Saturday, June 14, 2008

Staten Island: Why light?

Staten Island has a rail line, but it used to have three. In addition, the Bayonne Bridge was built to handle light rail, a capacity that has never been used. There's fairly broad support for reactivating passenger service on the North Shore and West Shore Lines. So far, so good.

What bugs me is that they keep talking about "light rail." It's in the PlaNYC 2030 documentation, and in a Staten Island Advance article discussing a grant won by Senators Schumer and Clinton (one of the few things that those two have gone out of their way to do for transit).

The original rail lines, described in loving detail in this article in
The Third Rail, were heavy rail, though. Saint George was the New York terminus for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Long-distance and commuter passenger trains, and freight trains, came from New Jersey over the Arthur Kill Bridge and the North Shore Line to the ferry at Saint George. You would expect the proposal to be for either commuter rail like the Metro-North Penn Station Access project, or metrorail like the TriboroRX proposal. But no, it's all light rail, light rail, light rail. There doesn't seem to be any justification for preferring light rail over any of the other potential modes.

There are two explanations I can think of. The practical one is that New Jersey Transit's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail could go across the Bayonne Bridge, but what would it connect to? Probably the West Shore line, so that should be light rail. But why the North Shore Line as well? Hm, maybe energy efficiency? Staten Island is considered to be too sprawly to support commuter or metro rail (and everyone conveniently forget about the SIRT), so we shouldn't put heavy locomotives on those lines?

Mainly, though, I think it's a fad. Light rail is a buzzword that's been going around. All the cool cities are doing it. New Jersey's got one. The only thing cooler would be if we had one of those BRT things that the kids are always talking about.

Fads are not a good reason to choose a transit mode. The residents of Staten Island are going to be using this thing for years to come. This would be like the subway cars that still have the fake wood laminate - don't you love being saddled with what someone thought was cutting edge in the 70s? - except that it would actually matter in terms of speed and connections.

Staten Island is the borough closest to the west side of the Hudson, and has the potential to be closely connected with the continental rail infrastructure. Right now to get a train to Philadelphia you have to take a bus or train to the ferry, then a subway uptown to Penn Station. With a connection to the Hudson-Bergen light rail, you could get to Hoboken or Journal Square and then get a train to Newark and another to Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, with the North Shore line revived as heavy rail, you could get a commuter train directly to Elizabeth, Newark - or even West Trenton and Philadelphia. From a commuter point of view, you could connect to the Northeast Corridor at Elizabeth and transfer at Newark to a train to Penn Station. You could get to some of the many jobs in New Jersey.

We're still doing the studies. I think we'll find that light rail makes sense for the West Shore line, but heavy rail for the North Shore Line. But why don't we do them without making up our minds ahead of time about the mode?


sundinkc said...

Actually, NJ has TWO light rail lines. Don't forget about the RiverLine between Camden and Trenton. It has the distinction of being the first diesel light rail line in the country. said...

Why is NYC so opposed to LRT if that is what would be the most feasible? I agree, and having done some planning work for the North Shore, LRT might not be the answer. SI really needs a system that goes around the island and that might have to be LRT or BRT. Currently the SIRR daily ridership is around 5,000 (per 2000 data) and more than half of SI'ers work on the island. It might behoove everyone if a comprehensive study was done of the entire island and its transportation needs. As you pointed out connecting SI to NJ and the rest of the region via rail wouldn't be bad either.

Cap'n Transit said...

I can't speak for NYC, so I don't know if they're opposed to light rail or not. Why would Staten Island need a single mode for every line in that system? In terms of connections, it makes the most sense if the North Shore is heavy rail (connecting to the ex-B&O West Trenton Line) and the West Shore is light (connecting to the Hudson-Bergen line).

AlexB said...

The Hudson Bergen Light Rail line is planned to go to Tnafly via the Northern Branch freight line and to St. George via the North Shore line. If you look at these routes on a map, and also consider the TriboroRX route, it almost makes the case for a huge circumferential light rail line. The line would have to run over the GWB and the Verrazano; though, and I can't imagine that would be easy.

Ted said...

Nice piece.

An updated link for the third rail for anyone interested.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Ted! I've updated the link.