing subway route; for example, it’s very unlikely the route of the Q44 is going to ever become a subway line, and you could say the same for the B35 and the Bx routes that serve the 181 St bus terminal, for starters.

Alon Levy October 19, 2015 - 12:32 am

Don’t look at Brooklyn too much. Look at the Bronx: there’s a beautiful grid of busy routes, both north-south (including Grand Concourse, despite the B/D) and east-west. None of these needs a subway, but a light rail grid, connecting also to Upper Manhattan, would be precious.

AG October 19, 2015 - 8:59 pm

HighBridge – Morris Heights – University Heights could certainly use a subway (extension of the 3 or the A would have been good). Light rail – would be cool – but those areas are plenty dense.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 8:14 am

So if you want to put light rail on the busiest bus routes….

Put the light rail through one of the three Lincoln Tunnel tubes, as an extension of the HBLR. Drop a bus terminal on the New Jersey side and you solve the problem of replacing PABT.

Obviously this would be an extremely busy extension of the HBLR, which would have to be reconfigured somewhat to accomodate it.

Alon Levy October 19, 2015 - 1:04 pm

That would be a terrible idea. The XBL works because it’s an open BRT system: buses converge from tons of places where they run in mixed traffic to a trunk route with a dedicate lane all the way into Midtown.

Yes, you could force everyone into a transfer right outside Midtown. That would make things worse. You wouldn’t even be letting people trade a rail ride for a bus ride, since the bulk of trip length and trip time would still be done on a bus, from various North Jersey suburbs to Tonnelle Avenue or wherever the connection point would be.

Now, I’ll note that I have in the past called for dropping a commuter rail station in the area, as a partial replacement for XBL buses. But that’s deliberately aimed at local bus riders, who would then be able to trade a majority of their bus trip for a rail trip.

I’ll note that I have also portrayed regional rail modernization in New York as a partial replacement for PA buses, but that’s specifically because buses could feed a large array of stations on the Erie lines with direct service to Manhattan, rather than terminating at one combined station at the foot of the Palisades.

Nathanael October 23, 2015 - 10:54 pm

Almost everyone arriving at PABT has to transfer anyway. I have to transfer to get to the Grand Central area.

PABT has to be replaced anyway. PA can’t come up with a reasonably-priced solution within Manhattan. So price out moving the bus station to the other side of the Hudson, and see if they can come up with a more plausible plan.

Even if I’m spending the majority of my time on a bus coming from Ithaca to New York, avoiding the super-slow crawl through the Lincoln Tunnel would be a major benefit.

XBL may have high volume, but frankly most of the time buses going through the Lincoln Tunnel are still crawling at “caught in traffic” speeds. It needs to be replaced with something which can go faster than walking.

Actually, replacing it with a foot tunnel would provide faster trips much of the time. 😛

Wanna save more time? Extend HBLR to the junction of I-95 and route 3 and put the bus terminal there.

That final approach to Manhattan is just soooo slow on a bus.

Nathanael October 23, 2015 - 10:56 pm

(that’s I-95 Eastern Spur, of course)

adirondacker12800 October 24, 2015 - 2:21 am

Get on the train in Binghamton.

Henry October 24, 2015 - 2:33 am

You would be making people take an additional transfer, since HBLR would not provide too much connectivity in Manhattan. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do is schlep from the suburbs or exurbs by taking a bus to a light rail to a subway every day. (And if you’re talking about extending the HBLR through Manhattan, have I got a bridge to sell you.)

AG October 24, 2015 - 2:59 pm

HBLR should go to Staten Island more than anything else. Truly Staten Island is “forgotten” as it relates to transit

Douglas John Bowen October 17, 2015 - 11:33 am

Does San Diego, 1981, count as “in recent years” when it comes to (at least) LRT? Just asking, though I understand first in line doesn’t count for being “in vogue.”

More seriously, while this writer respects Mr. Kabak’s continuing advocacy of BRT as a preferred option, some of us aren’t convinced that “more buses,” however preferentially treated, will cut it, or function on a higher-quality, higher-capacity level than what LRT can offer.

“Quick, cheap, and dirty” is how many us New Jersey rail advocates identify busways and BRT — and there are advantages to opting for that route. The disadvantage, all too often, is once acquired, the momentum for something far better (rail) dissipates. Road warriors love that.

Benjamin Kabak October 17, 2015 - 12:53 pm

I think you read too much into this. I’m not anti-light rail. I definitely see it as a potential solution along certain corridors so long as it’s implemented correctly. I’m curious to see what DOT can come up with here.

Michael October 17, 2015 - 11:47 am

Maybe I’m getting very cynical but have a few thoughts:

– Councilman Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area, that he wants to learn what it would cost, how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters, etc.

– All of these are fine questions, but are difficult to answer in the abstract. The easy answer is “millions” or a “few billions”, and that any implementation is going to take a long time, at least a decade FROM discussion to completion unless it is fast-tracked – because this IS NEW YORK CITY!!!

– The NSAA Study for the North Shore had a rather extensive section on light rail and how it could be implemented on Staten Island. There’s also a section on why light rail was not proposed as a solution. Basically there are aspects of the light rail discussion that are “universal” and do not really require the spending of extra money for another study.

– Street Space – Every scrape of street space is fought tooth & nail over – because this IS NEW YORK CITY!!!

– From arguments and fist-fights over “traffic calming”, bike lanes (both old and new), the bus lanes for SBS buses, the creation and usage changes to HOV lanes. Residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn and some folks on Staten Island fought for the removal of bike lanes!!! In addition some politicians do their best to REDUCE SBS bus projects, and squawk loudly about traffic lanes on bridges. Plenty of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island folks and politicians have fought transit ideas over NIMBY concerns over the decades. And they are still doing it!! Woodhaven Blvd!!!

– Then there’s the usual arguments over the Staten Island North Shore area over building a bus exclusive pathway, or building light-rail, or building heavy rail transit. Just look at all of the fighting over SBS bus implementation – the SBS-44 implemented in Brooklyn, SBS-60 Bus across 125th Street in Harlem, or the SBS bus on 86th Street.

– Plus there’s the politics, and just who is being paid to promote what. No matter what the entire light rail project will be expensive. This web-site and a few others exist to criticize and to be critical in examining the costs of public transit. Public transit is expensive, and there’s no way that a new light rail project anywhere in or near NYC is not going to be expensive.

– Plus there’s the issue of the “not invented here – but works elsewhere”. Do I really need to bring up a set of inclined elevators – a first for NYC, and how those items affected an entire major project?

– Then there’s the reasons why trolley’s and omnibuses were removed from city streets in favor of buses! There are reasons why the previous plans for 34th Street, 42nd Street, and in Red Hook were not implemented. It is as if the accumulated knowledge of the past were suddenly wiped away – because there’s something bright new & shiny.

– It is amazing that the folks who were complaining about “street congestion” a short time ago as a huge, huge major problem are now jumping on the band-wagon of light rail in NYC. As if the streets are not already congested with other traffic! There was a reason way separate rights of way were created for public transit vehicles – but it seems though that was forgotten. Light rail is bright new & shiny.

Yes, I’m getting very cynical.

Benjamin Kabak October 17, 2015 - 12:52 pm

Heaven forbid some cars lose the right to monopolize the roadway. Your last paragraph is an incredibly flawed counterargument to light rail. Eliminating lanes for cars and improving transit doesn’t lead to more congestion. This is a fact of urban planning, not an opinion or untested theory.

Henry October 17, 2015 - 1:04 pm

For that matter, adding lanes to roads or increasing road space for cars doesn’t, either; if an area is busy enough, congestion will always be at the maximum level. Mass transit doesn’t actually relieve congestion, but it provides avenues to avoid it that otherwise wouldn’t exist. (Plus, the absence of mass transit causes more congestion; anyone remember the post-Sandy debacle?)

Michael October 17, 2015 - 5:47 pm

Maybe I’m too cynical – I’m not arguing for or against light rail as a solution to transportation problems in NYC. I’m simply saying that the every inch of street space is contested, and has been contested for various projects. That is the simple reality.

I’m not the one saying “heaven forbid some cars lose the right to monopolize the roadways” – I’m saying that folks have fought, debated, argued over how best to solve transportation issues and the fights, debates and arguments continue. I’m saying that some folks (some in power, some not) place or have different priorities concerning the usage of street space.

I’m simply saying that every inch of street space is contested, and has been contested for various projects – that is the basic reality. The various arguments & fights also amount to power plays and their resolution. That can mean compromises and changes in design schemes, plans, implementations, funding, etc. often stuff that has to be lived with – worked around or dealt with for decades afterward. It does no one any good to forget that reality.

At the moment the idea of light rail – may seem the “bright new shiny” but to not forget what has come before, and what has been learned. Basically to put to use what “we” have learned both in the real world, the world of ideas, and the world of the possible and achieve-able. In that case, light rail is not some “new bright shiny” thing that by magic solves all problems. I’m saying that there’s going to be debates, fights, arguments, etc. – because this is NYC.

Does this cynical view point mean I’m against light rail. Nope. It means being clear eyed about NYC, where every inch of street space is contested, and has been contested for various projects for a very, very long time.

Is this a case of, “Be careful what you wish for because you just may get it.” If that means really thinking about and examining ideas and proposals – so be it. Or maybe I just too cynical.

Jeff October 17, 2015 - 12:50 pm

Light rail is a great cost-effective alternative to building subway lines in the outer boroughs but must really be grade separated to work in NY.

Eric October 17, 2015 - 2:13 pm

Grade separated light rail basically IS the subway. The only real difference between light rail and heavy rail is how long the trains are. If you are grade separating, better to just extend subway lines, which are longer and have higher capacity. (Trains longer than a city block have to be grade separated or else they will block traffic when they stop)

Jeff October 18, 2015 - 3:04 pm

Nope. Light rail has a lot less structural and infrastructural requirements than subway do. Much shorter, thinner and lighter trains mean typically 1/4 the cost of building a heavy rail system. In the less-dense portions of the city like the outer boroughs, it makes a ton more sense.

Eric October 19, 2015 - 5:09 am

I believe you just pulled the 1/4 number out of your lower extremities. In reality, long and heavy trains require somewhat stronger bridges as well as longer stations, but these are a small fraction of the overall project cost.

While light rail would be more fitting for the population density of the outer boroughs, heavy rail has the advantage of being able to connect directly to the existing subway. Grade separated light rail would save a little bit in construction, but would be much less convenient due to the need for a transfer. So overall it’s not worth it.

Non-grade-separated light rail (i.e. streetcars with separate lanes) might be a good idea in various parts of NYC because it’s so much cheaper than anything grade separated. But that’s a separate discussion.

Henry October 19, 2015 - 8:05 am

The main point of grade separated light rail is that it can rise to the surface and use streets in areas with lower traffic and congestion. So you end up saving a hell of a lot more than just building heavy rail, because heavy rail always has to be grade separated.

Eric October 19, 2015 - 3:33 pm

This works well in Boston, somewhat less well in Philadelphia, and I hear it works great in Europe. It seems that wherever it works, there are several surface lines that run into a single tunnel.

I can’t think of anywhere in NYC where this is an appropriate model.

Henry October 19, 2015 - 7:38 pm

Main St/Kissena Blvd in Flushing, Fordham Road between Fordham Plaza and White Plains Road in the Bronx, 181 St in Manhattan, Avenue H by Brooklyn College, and Supthin/Archer Blvds in Jamaica. It’s not particularly hard to find roads where multiple busy bus routes converge in this town.

Eric October 20, 2015 - 3:29 am

None of those “trunks” are particularly congested compared to the “branches” that feed them. So you would have light rail running really fast through the tunnel, and then it would become a mixed-traffic streetcar, and as we know those are basically useless for getting places.

If on the other hand you are going to provide a separate lane for the “branches”, why don’t you also provide a separate lane for the “trunk” and be done with it.

Compare to Boston, where the “branches” have separate lanes. And Philadelphia, where the “branches” don’t have separate lanes, and therefore are painfully slow even though they go on streets without much traffic.

Henry October 20, 2015 - 11:23 am

Boston is the example to emulate; other examples include Seattle Link Light Rail, which has a tunnel in the busiest areas and street-running in other locations. And then there are the German Stadtbahns and the Belgian premetro systems. Half-mile stop spacing like today’s outer-borough Limited routes, and tunnelling in congested, geographically constrained areas.

I don’t know where you get off saying these areas aren’t focal points of bus congestion, because off the top of my head Main St/Kissena Blvd between Northern Blvd and Holly Av is a crawl, and the entire Jamaica area including Sutphin/Archer Avs is a mess due to the sheer amount of buses going through the areas. In the case of Main St and Kissena Blvd, the roads are also not particularly wide, and all north-south traffic in the area funnels into those two and four-lane roads, so just allocating a bus lane isn’t a workable solution.

JohnS October 20, 2015 - 12:37 pm

Be careful about comparing to Link. The vision for that system is basically BART North, with plenty of grade separated structure (much of it along freeway alignment) trying to be both commuter rail and subway all in the same system. There is one street-running section in the system and at the moment no other plans for more.

I suspect Portland’s system might be a better model – although they have not yet built the downtown tunnel they arguably should have built at the beginning.

Nathanael October 23, 2015 - 10:58 pm

Eric: it would work for a line running to New Jersey (surface branches in New Jersey, grade separated in Manhattan and under the Hudson). But, you know, New Jersey vs. New York, so won’t happen. :sigh:

Bolwerk October 19, 2015 - 9:47 am

I believe you just pulled the 1/4 number out of your lower extremities.

He did. It should be more like 1/10th or you’re doing it wrong. :-p

Eric October 19, 2015 - 3:21 pm

You mean 9/10

Bolwerk October 19, 2015 - 6:08 pm

If you want to be anal about it, it might actually be closer to 1/15th. The global average cost for heavy rail is in the mid nine figures per km. The global average cost for surface rail is in the lower-mid eight figures.

Eric October 20, 2015 - 2:56 am

He was comparing grade-separated light rail to heavy rail. The difference in cost between those is small.

You are comparing grade-separated heavy rail to at-grade light rail. As you say, the difference in cost between those is dramatic.

Henry October 20, 2015 - 11:31 am

The Second Avenue Subway and 7 Line Extension both hit above $1B per km. The Central Subway in SF is $500M per km. The cost difference is still quite dramatic.

Eric October 21, 2015 - 4:41 am

And the Seoul Subway Line 9, which is heavy rail and fully underground, cost $43 million/km. The lesson is that you can’t directly compare costs in different places. In NYC, the costs will always be much higher. (SF is pretty bad too, but not as bad as NYC)


Bolwerk October 21, 2015 - 1:05 pm

Well, they’re probably very similar in tunnels, at least if you ignore stations. (Not sure I agree with Alon’s comment about station costs above, but nevermind that.) But if you *fully* grade separate in entirely urban spaces, I don’t think you by definition really have light rail anymore.

But realistically I take light rail to afford certain design flexibility that heavy rail doesn’t allow: low-traffic segments can be on the surface, while with heavy rail that’s basically impossible. Philadelphia’s Subway-Surface lines almost achieve this, though their vehicles are no bigger than buses. Some places do the inverse too, allowing effective grade separation outside the city center, but run on the street in the center city, where tunneling is most expensive.

AG October 19, 2015 - 8:57 pm

Well you should re-phrase… LRT is suitable for CERTAIN NEIGHBORHOODS in the “outer boroughs”. There are most certainly areas that need a real subway… And others – that if they had them they could be rezoned for more density.
There certainly is no “one solution fits all”.

Guest October 19, 2015 - 10:11 am

Huge portions of the outer boroughs are too densely populated for reliance on light rail. Grade separated subway lines would work best for corridors like Third Ave in the Bronx and the RX.

Henry October 18, 2015 - 3:24 pm

Not necessarily; light rail has a smaller profile for tunneling and stations. Light rail is also great for partial grade separation, which you can’t do with heavy rail. You can do it with buses, but it’s actually more expensive to build; they need more extensive ventilation and wider tunnels due to the fact that they are not guided. On top of that, a BRT tunnel needs road surfacing from time to time, on a much more frequent basis than for track replacement.

Eric October 19, 2015 - 5:01 am

Heavy rail can also have a small profile, for example the London deep-tube lines. So this is a design choice, not an inherent difference.

Henry October 19, 2015 - 8:03 am

If your main argument for heavy rail is that it reduces the need for transfers (which isn’t true in every case), then you’d have to use IRT or IND standard equipment, both of which are significantly larger in profile than a tram. Otherwise you’re coming up with a third subset of rolling stock, but then you might as well just switch to trams, which are plentiful and available from many different manufacturers.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 8:16 am

There is no hard-and-fast distinction between “light rail” and “heavy rail”.

Trains running on electric “third rail” on the ground (like the NYC subway) must have full grade separation. Chicago has a few grade crossings and so does Metro-North, but nobody will permit new ones.

Trains running off overhead “trolley wire” can have grade crossings (with gates, etc.) This is a major advantage.

Eric October 20, 2015 - 3:01 am

Yep. And you can have heavy rail with overhead wires.

AG October 17, 2015 - 4:02 pm

No question – HAS TO be grade separated to work in NYC

Woody October 17, 2015 - 4:42 pm

No question — HAS TO BE in exactly the same way that buses have to be grade separated. Or not.

Maybe you mean that light rail must be lane-separated? It’s better when Light Rail, or Streetcars, have their own lanes. But rail can work even in mixed traffic.

Grade separated means above or below the grade of the street, and that’s simply not necessary at all.

Bolwerk October 17, 2015 - 8:19 pm

Buses need conductors. And token booth clerks at every stop.

ButWhy? October 18, 2015 - 4:06 pm

Why would anyone want to build LRT lines on the crowded Manhattan streets? Surely such a system would make more sense in the lower density parts of the outer boroughs.

A second Crosstown line linking up different subway lines and areas of interests in Queens and Brooklyn would probably be useful to commuters.

I mean the LRT systems in New Jersey work great so why not implement the same type of systems in similar areas?

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 8:18 am

Why not extend HBLR through the Lincoln Tunnel and down 42nd St. from there?

Saves on the trouble of trying to replace PABT in Manhattan; terminate the buses on the Jersey side, and put everyone on a fast, frequent HBLR east of there.

Alon Levy October 19, 2015 - 1:06 pm

Why make it HBLR? It’d reverse-branch an already complicated system, and if that’s a new Hudson crossing, vehicles should be as long as possible, without the limitations of a preexisting light rail system.

Eric October 22, 2015 - 8:47 am

Once upon a time I suggested extending the 7 through the Lincoln Tunnel. (Half the trains to Javits and half to New Jersey.) This would have much higher capacity than HBLR.

People objected that the slopes in the tunnel were too steep. I don’t think this is actually true, the 7 already runs through the Steinway Tubes which have a gradient of >4% and I think the Lincoln Tunnel is less than this.

Bolwerk October 22, 2015 - 2:09 pm

I bet you’re right. Actually, grades of 7% should be doable anyway.

Though I don’t see why HBLR is such a bad thing even if you keep the buses or most of them. The tunnel probably needs a 30% capacity boost or so, not a double or triple capacity boost.

And I’m not very comfortable with the idea of eliminating most of the buses.

Eric October 23, 2015 - 7:23 am

Well, the subway automatically has ~3x the capacity of HBLR just because the trains are longer.

You can see in the following map that most of the buses go through the Secaucus/Meadowlands area and then to PABT. So build a new bus terminal in the Meadowlands, and extend the 7 to there.

Getting rid of most of the buses would save a lot of money on operations (one fast subway train vs 10 buses sitting in traffic). You could still run some buses to PABT, but you wouldn’t have to worry about PABT congestion.

Nathanael October 23, 2015 - 11:09 pm

I would have suggested the #7 through the Lincoln Tunnel before Bloomberg’s Extension of the #7, which makes it… harder. 🙁

Nathanael October 23, 2015 - 11:00 pm

Fine, don’t make it HBLR, but do make it compatible with HBLR except for train length. Platform height, train width, overhead electrification, track gauge, etc. — don’t introduce another incompatbility if possible.

Henry October 22, 2015 - 2:16 pm

And what would making a two-legged trip into a three-legged one do for transit ridership besides tank it? Another trip is another set of fares to pay, and most people’s destinations are not around PABT.


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