Thursday, January 31, 2008

... when it's finished.

One of the old jokes about New York is, "It'll be great when it's finished." Of course, the city and its transit system will never really be finished, but it's pretty obvious that there are gaping holes in the system. Wide swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have no subway service. Service is spotty even in some parts of Manhattan, and Staten Island has only the SIRT and insufficient ferry and express bus service.

The sad thing is that many of the underserved areas did have decent transit service eighty years ago, in the form of elevated trains, at-grade rail or streetcars. When these lines were torn up, it was either assumed that their customers would eventually all have cars (and never get stuck in traffic), or else a promise was made to replace them with subways. A whole network of planned subways was never built, because the city lost much of its tax base in the 1960s and 70s, and the federal and state governments preferred to fund highways.

After years of false starts, the Second Avenue Subway has actually been making significant progress, but it is tremendously expensive, it only includes Phase 1 (from 63rd to 96th Streets) and word just came out this week that even that might be cut back. With the chronic delays on the Second Avenue Subway and the intense NIMBY opposition to construction of a rail connection to La Guardia Airport, the most people are willing to discuss in terms of subway expansion is the extension of the Second Avenue subway to its proposed routes in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The only people willing to propose new transit services are developers, who somehow get people to take seriously their plans for a one-stop extension of the #7 train to far West Midtown, and a new East River tunnel aimed at creating a one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport. One major exception is City Councilmember Lew Fidler's proposal for a rail tunnel under the Narrows to Staten Island, although it has been argued that this is not meant seriously, only to distract from the debate over congestion pricing. Even Fidler, though, does not propose the construction of either of the lines once planned for his Brooklyn district, the extension of the Nostrand Avenue Subway to Sheepshead Bay and the Utica Avenue line, which would run from the terminus of the V train at Second Avenue and Houston Street through Williamsburg and Crown Heights to Floyd Bennett Field.

No one is willing to discuss the Winfield Spur, the Fulton Street/Liberty Avenue extension in southeast Queens, the extension of the Concourse Line to White Plains Road, the extension of the Archer Avenue Line along the Long Island Railroad right-of-way, or any of the other expansions. This is the current legacy of the Second Avenue Subway.

Even though they are cheaper to build, trolleys don't seem much more popular. Bob Diamond's plan to bring trolleys back to South Brooklyn failed when Giuliani's DOT pulled its support. George Haikalis's plan to run trolleys on 42nd Street occasionally captures people's interest, but never seems to get the support it needs.

What was really depressing was that Mayor Bloomberg's grand PlaNYC2030 contains one single new subway line: the Second Avenue Subway. That and the single-stop #7 train extension to the Javits Center. Nothing else. In 2030 I'll be nearing old age. In my lifetime, the only train lines opened have been the 63rd Street Tunnel and the Archer Avenue Line. Is this the best the city can do?

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