Last week, the Regional Plan Association made headlines when it suggested that New York’s subway problems have gotten so dire that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not up to the task of fixing them. Instead, urged the report, New York should create a “subway reconstruction public benefit corporation,” whose sole purpose would be to modernize and repair the system’s decaying infrastructure.
The report is only the fourth in a century to be released by the influential planning organization, whose board is composed mostly of business and real estate leaders from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It lays out a master plan for the future of the region, including significant recommendations related to affordable housing and environmental protections, but its most ambitious proposals are for local and regional transit, a cause the RPA has long advocated. The last Regional Plan, released in 1996, called for a Second Avenue subway line from the Bronx to the Lower East Side (one piece of which, at least, has been completed) and the creation of a West Side business district (what would become Hudson Yards); it also laid out a number of grand plans that have yet to come to fruition, including an East Side terminal for the Long Island Rail Road (expected completion date 2022) and a rail line connecting the outer boroughs.
This year’s report includes a number of promising proposals that are within reach, such as congestion pricing, and a number of less promising ones, including shutting down the subway on weeknights to speed up repairs. But it also has even grander ambitions than the 1996 report, envisioning a hyper-connected New York region that, given the political and financial difficulties currently involved in even keeping the subway from collapsing, will probably never come to be.
Here, though, because one can always hope, are the five most dramatic pie-in-the-sky transit proposals from the new report.
1. Move Madison Square Garden: The report urges the city not to renew Madison Square Garden’s special zoning permit on the land above Penn Station when it expires in 2023. Instead, they suggest that the venue be turned into a second grand entrance hall to complement the converted James A. Farley Post Office across the street. The building’s cladding would be torn down and replaced with a curtain wall of glass to create a snow-globe-like entryway. The report claims this would allow for the removal of 200 columns that currently support the structure, which would enable further expansion and aeration of the underground concourses.
Who Would Benefit?: Everyone who currently hates either the Madison Square Garden building or Penn Station’s network of unfriendly entrances — so, everyone — and, presumably, real estate developers who could cash in on the freed-up air rights.
Why It Won’t Happen: A recent report suggested that moving the venue would cost some $5 billion and take more than a decade to do without interrupting any rail service. Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed doubt about its practicability, too, and no one can quite seem to agree on where exactly a new Garden should be put. (The report doesn’t touch that question.)
2. Summon a T-REX: In what may be the report’s grandest proposal, the authors lay out plans for what they call the Trans-Regional Express (or T-REX — yes, really). The “new regional rail network” would build on Amtrak’s long-delayed Gateway tunnel between New Jersey and Long Island, which replaced the more ambitious ARC project after the money for that was diverted by Chris Christie to Pulaski Skyway repairs and Jersey Shore ferries. Unifying the existing commuter rails would involve first building a new track extending from the Gateway tunnel to Jamaica, then one extending from near Grand Central to Atlantic Terminal, then a “Harlem Line New Express Tunnel” for the Metro-North extending from Wakefield in the Bronx to the Gateway. And that’s just the new construction in the city limits: There are also sketches for light rail lines between Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, and Hempstead and Oyster Bay on Long Island.
Who Would Benefit?: Future residents across the tri-state area, of course, but the plan’s regional rail proposals aren’t luxury projects. The report considers them nigh-essential supplements to Amtrak’s existing suite of Gateway expansion plans, which RPA estimates will already run into capacity issues by 2040 due to ever-increasing ridership.
Why It Won’t Happen: Cooperation between the MTA, Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority is already strained when it’s not outright combative. Putting aside the question of funding, negotiating the rights-of-way for the dozen or so completely new track projects would take multiple lifetimes and require, as the report has it, “reforms to bring down project costs.”
3. Expand outer-borough subway service: In addition to building eight new Long Island Rail Road stations in Queens and significantly increasing train frequency, the report calls for linking a number of currently underserved portions of Queens to the subway. A new spur off the Queens Boulevard line at Jewel Avenue would connect the M and the R trains to Pomonok, Fresh Meadows, and Bayside, while a new train line, the “H Train,” would run along Northern Boulevard from Long Island City to College Point or northern Flushing. Also called for are much-needed train extensions in southeast Brooklyn, including an extension of the 2 and 5 trains all the way down to Marine Park and an extension of the 4 train into East Flatbush to accommodate what the authors call “the next wave of growth” in Brooklyn.
Who Would Benefit?: Tens if not hundreds of thousands of residents who currently have to take a bus to a train in order to commute into Manhattan, but also developers who would presumably be hungry to capitalize on increased property values.
Why It Won’t Happen: Even if there weren’t right-of-way issues to consider, the simple answer is a lack of funding and political will. Building four new stations in ritzy Manhattan neighborhoods took more than a decade. How long would it take to build a dozen new stations in East Flatbush?
4. Streetcars galore: The report reaffirms longstanding (and long-debated) demands for both a BQX streetcar line from Astoria to Sunset Park and a Triboro Rx (TRx, not to be confused with T-REX) line through the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, mostly via already existing rail corridors that could support passenger and freight rail. But that’s only the beginning: It also calls for a number of outer-borough streetcar lines that have never received major discussion before, including one from Downtown Brooklyn to Ridgewood and Glendale, one from Roosevelt Island to LaGuardia Airport, and a thicket of lines connecting Upper Manhattan with Fordham, Soundview, and other parts of the Bronx. “Eight streetcar routes should be considered,” the report says nonchalantly, and “depending on how well these projects progress, 22 more routes should be considered” for either streetcar or Select Bus Service (SBS) conversion.
Who Would Benefit: Residents of Brooklyn and the Bronx who presently waste away on buses that travel at a citywide average of less than eight miles an hour, assuming streetcars can get exclusive rights-of-way that are more clear of traffic than current bus lanes. Also, the growing number of people who take crosstown commutes in the outer boroughs — “more than 50 percent of New York’s job growth in the last 15 years,” the report says, “has occurred outside Manhattan.”
Why It Won’t Happen: Funding and right-of-way, mostly. But there would presumably also be unanticipated challenges in reviving a form of transit infrastructure that hasn’t been used in the city in decades, even if streetcar tracks would be cheaper than new subway lines. (The report’s authors note that streetcar lines, though far more expensive than SBS routes, would be much more likely to trigger new development.)
5. Expand JFK and Newark: Building off the soaring costs and endless slog of the LaGuardia renovation, the report calls for significant expansions of the region’s other two airports, which it notes have some of the worst delays in the country. Newark’s ongoing Terminal A reconstruction would be reconfigured for a thirty-year lifespan, then torn down to make room for a new runway. The airport would also have to be “adapted” (no specifics) to protect it from flooding fueled by climate change. JFK, on the other hand, would see the construction of two new runways and the consolidation of its six terminals into four shared-use terminals.
Who Would Benefit: Anyone who’s ever spent a long night suffering through endless delays at Newark or spent hours on the tarmac at JFK waiting to take off. Oh, and also any Newark customers who don’t want to see their airport underwater.
Why It Won’t Happen: Even the generally optimistic authors admit here that the two expansions combined would cost a staggering $48 billion. The Port Authority, they suggest, could generate that revenue through “airline fees and passenger facility charges” — sounds like an easy sell — but only if airport fees stopped subsidizing other Port Authority projects, as they currently do.
Ambitious though these proposals are, they would make transportation in and around New York a great deal easier, faster, and more equitable. Some measures, like airport expansion and increased cross-river access for commuter rail, will become no less than necessary as the region’s population grows and its infrastructure decays.
Already, though, discussion of the report has centered on its scathing assessment of the subways and the suggestion that the system close on weeknights until the repairs are complete. The immense cost of these repairs, plus the never-ending Cuomo–De Blasio–Lhota squabbles, may mean that the conversation never gets beyond that, and the region’s leaders never look past rebuilding to just plain building. If they do, though, they’ll find in the RPA’s report a robust (though expensive) blueprint for extending transit access to underserved and overcrowded parts of the region, and for capitalizing on opportunities to update aging infrastructure.
Should cross-borough streetcars and new suburban railways ever arrive, they will bring with them questions about gentrification and affordability. Furthermore, the report’s enthusiasm for redevelopment opportunities — as well as its suggestion that union agreements be weakened in order to bring down project costs — should be taken with a grain of salt coming from a board made up largely of real estate executives. The authors are right, though, that New York’s transit infrastructure needs to be transformed, not just patched up. The proposals in this report go a long way toward outlining what that transformation could look like.