Southern Brooklyn

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).

Comment policy


  1. Allan, I always enjoy your articles; this was right on the money. 
    Light rail would certainly help improve commutes around parts of the city that need it the most, and I certainly would NOT want to see Trolley’s going down Atlantic Avenue only to take up extra lanes of already congested traffic. 
    I’d love to see a Trolley go down Ocean Parkway if they could do it without taking up any lanes, not that it would be practical, just a nice little addition to the neighborhoods along that stretch.

  2. Here’s the biggest concern with light rail in NYC: It would require, at first, significant infrastructure investment. You’d need new shops, new rail cars, new storage facilities, etc. Ultimately, that’s why I think expanded the subway or reactivating the Rockaway Beach Branch to conform with NYCT standards would be easier. Otherwise, I’d love to see LRT arrive in NYC. Politically and economically, I’m not sure it’s entirely feasible right now.

  3. Let me ask you how those concerns were met in New Jersey? I remember when new storage facilities and increased inventory were used as excuses why NYC couldn’t have articulated buses. Where there is a will, there is a way, not that I would oppose heavy rail options. The important thing is that we do something.

  4. An expressway over skyscrapers = the world’s dumbest road plan. I really would love to see light rails like HBLR and wished the trolleys and streetcars of pre-1955 existed. it is sad many train systems, including the subway and LIRR, have gotten smaller than they used to be. Queens definitely needs more train service.

  5. The HBLR uses surface streets and underutilized legacy heavy rail facilities for ROW and service and storage areas.  That is harder to do over on this side of the Hudson.  Staten Island has lots of space (some heavily contaminated, even radioactive), but the other boroughs don’t have a wealth of unused rail infrastructure that hasn’t been redeveloped into condos and or torn down.  The Hudson Yards is about to be decked over and preclude a street level yard.  The Atlantic Yards are gone.

    What is left is to rip up parks and build giant underground yards, put the yards on billion dollar (NYC construction costs) platforms over existing subway yards, landfill shallow bodies of water to create new land, or use eminent domain.

    The Bx does have the emptied Jerome Park Reservoir, but getting the local community boards, CUNY, Dept of Education, DEP, Parks, NYC DOT, and MTA to cooperate will be a nice trick.

  6. Almost no one would use a trolly or light rail on ocean parkway as most people living along that stretch drive. Taking mass transit of any form in brooklyn and queensis a no go for anyone with the means to purchace a car. It is a major reduction in quality of life.

    I took buses around as a child due to my mothers fear of driving(the family car sat outside kings highway station as we lived in marine park at the time and it was a two fare zone.) It is a major drag even with any and all the “improvements” suggested not to mention extremly expensive for a family who don’t go directly from point a to b and back as someone commuting to a job in the city.

  7. Giuliani wanted to use the old LIRR line,to build a direct rail link,from manhattan to JFK. But was shot down,by the MTA and local opposition.So instead the city got the hashed togetether monorail thing,from jamaica to the airport. NY is the only major city in the world,without a direct rail link to it’s airports.He was also against the current 2nd Ave subway project,because it is a scaled back line. Only a half as–d version of what it was supposed to be. Gov. Chrystie in NJ,ended the project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson to Penn Station. So there will not be any improved rail service,out of the city,for decades. Don’t look for any more rail projects,in the city for decades to come.

  8. Making a subway line out of the LIRR freight line in Brooklyn,is something that is much needed.There is no train that goes east west in Brooklyn,and on into Queens.It can’t even be a useful freight line,because the city won’t build the needed train tunnel from NJ.

  9. I don’t recall any proposal by Guiliani. Are you thinking of the Pataki proposal after 9-11 for a line from the WTC to Atlantic terminal and on to JFK via Atlantic Avenue. That was the only one I remember.

    But when Bloomberg wanted the 7 extension to Javits it got done without much discussion. Now there’s talk of extending it to Secaucus. That’s right help Jersey before we help ourselves.

  10. Using the old rights of way for rail is only one option. We should not forget the possibility of using the right of way for express buses. It would be dramatically cheaper, more flexible and equally useful to mass transit.

  11. Giulliani wanted a express rail service directly from JFK into manhattan. The extension of the 7 line into NJ has been talked about,for many years. It helps all New Yorkers. The metro area needs to be inter connected,to make travel within the region easy. NYC is not a world unto itself.

  12. Buses only look cheaper because of the initial startup costs.  But long term, buses cost far more than any light rail alternative due to their much higher operating expenses.  For example out in Salt Lake City, they started building their first light rail line in 1996.  By 2007, just 12 years later, SLC had spent nearly $300 Million more on buses than they had spent on light rail.

    Operating & capital expenses combined, minus revenue, and the buses had spent $1.009 Billion while light rail came in at $715.04 Million.  And again, that’s all due to the much higher operating costs for the buses. In 2010, according to data from the National Transit Database, SLC spent $106.1 Million to move 21.7 million rides by bus and only $26.2 Million to move 16.3 million rides.

    And while it’s not light rail, even here in NYC our buses cost us dearly, even though they are needed.  But in 2010 the MTA spent $2.3 Billion to move 829.2 million rides on buses.  They spent $3.345 Billion to move 2.439 billion rides on the subway.

  13. As an ex New Yorker, who now lives in the Philadelphia area, I have long thought that extending the BMT subway up along the High Line (former freight line in downtown manhattan), and then up along the Hudson would be a relatively cheap way to expand the city’s transit system.  I’m glad to see it mentioned here.  I am also glad to see mention of the need for direct service between the Bronx and Queens.  Throwing my two cents in, the East side of Manhattan could use another north-south line.  I suggest light rail along Fifth Avenue, possibley under the edge of Central Park for part of the route.  The Lexington Avenue line is the most overcrowded one in the city.  I used to enjoy riding the Third Avenue El, but I was too late for the Second Avenue or the Els on the West Side.  I also watched the city’s trolley system be dismantled.  I now live near an old light rail line that connects with the Market Street subway El into the center of Philadelphia.
    Ernest Cohen, Upper Darby, PA.

  14. Here’s an excerpt from my post on NYC Transit Forums:

    It [light rail] was studied at an option, but they dropped it because they’re a bunch of
    complete morons. They
    said “Oh, light rail can go to the Teleport, and you’ll get a one-seat ride from
    St. George”. I was like really??????? So somehow every single person who works
    in the Teleport lives on SI. Yeah, you get a one-seat ride to St. George, but in
    the event that you want to connect it to the rest of the system, you can’t
    because it’s light rail and the rest of the subway system is heavy
    rail.So say, somebody comes from Manhattan. Under the heavy rail option,
    they could eventually be able to take the train to Arlington and then take a bus
    (the S46, or maybe they’ll want to reroute some of the routes in that area) to
    reach the Teleport. So you have train + bus = two-seat ride.Under the
    light rail option, they can send it to the Teleport, but they give up any
    hope of being able to connect it to the rest of the subway system. The best they
    can hope for is to extend the Main Line SIR to Manhattan, but even then that
    gives Teleport riders a two-seat ride anyway (either ferry + light rail or SIR +
    light rail). And not only that, but the entire North Shore is forced to deal
    with at least a two-seat ride to get home, rather than just the Teleport
    riders having to deal with it.

  15. If you’ve got the ridership to justify BRT, especially BRT with it’s own right of way, then you’ve got the ridership to justify light rail.


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