More than eighteen months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off an effort to extend the subway to one of New York’s densest working-class neighborhoods.
Spoiler alert: It’s probably not going to happen. With the city’s political deck stacked against them, working-class residents getting pushed ever-farther into the outer boroughs better get used to second-class commutes.
But hey, at least we’ll have a waterfront streetcar.
The Utica Avenue subway, which would extend the 4 train from Eastern Parkway as far south as Kings Plaza, could have been built like the other subway lines of outer Brooklyn. As early as 1910, the project was promoted by developers who bought up farmland with the dream of selling row homes. But other lines came first, the surrounding neighborhood battled against the specter of an elevated train, and the city suffered a series of funding shortfalls, dooming the Utica Avenue line to eternity on the wish list of subway expansions.
Then, on Earth Day 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio surprised the city by reviving the idea. Buried in OneNYC, his equity-infused environmental blueprint, was a short paragraph calling on the MTA to study adding subway service to Utica Avenue and the area’s approximately 150,000 residents.
“No one expected this,” New York University transportation policy guru Mitchell Moss told the Times, calling it a “refreshing” first step.
The study even got funded: After negotiations over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital budget ended with City Hall nearly quadrupling its contribution to the state body, City Hall got a few sweeteners, including its $5 million Utica Avenue study — little more than a rounding error in the MTA’s $27 billion capital program.
The MTA told the Voice that before work gets going, it is talking with the city to get a better idea of what the de Blasio administration is looking to get out of the study, before hiring a consultant to prepare the report next year.
“DOT is actively working with the MTA and the Department of City Planning on a study of the extension of the Utica Avenue subway line,” a transportation department spokesperson said.
The city might claim it’s “actively working,” but elected officials along the route have yet to hear anything.
“It’s really been quiet,” said Assembly Member N. Nick Perry.
“Our office hasn’t been included in any of the planning meetings for the Utica Avenue subway, if there have been any,” said a spokesperson for State Senator Kevin S. Parker.
“As of yet, there has not been outreach by the MTA or DOT to my office regarding the Utica Avenue subway extension study,” State Senator Jesse Hamilton said in a statement.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams said his office checked in with the MTA after the Voice started asking questions. “We haven’t had much conversation,” he said. “There’s money there for a study. We do want to find out when it’s going to start and get more information about it”
Meanwhile, the mayor has put his lot in with a nonprofit booster group led by major real estate interests to back the BQX, a $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar that is both geographically and economically on the other side of Brooklyn. The city has held public meetings and released shiny renderings for the BQX, as the mayor begins to shore up support for his re-election bid next year.
“That clearly was prioritized and clearly was what they wanted to focus on,” Williams said. It’s up to local officials, he said, to make sure City Hall and the MTA follow through on Utica Avenue. “If we don’t put pressure, then this won’t move,” he said. “We have to do a better job of prioritizing it, even among ourselves.”
It’s not surprising that Utica Avenue is moving slowly. New York’s recent history of rail expansion has been slow, expensive, infrequent, and, as Williams points out, only progressing under political pressure.
The most hopeful precedent for Utica Avenue is in East Harlem. The first section of the Second Avenue line, on the Upper East Side, is inching toward completion. Funding to extend the line north of 96th Street, where the de Blasio administration is planning a major rezoning, was dropped from the MTA’s plan last year. It was only restored after East Harlem leaders protested.
Most of the time, New York’s multibillion-dollar transit expansions happen not because low-income communities make a ruckus, but because they are driven by real estate, swing voters, or impending calamity.
The granddaddy of them all is East Side Access, a $10.2 billion project to bring the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central. It lumbers on, 13 years late and $7 billion over budget, propelled by East Midtown office expansions and the Long Island commuter-voters who make or break gubernatorial campaigns. Another mega-project, the $2.4 billion extension of the 7 train, survived Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed Olympics bid because it enables a real estate feeding frenzy around Hudson Yards.
Bloomberg’s idea to keep tunneling to Secaucus failed in part because New York’s governor, who controls the MTA, has no reason to appease voters on the other side of the Hudson. Meanwhile, the Gateway Tunnel and Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement, both necessary but uninspiring Jersey-centric fixes north of $10 billion each, are proceeding largely because further inaction will result in crippling disaster.
All of these mega-projects are in Manhattan. But the real need for transit expansion is in the outer-borough areas like Utica Avenue, stuck with middling transit access between the gentrifying core and the leafier, auto-oriented neighborhoods at the city’s edge. These areas have the lowest average income in the city, NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation found last year. More than 758,000 city residents commute more than an hour each way, according to the Pratt Center for Community Development, and two-thirds of that group earn less than $35,000 a year.
London, Toronto, and Paris, which also struggle with skyrocketing rents that push the working class away from the city’s core, have embraced massive rail expansions to their outlying neighborhoods. But in New York, outer-borough rail initiatives have failed to gain traction.
Even small fixes have languished, like dropping prohibitively expensive Metro-North and LIRR fares in the Bronx and Queens. The mayor’s latest OneNYC update says the city wants to work with the MTA on a “study of commuter rail fare policy prior to scheduled 2017 fare and toll increases.” Translation: Just as with the Utica Avenue subway, don’t hold your breath.
Instead of expanding rail service far into the boroughs, de Blasio has focused on the streets. He’s continuing to expand Select Bus Service, a Bloomberg-era innovation that upgrades limited-stop routes with pre-paid fare collection and dedicated lanes. While it boosts sagging bus ridership, SBS doesn’t deliver speedy rail service to the areas of the city that need it most. And because new bus lanes take away space from cars, SBS regularly faces local opposition.
That includes Utica Avenue, where the B46 SBS launched in July and Assembly Member N. Nick Perry, one of the politicians awaiting word on a subway study, has battled against the street’s new bus lanes, saying they aren’t needed outside of rush hours.
One bright spot is Penn Station Access, a $695 million plan Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced to build four Metro-North stations in the Bronx once East Side Access opens track space at Penn Station. But that won’t happen until at least 2022. And efforts to bring LIRR service back to the Rockaway Beach Branch are locked in a stalemate with an effort to turn the rail corridor into a park.
For their part, transit advocates dream of a circumferential rail route, mostly along existing freight lines across the heart of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The biggest play the idea got was when then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer endorsed it, before he aborted his 2013 mayoral run and settled for comptroller.
It remains to be seen whether the “X Line,” as Stringer called it, will make a comeback as he flirts with challenging Bill “BQX” de Blasio. But Stringer’s office says he is still interested in exploring the concept. “For decades, riders in the outer boroughs have been denied transit equity,” Stringer said in a statement. “We need to enhance transit access in the neighborhoods that need it most, and create a fairer, more accessible transportation network.”
Translation: Stay tuned.