Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thinking Big: Expanding and Improving NYC Mass Transit

What can be done to improve and expand New York City's subway system, which is already the largest in the US, but which faces tremendous challenges? We already know how difficult it is to reclaim transit options that were previously built - think the Second Avenue Subway, which is finally seeing the first phase underway after decades of promises to replace the elevated line that was demolished from 1940 to 1942.

The 7 Line is seeing an expansion to Hudson Yards, though it wont get all the stations as originally planned. That isn't stopping some, including current MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, from considering future expansion of the 7 all the way to Chelsea Piers (West Side Highway and 23rd Street). Lhota admits that Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to extend the 7 all the way to Secaucus, New Jersey is unlikely while throwing support behind the Gateway tunnel project.

Still, it's not like expansion plans haven't been drawn up in the past. Indeed, they were planning a second system in 1939, to expand the subway by more 40 track miles (about 16% larger than the system now). It called for expanding the subways to the far reaches of New York City, but never happened due to the skyrocketing costs and World War II.

That's a refrain that's been repeated time and again since the bulk of the system was built before 1940.

Another vision of an expanded subway system is here, with detail about how those lines would interact with those that have already been built.

The tremendous costs of building a new subway line are a major impediment to expanding the system. Costs for maintaining and upgrading existing systems sap the ability to build big.

But that shouldn't stop anyone from considering new projects that would enhance the subway system and build new capacity that reduces congestion, pollution, and increases commuter options that aren't based on a Manhattan central business district.

Thus, we need to focus on the outer boroughs, where most New York City residents live and work. The Second System is something of a guide to future expansion, but we'd have to go so much further to address where and how people live, work, and commute to maximize value for the expansion.

We would have to consider current and future demographics.

It means contemplating expanding the 3 further into Starrett City and the Gateway Center commercial district. Such a route could extend from the current rail yard down Elton Street and turn to cross Hendrix Creek to meet up with Van Siclin Avenue and Seaview Avenue before terminating at Pennsylvania Avenue. Stops could be created for both Pennsylvania Avenue (with parking close-by plus buses already accessible to the area) and the Gateway Center. Gateway has multiple restaurants, big box stores, and ample parking.

It means considering the Triboro RX, which would create an outer loop rail system utilizing existing right of way to create an interboro subway line that doesn't force commuters to go through Manhattan.

It means considering extending the 2/3 that terminate at the Junction in Brooklyn (Nostrand and Flatbush) all the way to Kings Plaza.

It means building a true subway connection for Staten Island commuters - one that would like result in a new tunnel beneath the Narrows.

It means providing an additional stop for Roosevelt Island to take advantage of the development of a completely new tech campus on the southern end of the island.

It means finding a way to connect Governor's Island to the subway system to take advantage of this gem hidden in plain view of millions of New Yorkers who can't figure out how to actually get there.

It also means considering light rail and/or separated and dedicated bus lanes for places with high congestion - think Eastern Parkway, Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn, or Queens Boulevard, Union Turnpike in Queens, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and Hylan Boulevard and Victory Boulevard on Staten Island.

None of these proposals are truly new or groundbreaking, but they are worth considering because of the future value they'd bring to the city and its ability to integrate and maximize its real estate.

None of this comes cheaply, and none of this will get done without the political will to not only think big, but to secure adequate capital funding for the MTA that is perpetually behind the 8-ball when it comes to funding.

For its part, the MTA has to demonstrate that it can contain costs on its existing projects and to maximize its limited resources. Cost overruns on the 2d Avenue Line, the 7 Line expansion, and particularly the Fulton Street Terminal are reason for concern.

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