New York City Needs Light Rail

The Javits Center will eventually be replaced with the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct near the Racino. Source: NY Magazine

THE COMMUTE: I usually don’t write about long range planning. This week’s discussion will be an exception. Projects such as the Second Avenue Subway interest me less and less the older I get. I realize that whenever they will be completed, if ever, I may not be around to reap the benefits.

While there most likely will not be any funding available for other new subway lines or extensions within the foreseeable future, other than what is now under construction, other rail connections, where the rights-of-way already exist, should be considered. Construction costs for these would be minimal when compared to new subway lines. Light rail or trolleys should not be easily dismissed. Select Bus Service (SBS) is no panacea to replace needed subway extensions as the city and MTA would like you to believe.

I mention this because Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed plans last week to replace the Javits Center with the nation’s largest convention center at the Aqueduct Raceway site near the Racino, newly opened last October. Whether a new convention center makes economic sense is a matter for another discussion. Also, why would we abandon a convention center shortly after beginning construction of a subway extension to it? Or why we would we even build a subway at the same time that we discontinued the M42 bus to the Javits Center due to lack of ridership? Sometimes you just wonder.

Personally I don’t understand why convention centers and baseball stadiums even need to be replaced every 30 years, just so that owners and developers can laugh all the way to the bank while politicians who support these projects do not always have clean hands. To me it seems like it was just yesterday when we were having a 20-year discussion about “the trouble-plagued convention center” as it was frequently referred to in the press before Senator Javits agreed to lend his name to the project.

What Does This Have To Do With Transit?

We have valuable unused resources in this city that can be used for heavy or light rail. These are several unused or under-used right-of-ways: the North Shore Line in Staten Island; the LIRR Bay Ridge freight line, which operates one train a day, and in Queens, the Rockaway connection from Rego Park to Ozone Park. All were once active rail lines. The LIRR once operated to Manhattan Beach.

In Queens, there are those advocating turning the former Rockaway line into a park similar to the High Line, forever ending its potential for transit use. I never understood why the 14th Street line in Manhattan was not extended along the High Line, which, unlike traditional elevated lines, operates behind buildings between blocks, not over the street creating an eyesore and blocking out light. Surely such an extension could have been constructed for a fraction of the cost of extending the #7 line and could have been hidden inside newly-constructed buildings around it, similar to Robert Moses’ 1963 plan for a Mid-Manhattan Expressway on the 10th floor of office buildings around 30th Street.

Now with the governor’s convention center proposal, 30-year old plans to reactivate the Rockaway line have had new life breathed into it. One thing is for sure: A new convention center at the Aqueduct location could not be successful with only the “A” train and some minor bus reroutings. New mass transit would be needed.

A reactivated Rockaway line would make a poorly-thought-out SBS proposal along Woodhaven Boulevard unnecessary. Staten Island would benefit from a reactivated North Shore line, probably in the form of light rail. A study [PDF] was recently concluded comparing light rail to SBS and a third meaningless alternative, which would save commuters only 30 seconds. Some think that light rail was overpriced and a nonsensical alternative, included in order to gain approval for SBS, which already has the support of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who will probably run for mayor. Traditional heavy rail was not considered in the study, probably because it would have shown light rail to be a cheaper alternative.

I believe that the city has a bias against light rail in its rejection a few years ago for a light rail line in Red Hook. Part of the problem is that the best routing was not considered. I am speaking about using the Fulton Mall transitway for light rail. A local bus terminal built at Atlantic Terminal could remove all buses from Livingston Street and Fulton Street, and route the light rail through DUMBO (an area with a long walk to mass transit), Brooklyn Bridge Park and along the shoreline to Red Hook. It could get considerable support as a functional line as well as attracting tourists. Instead, DOT considered operating the trolleys along Atlantic Avenue, possibly removing two lanes of traffic, which would only worsen traffic congestion.

Trolleys were very popular in the early part of the last century since they were fast, quiet, and used clean energy, before they were killed by Mayor LaGuardia and a conspiracy by the automotive and tire industries to replace them with buses. Of course, none of that was known at the time.

That brings us closer to home, and the LIRR’s Bay Ridge line located between Avenues H and I. Barring plans for major development like a convention center in Brooklyn, chances of its reactivation remain unlikely. Not only would it provide an east-west connector that is sorely lacking, it could also operate along existing freight lines to northern Queens and the Bronx through the Hell’s Gate Bridge. Interborough travel must be improved and made speedier as job growth outside of Manhattan continues to increase. I would also like to see an eastward extension on or above Linden Boulevard in East New York to connect with Airtrain to JFK and the Racino and the proposed Convention Center at Aqueduct. It would be a much better alternative than SBS.

However, these proposals, other than SBS, would need a renewed commitment to improve mass transit, something we have not seen since World War II. FDR undertook massive public works projects to help us emerge from the Great Depression. Perhaps with the economy in the shape that it is in, President Obama should be thinking along the same lines. These unused right-of-ways are a great asset. We deserve more than just letting them waste away, paving them over for bus lines or, worse yet, selling them off for development.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).


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