» Vision42 group adds real estate industry to its backer list, but it cannot rely on the MTA or the City of New York to foot the project’s bill. Private investment may be the key.
If you’ve ever been to New York, you’ve been to 42nd Street — to Grand Central Terminal, the United Nations, Bryant Park, or Times Square. It is the city’s main street, and it attracts hundreds of thousands of businessmen, residents, and tourists every day.
For such an important thoroughfare, however, the pedestrian experience is lacking. Sidewalks are often packed to the brim; the subway lines that run underneath are difficult to use; buses are slow; getting to the Hudson and East Rivers at either end is inconvenient. Despite it attracting a huge number of daily users, the street suffers from inadequate retail offerings.
The Vision42 group has been attempting to correct those deficiencies for a decade now, planning a light rail line that would run river-to-river and replace all car traffic on the road. With 16 stops along a 2.5-mile route, the line would traverse Manhattan in 21 minutes with speeds limited to 15 mph for pedestrian safety. A new maintenance yard would be constructed adjacent to the existing LIRR yards west of Penn Station. Overall costs, including the acquisition of vehicles, would range between $400 and $600 million, depending on the extent of utility replacement work.
Vision42’s recent report suggests that the benefits of the project, in the form of increased retail and tax revenues, would be double overall construction costs over the course of just one year. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to implement a tramway line with such significant advantages.
And indeed, while I have some questions about the line’s routing and its rather large number of proposed stations, a tramway built in coordination with the elimination of automobiles from the road would greatly improve the street experience for the vast majority of users. Walkers would get more space; bicyclists would get dedicated lanes. Access to the United Nations and the two waterfronts would be made easier for everyone, and commutes between Grand Central and Times Square for tourists and local riders would be reduced to waiting a few minutes for the next trainset, rather than heading underground in the subway’s confusing network of tunnels. People using the Subway Shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square to transfer between lines or to end a commute from somewhere else in the city would find their trains less crowded than before.
42nd Street would be cleaner, quieter, and better looking. Drivers would continue to have access to virtually every other street in Manhattan.
The New York Times profiled the proposal in an article today, suggesting that the project was gaining momentum as corporations along the corridor have come out in support of the proposal. Clear Channel has even offered a free billboard to the project for advertising on Times Square. Everyone, however, seems to be waiting on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sign on to the project.
But the administration is more focused on the extension of the 7 subway to the Far West Side, which will serve a wholly different purpose: long-distance commuters. The tramway, on the other hand, would provide local users quicker and more convenient connections along the street, but not replace the subway, which will continue to assure borough-to-borough travel.
The Mayor mentioned a new light rail line during this year’s campaign, but it would run along the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens. That proposal has some merit, but the 42nd Street line would serve more passengers and have more dramatic effects on its surroundings.
Nonetheless, Vision42’s expectation that the city or state will be able to cobble together the funds to pay for this project is unrealistic. The city has suffered significant declines in tax revenue during the recession, and the MTA is unable to complete the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway on time, let alone the three planned extensions of the project.
But there’s another option for financing: private donations.
In Detroit, major corporations and wealthy individuals have assembled one hundred million dollars to finance that city’s planned Woodward Corridor light rail line. Though the Michigan city faces a cataclysmic economic environment completely unlike that of New York, which is able to pay for most of its obligations through public financing, Gotham could learn something from the pursuit of new transit in the Motor City.
If Vision42 can provide hard evidence that the tramway will up real estate values and expand the use of 42nd Street’s retail offerings significantly, it should also be able to convince the land owners already assembled in groups like the Times Square Alliance, Grand Central Partnership, and Bryant Park Corporation to contribute funds for the line. Their workers, after all, must use the street every day and would be the primary beneficiaries. Though finding $500 million in private money for a tramway may seem quixotic, companies lining the 42nd Street corridor represent a not insignificant portion of the United States economy. New York is no small town.
Vision42 should be not working to change the Mayor’s mind, but rather to deliver a check to City Hall covering the line’s entire costs upfront. The administration might then find it easier to support the project.
Image above: Slightly altered version of Vision42’s idea for a 42nd Street Tramway, from Vision 42