» As the Port Authority plans for improved ship access, Staten Islanders hope a renovated Bayonne Bridge could mean new rail links.
When it opened in 1931, the Bayonne Bridge was the longest steel arch span in the world. Today it remains an impressive work of infrastructure, its magnificent girders visible from throughout the New York metropolitan region. The Port Authority-controlled link, which allows commuters to get to and from Staten Island and New Jersey, is an important connection in the regional road network.
With cargo ships getting bigger and bigger, however, the bridge has become an impediment: Its roadway hangs too low to allow for the easy passage of new Panamax-class ships readied for an expanded Panama Canal now under construction. Without clearing the way through the Kill Van Kull — the waterway over which the bridge runs — the Port of Newark will have trouble accommodating more commerce. For the region’s continued economic strength, that could be a major problem.
Thus the Port Authority has begun studying options for its replacement; right on cue, transit advocates have stepped in, arguing that the new structure could allow for better transit between the Island and the mainland. The major possibilities include lanes for bus rapid transit or an expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, which will be extending a few blocks south to 8th Street in Bayonne on January 31st. Trains could cross the new bridge, then potentially run south towards the West Shore Expressway, in whose median a 14-mile light rail line has previously been proposed. This would ensure rail transit operations on both sides of the island (the eastern half is already served by the Staten Island Railway). Running the line along the North Shore, where a 5-mile abandoned rail right-of-way is ready to be reused, is also a possibility.
The Hudson-Bergen light rail line currently runs north to Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, via the “Gold Coast” business centers in Jersey City and Hoboken where thousands of jobs have been created over the past decade. Plans to extend the route northwest to the Meadowlands, southwest to the Hackensack River, and north to Tenafly are also afoot.
The light rail line is destined to serve an increasingly important role as a north-south connector on the west side of the Hudson River. But just how useful would an expansion into Staten Island be?
Consider the commutes made by inhabitants of this New York City borough today.
As demonstrated by the map above — created using Census data from 2008, the most recent year available — most Staten Islanders work in their own borough. Those that don’t generally work in downtown and midtown Manhattan and on the western edge of Brooklyn. A few work in Bayonne, Hoboken, and Queens’ Long Island City.
Ridership on existing bus services confirms this bent towards New York, rather than New Jersey, jobs. A significant number of riders — about 20,000 per weekday — use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s express buses into Manhattan business districts. The two most popular “regular” buses on the Island, including the S53 and S79, which total almost 20,000 riders alone, head to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where a connection to the R Subway is possible. The third, fourth, and fifth most popular — the S48/98, S46/96, and S44/94, totaling about 23,500 daily riders — link up with the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at St. George, at the tip of the Island. The Ferry attracts about 75,000 users daily with service to the Battery at the tip of Manhattan.
For comparison’s sake, the only public bus that runs across the Bayonne Bridge today, the MTA’s S89 to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line’s 34th Street stop, only moves about 900 daily riders. Is there really a case for the rail line’s extension onto the Island? Or would improved direct services into Manhattan and Brooklyn be more useful?
When considering potential routes for a extension of the light rail line, the argument for it appears relatively shaky.
As shown above (click to expand), people living within a half-mile of the proposed North Shore and West Shore rail lines — the two likely routes for any light rail extension — are not particularly likely to be attracted to working in neighborhoods along the existing Hudson-Bergen line. Inhabitants of both areas are most likely to work in downtown Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and Midtown Manhattan — not New Jersey. This is largely similar to the working patterns of people who live within half a mile of the existing Staten Island Railway. And yet none of them have a fast route towards those employment centers, fault of the lack of a New York Subway link and express buses forced to use crowded highway lanes shared with private automobiles.
Should light rail be extended across the Kill Van Kull?
If the project were to decrease travel times significantly into Manhattan, it might be useful. Beginning at the end of the month, the Hudson-Bergen line will travel from 8th Street to Exchange Place in 20 minutes and from 8th Street to Newport in 27 minutes. From Exchange Place, a trip to Lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center on PATH takes 4 minutes; from Newport, a trip to Midtown’s 33rd Street takes 15 minutes on PATH. For people along the North and West Shore lines hoping to get downtown, a trip in 45 minutes minimum seems possible with a light rail extension, taking into account transfer times. But a trip to Midtown would be at least ten minutes longer; a commute to Brooklyn would be much more lengthy via New Jersey.
More direct routes on express buses could be equally or more effective for residents of Staten Island, if funds were allocated to dedicate lanes for transit on the highways that carry them. If Staten Islanders currently suffer from the longest commutes in the country — 42.5 minutes per direction on average — one can envision the advantage of investing in improved express buses that could speed past traffic on such choked arteries as the Gowanus Expressway. A light rail extension would not be as fast into Manhattan and Brooklyn — and it wouldn’t be direct, either.
Taken from a regional perspective, though, a light rail extension might make more sense. Were New York and New Jersey to work together on increasing employment and residential construction in areas along the corridor — in both states — the route could be a useful economic development generator, helping to build up a counterpoint to the dominance of Manhattan in today’s regional employment market. Perhaps the lack of Staten Islanders working in New Jersey now is not a consequence of people “not wanting” to do so, but rather the result of poor transit connections to and from jobs there.