New York

A Brief History of NYC’s Weirdest Mode of Transit, the Roosevelt Island Tram

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The Roosevelt Island tram, one of New York’s most curious pieces of transportation infrastructure, also has a strange bureaucratic quirk: since 1995, it has operated without an agreement from the city — an oversight that’s only now being rectified.

The saga began in 1969, when the city inked a 99-year lease for the state to develop apartments on what was then known as Welfare Island, due to its concentration of prisons, almshouses, insane asylums and, eventually, hospitals.

The city also gave the state a 10-year franchise in 1974 to operate the tram as a temporary measure until the completion of the Roosevelt Island subway station along a new line being planned beneath the East River. (A ferry had been considered but was rejected. In the end, Roosevelt Island will get both: its western shore is on track to get one of the first stops in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Citywide Ferry Service, launching later this year.)

The tram, which opened in 1976, served as the primary mode of transportation for Roosevelt Islanders, whose only other way off the island was a small bridge to Queens. There had been a streetcar stop in the middle of the Queensboro Bridge, accessible by elevator, but in 1957 the route became the city’s final trolley line to bite the dust. There was even a vehicular elevator to the Queensboro Bridge from 1934 until the small bridge to Queens opened in 1955.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side, said his grandfather used the vehicular elevator while serving as a doctor at Coler-Goldwater Hospital. Kallos first remembers taking the tram with elementary school classmates in the 1980s. “We had a birthday party on Roosevelt Island, and that’s the first time I remember going there,” he said. “At the time, the only way you were going to get there was on the tram.”

The tram served as an ’80s backdrop not only for Kallos’s childhood memories, but also for high-flying scenes in the cheesy 1981 Sylvester Stallone thriller Nighthawks, where Sly’s character pilots a helicopter in a bid to rescue hostages held in one of the tram cabins.

Finally, the subway opened in 1989. The next year, the city came to an interim agreement with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state authority that manages the island, to continue operating the tram, which remained popular.

That agreement expired in 1995, and the city tried to reach an agreement with RIOC. Things came to a head in 2001, when the City Council sought to ban advertising inside the tram cabins. RIOC balked. In the end, advertisements, primarily for local businesses and events, went up anyways, and the tram continued to operate without an agreement from the city.

The tram didn’t begin accepting the MetroCard, which rolled out in the mid-1990s, until 2004. “We were the last people to use subway tokens,” said Judith Berdy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. “In those days, there was no transfer, so you had to pay a double fare.”

Now, tram riders get a free transfer to buses and subways on the Manhattan side. The MTA collects tram revenue and hands it to RIOC, which gives one half of one percent to the city’s general fund. In fiscal year 2015, the city collected $25,483 from the tram, which generated $5.2 million in revenue that year and carries over 2 million passengers annually.

A high-profile breakdown in 2006 shook the public’s confidence, stranding passengers above the East River for hours until they could be saved in a rescue worthy of Nighthawks. The tram was then shut down for eight months in 2010 for a $25 million overhaul. The new trams, which allow one cabin to operate while the other is down for maintenance, have four screens inside each cabin for advertisements.

With the overhaul complete, the city and RIOC began exploring how to come to an agreement, and came to a compromise: advertising would be banned on the exterior of the iconic red cabins, but allowed inside.

A potential agreement, discussed at a hearing by the council’s zoning and franchises subcommittee yesterday, would also give the city more information about the tram, operated by Leitner-Poma of America under contract with RIOC, including a mandated annual inspection and access to regular maintenance reports and complaint logs. “This franchise agreement would give the city more oversight,” said Michelle Craven, senior executive director of cityscape and franchises at the Department of Transportation. “We would get a regular understanding of what’s happening on the tramway, which we do not have now.”

RIOC did not testify at the City Council hearing and did not respond to questions from the Voice.

Kallos suggested the agreement dedicate revenue from the tram to maintaining Tramway Plaza, a park where the cabins land on Second Avenue between 59th and 60th streets in Manhattan. Craven said “it’s a long-standing city policy that any franchise revenue go to the general fund” but that DOT is “open to discussions” about dedicating tram money to the park.

The resolution backing an agreement was supported unanimously by the zoning and franchises subcommittee on Thursday morning. It goes to the land use committee on January 10, on track for approval by the full council on January 18 before it’s negotiated by DOT and RIOC. The agreement could be renewed every 25 years until 2068, when the state’s lease with the city expires.