This summer I went to Staten Island for the first time in several years. There are some things I like about it, but I don't go there very often because it's hard to get there and I don't feel welcome when I do. I feel similarly about North Carolina, but it's harder to ignore Staten Island. With mayoral candidate Joe Lhota floating the idea of moving the Transportation Department headquarters there, the need to say something about the place is even more urgent. Ben Kabak said his piece this morning, and it got me thinking.
I know there are lots of nice people who live on Staten Island, including some regular readers of this blog. There are many who want it to be a place where you can walk, bike and take transit, and some who are even working to make that happen. I'm glad you're out there and I salute you for your work. But your borough is a problem.
Even more than other suburbs, Staten Island affects those of us who live in the rest of the city. Its residents spend a lot of time driving through Brooklyn, Manhattan and even Queens. They constantly feel slighted by Manhattan politicians and demand that the city and state spend money there. They also demand lots of subsidized services, like low tolls on the Verrazano Bridge.
Most dangerously, as a large bloc of middle-class white voters, the South and West Shores of the island wield disproportionate influence, and use that to get some of their demands. They are an indispensable part of any center or right-wing political campaign, proving particularly valuable to Rudy Giuliani and Christine Quinn. Politicians frequently pander to the agenda of the island's car owners, and the island's representatives on the City Council and state legislature frequently work with representatives from the eastern Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens to oppose progressive transportation efforts.
For some perspective, let's imagine that in the twenties, instead of building the Bayonne and Goethals bridges and the Outerbridge Crossing, the Port Authority had put in double-track high-level railroad connections, upgrading the Arthur Kill lift bridge and building a northbound connection to Bayonne and connecting to the Lehigh Valley line at Perth Amboy. Imagine if in the sixties, instead of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority building the Verrazano Bridge, the Board of Transportation had dug tunnels? Not a parochial local tunnel to Bay Ridge, but a connection between the Long Island Railroad and the national network, plus a high-speed tunnel under the harbor directly to Lower Manhattan? Imagine if they had extended the trolley network (see the map above) to cover the whole island?
You'd have a place that was easy to get to by train, but difficult by car. Instead we got the opposite: the most car-dominated of the five boroughs.
That time is past. The question is, what would help us fulfill our goals (see the top of the page)? What should we do about Staten Island?