Staten Island's Business Group Sees Light Rail Ahead

Staten Island Transit Plans

» New York’s forgotten borough could see more service on two fronts

With a population of about 500,000, Staten Island is by far New York’s least populous borough, and its transit options are correspondingly limited. Though it has no subway access, the Staten Island Ferry connects Lower Manhattan with St. George, the island’s “downtown.” Commuters on the east side of the island have access to the Staten Island Railway, which runs 24 hours a day and connects to the bottom tip of the island in Tottenville. In 1922, initial plans for the Independent Subway System suggested a subway connection to Brooklyn near the route of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, though that project never came to fruition. Most northern and western areas of the island lack convenient transit access.

That would change, however, if plans on the books to restart rail service along the north shore and create new light rail service on the west shore came to fruition.

The Staten Island Economic Development Corporation studied the latter line recently, arguing that a new rail line there would improve travel times for people on that side of the island attempting to get to jobs in Manhattan. The new line would begin in the southwest section of the island, near the terminus of the existing railway, follow the West Shore Expressway through the future Fresh Kills Park, then cross the Bayonne Bridge into New Jersey, where it would join the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, operated by New Jersey Transit. An extension of that latter line is under construction from the existing 22nd Street terminus in Bayonne to a new stop several blocks south at 8th Street. Preliminary plans indicate that the West Shore line would operate as an extension of that New Jersey service, a good concept, though not necessarily a feasible one considering that MTA operates all in-city transit in New York City today.

I’m not the biggest proponent of building rail lines in highway medians, as the West Shore planners envision, as they prevent effective transit-oriented development, but the report suggests that the line, costing $1.8 billion, would attract almost 13,000 riders a day, the vast majority of whom would be commuting to jobs in Manhattan. The first phase, in the denser northern section of the island and ending in Bloomfield, would attract 10,000 of those transit trips at $1.2 billion.

I’m a bit skeptical of the economic development group’s focus on the West Shore line. As the satellite image above demonstrates, much of the corridor is relatively uninhabited, meaning that a light rail line – a mammoth investment – would be underused. Is this really what the city of New York should be focusing on, or would a better bus system using dedicated lanes on the same freeway and allowing easy connections to New Jersey be a better use of money? After all, if we’re talking about highway-median stations, highway right-of-way, and not-so-high predicted ridership, bus might be the perfect fit.

On the other hand, the North Shore project, which would connect the northern area of the island to St. George along an existing right-of-way that carried passenger trains until 1953, would be quite useful. That five mile line, which skirts the bay, could be extended easily across the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson-Bergen line, as well as south to Bloomfield, following the path of the proposed first stage of the West Shore line. A North Shore line would provide connections with the existing Staten Island Railway line and the Lower Manhattan-bound ferry. More importantly, though, it would serve some of the densest areas of the island, not true of the West Shore line. It would be a better investment from the cost-benefit perspective.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I share your skepticism about the viability of rail in the highway corridor through Fresh Kills. Considering BRT options that could branch to more destinations (including St George?) makes sense.

    But you also mention in passing that the interstate nature of the project is reason to assume it could never happen.

    You may be right, but the reasons for this are purely matters of turf, and transit advocates need to push back hard against those.

    There are many places where a logical line runs across a jurisdictional boundary, and where it’s logical for this line to be a local service on both sides of that boundary. If we are too deferential to notions of turf such as “all transit internal to NYC is run by MTA”, we kill these ideas in the cradle, and we end up with less efficient and logical regional networks.

    There are also examples of courageous political leadership overcoming these issues, and those need to be cited as needed.

  • rufustfyrfly

    Is there any reason why the line can’t go through the more populated center of the island, near the Staten Island Mall? Moving the line there could increase off-peak ridership a great deal, and could add support from private sources who might otherwise not care (think of all the teenagers, customers and retail employees who would take the train to the SIM).

    And I agree with what Jarrett says above. The broader New York Metro Area is not at all well served by the long-outdated jurisdictional boundaries that the state lines have left us.

  • Boris

    It’s not true that “MTA operates all in-city transit in New York City today.” The PATH train is operated by the Port Authority.

    The train lines are good in theory, but considering the point of view of the politicians, the benefit of the lines would be minimal. The first thing Borough President Molinaro said after the announcement of the project is that he is accepting suggestions for where to build the park-and-rides. It’s as if his goal is to generate more parking (and driving), not promote transit. He will of course oppose higher-density zoning changes that are necessary for the West Shore rail line to be successful.

  • tom veil

    The problem with West Side is all in the Second Phase, which is always going to be low-density because of Fresh Kills Park. The First Phase of the West Side is actually extremely attractive because Staten Islanders could finally get to Midtown using only trains (via the Hudson-Bergen line). Especially in inclement weather when the Staten Island Ferry is unpleasant, a rail bridge is a prerequisite to getting Staten Island to ease out of its car culture.

  • Vin

    rustyfly: Your idea is something that I’ve thought for years, and expanded upon with an urban planner friend. You go with the current routing down towards Victory Blvd, have it skirt the CSI campus and come out near Richmond Ave., then run in the median or alongside that road until the Richmond Pkwy. It could then run in the median of the Richmond Pkwy. until around Huguenot, and link up with the SIR there.

    Stops (north to south): Port Richmond, Forest Ave., Victory Blvd/CSI, Travis Ave., Staten Island Mall, Arthur Kill Rd./Transit Center, Annadale Road, Huguenot.

    Most of the right-of-way for this route is either a)in medians or b)alongside Richmond Ave. (the line could run opposite the shopping plazas on Richmond in the center of the Island – there’s literally nothing there. Further north, it would skirt the CSI campus and Willowbrook Park – once again, nothing there). It would require little more right-of-way acquisition than the currently proposed route and would serve far more people. The fact that they want to run this thing down the West Shore Expressway shows a disheartening lack of creativity – or outright foolishness – on the part of the borough’s leadership. This has been Staten Island’s problem for too long. A rather obvious route is there for the taking – why not take it?

    If any readers are on SI and want learn more, there’s a Community Board 3 meeting on the issue tonight: http://www.silive.com/news/advance/index.ssf?/base/news/1237203903324670.xml&coll=1 (scroll to the bottom). I’ll be there

  • orulz

    rufustfyrfly and vin: I’ve actually never been to Staten Island but the routing by the mall and terminating at huguenot rather than down an expressway median from end to end would seem to be a no brainer.

    However, while the SIEDC was conducting this study and collecting public input, it seems that the majority of folks who attended stated that the West Shore expressway was their preference. I am not sure of the reasons behind this, but to speculate:
    1. Nimbyism. People want the trains to run where they are furthest from homes.
    2. They drive on the west shore expressway and therefore automatically assume that transit should go there, too
    3. They assume that a Richmond Avenue line would be slower (which might be true)
    4. SI residents want park-and-rides, not walk-up stations and TOD. There would still be opportunities for park and rides on the Richmond Avenue route, though.
    5. Real estate development on the west shore. But there’s plenty of opportunity by the Mall and the shopping centers, too.
    6. The one reason i’ve heard that actually seems somewhat reasonable in my opinion is that the Richmond Avenue corridor is already served pretty well by buses.

    In any case, I agree with Yonah that building the North Shore line – but as an extension of the existing Staten Island Railroad rather than as a disconnected light rail line or BRT – should be the top priority.

  • Vin

    Orulz: I’m not sure on the speed, but as to some of your points…

    The Richmond Ave. route does not necessarily preclude park-and-rides. There’s plenty of room for park and rides at many of the stations, and there should be park and rides – in addition to pedestrian access. A West Shore Expwy route is a death knell for the latter, because nobody lives by the West Shore Expwy. Pedestrians and park-and-rides is not an either/or proposition (Huguenot SIR station, for example, is good for both).

    Most of the West Shore will be occupied by a park in the future. Once again, people will not live there.

    Richmond Ave. does have a decent number of buses, but they’re famously slow, unreliable local buses, at the end of the day, middle-income people – i.e., SI residents – will not ride on local buses. Hell, I don’t. But, people who will not ride on a local bus will take a train (or an express bus/BRT route). And there’s really no reason to “serve” the West Shore Expwy corridor with transit because, once again, nobody lives there.

    That’s not to say they should do nothing with the West Shore Expwy. median. A better idea would be run the light rail along Richmond, and fit the West Shore median with a BRT lane, which could be used to provide South Shore commuters with a quick, one-seat ride to Manhattan – a key SI transit problem.

    In any case, I think everyone agrees that the North Shore line should be a priority – and it is.

  • Adirondacker

    quick, one-seat ride to Manhattan

    ….only if they commute at 3 AM….. I’m assuming you mean go through Bayonne to the Holland Tunnel or into Brooklyn and take the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The BQE is isn’t “quick” during either rush hour and neither is the Verrrazano Narrows Bridge. I suppose they could make a bus lane in the Holland but that’s not going to be very popular. And there are no highways in Bayonne so that “quick” bus ride means a trip on local streets through Bayonne and Jersey City…. Extend the Hudson Bergen Light Rail and they can get to PATH, two seat ride but they won’t get stuck in traffic. Or use frieght ROW to connect with the Northeast Corridor line in Linden or Elizabeth. From the images on Google it looks like it’s still active in Staten Island. You either going over unused ROW to get to Linden/Elizabeth or through freight yards to Newark but there is railroad already there.

  • Boris

    Our good ideas here are no good if someone else is going to the meetings and making the bad ideas known. I’ll see you at the next Community Board meeting!

  • Vin

    Adirondacker: I’m certainly in favor of putting the light rail over the Bayonne Bridge. I just think it should run south on SI down Richmond Ave. and not the West Shore Expwy., because, let me repeat, nobody lives near the West Shore and nobody ever will. So all the things you said – yeah, that’s true.

    Except the part about the BQE and buses. I take the express bus to Manhattan from SI’s North Shore every single day – there are dedicated bus lanes on the Staten Island Expwy and the BQE, both of which work quite well. From the time I step on the bus until the bus arrives in Manhattan takes about 30 min. most days. Of course, this would be longer from the South Shore, but if a bus lane were built in the median of the West Shore, not by a whole lot. Of course, there’s still getting from downtown to your destination in Manhattan, but that’s another issue entirely. Furthermore, I’ve tried commuting via Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and PATH – it’s no faster than taking the express bus.

    Bottom line, though, is Staten Islanders need more transit options, both locally and regionally. Putting a light rail line down Richmond Ave. AND bus lanes in the West Shore median is the best way to do this.

  • ajedrez

    I’m sorry I’m posting a year after the last post, but I wanted to share my thoughts, as I didn’t discover forums like this, Capn Transit, and Second Avenue Sagas until fairly recently.

    I have written to the SIEDC and wanted to know the rationale for sending the line over the West Shore Expressway as opposed to Richmond Avenue. While it does make sense to send a line near areas of higher population density, I thought of several reasons as to why they would choose the West Shore Expressway.

    Cost: It may be cheaper to build in the median of the Staten Island and West Shore Expressways than to build an elevated structure over Richmond Avenue. For the most part, there would be an embankment for the tracks, instead of having to build a whole new elevated structure.

    Parking: Although there are some lot of opportunities for Park-and-Rides along Richmond Avenue, the open nature of the West Shore Expressway means that it would be a lot easier and cheaper to find space to build the parking lots.

    NIMBYs: The fact that it would be in areas of higher population density would mean that there would be more people to complain about noise, etc.

    Development on the West Shore of Staten Island: The Teleport is on the West Shore of Staten Island and it is easier to access from the West Shore Expressway than Richmond Avenue. The presence of a light rail might encourage more businesses to be in the Teleport. The problem is that some plans for the North Shore Line have it as a light rail down South Avenue to the Teleport (by the way, I disagree with the idea to make it a light rail. Heavy rail would be better, and it would be possible to have it as an elevated line over South Avenue.

    Access to the South Shore of Staten Island: It might be easier, engineering-wise, to have it on the West Shore Expressway to the South Shore than to have it go from Richmond Avenue to the South Shore, and would compete less with the SIR in the South Shore.

    I live near where the West Shore Line would run. In fact, it would benefit me more, as far as access to NJ (marginally, as I am also fairly close to Victory Blvd) if the Expressway Alignment were chosen.

    I think that, if they use the Expressway Alignment, they should make it possible to construct a branch to the Staten Island Mall down Richmond Avenue, or run the line as a shuttle to connect to the Staten Island Mall and possibly the Eltingville Transit Center.

  • ajedrez

    Even better, the North Shore Rail Line can cover the West Shore Expressway corridor and the West Shore Line can go down Richmond Avenue. That way, all of the corridors are served, and West Shore Expressway customers who need to go to New Jersey can transfer at the Elm Park station.

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