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A Subway to Staten Island? How a Transit Dream Died

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https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/18/nyregion/staten-island-subway-dreams.html

 

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A Subway to Staten Island? How a Transit Dream Died

Deep under the New York Bay near Brooklyn, there is the start of a tunnel with the potential to change the lives of thousands of New York City commuters. So why hasn’t it?

20tunnel1-superJumbo.jpg?quality=90&auto

By Amisha Padnani

Jan. 18, 2019

 

Deep under the New York Bay near Brooklyn, covered in mildew, seaweed and other gunk, is what thousands of commuters would consider a hidden treasure: the start of a subway tunnel linking Staten Island to the rest of New York City.

“The idea of a subway to Staten Island really goes way back,” said Stan Fischler, a subway historian. “Way, way back.”

The plan, first proposed in 1890, was approved. Maps were drawn up. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held. Construction began.

What followed were dozens of missed opportunities that could have prevented the fastest-growing borough in recent decades from becoming the most isolated.

Even today, skepticism is high that the M.T.A. will ever consider adding a Staten Island subway to its list of capital projects, especially amid the recent tug-of-war over L train repairs, in which the plan to shut the line down for 15 months was suddenly, and very questionably, scrapped.

James Oddo, the borough president, said in an email that the Staten Island subway had “no chance of happening.”

“I choose to continue focusing my attentions and energies on more realistic projects,” he added.

Building a tunnel under five miles of waterway in a crowded city is an arduous and costly endeavor, but it would offer immense relief.

About a third of the borough’s 476,000 residents take mass transit to work, most of them relying on the Staten Island Ferry for part of the trip. Of those, about 40 percent spend at least an hour commuting each way to work, a larger proportion than in any other county in the country, according to 2017 data from the United States Census Bureau.

“You would think somebody would wake up in the morning and say, ‘We could do better,’ ” said Dr. Jonathan Peters, a research fellow at the University Transportation Research Center at City College of New York. “This is not an unsolvable problem.”

For Dr. Peters, the unfinished project is more than research — it’s also personal. His great-grandmother chose to raise her family on Staten Island, relocating from the Bronx in the 1920s because she heard there would be a subway. Every day she slogged to her job in Manhattan’s garment district, telling herself a better commute was on the horizon.

“My family has been disappointed now for 97 years waiting for the subway,” he said.

To be sure, Staten Island does have a train. The mostly elevated Staten Island Railway runs along the east side of the borough, from St. George in the north to Tottenville in the south. But it is the only borough in New York City without a rail link to Manhattan.

Over more than a century, no less than seven official ideas have been floated for connections to Staten Island. One imagined a line from New Jersey. Another proposal claimed its train would zip commuters to Manhattan in a mere seven minutes. A more recent study even considered a sky tram.

None of those proposals, needless to say, have panned out.

The one idea that was approved, in 1912, would have connected Staten Island’s North Shore with Brooklyn, merging with the 4th Avenue line (now the R train) near Bay Ridge.

At the time, a major subway expansion was underway across New York City. The first underground system opened in 1904, propelling riders across Manhattan. The system stretched into the Bronx in 1905 and to Brooklyn in 1908. It would eventually expand to Queens in 1915.

The subway to Staten Island even had a name: Route 51.

“Staten Island Expects a Boom,” read a New York Times headline from 1912. “Proposed Subway Under Narrows Has Stimulating Effect on Realty.”

But the man who was one of the biggest champions of the project, Mayor John F. Hylan, was also its greatest hindrance, said Joseph Raskin, author of “The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System.”

“Very little got built or moved ahead under Hylan,” said Mr. Raskin, a retired M.T.A. employee.

“Hylan’s attitude about transit issues was definitely his downfall as mayor,” he added.

And yet Staten Island named its longest thoroughfare Hylan Boulevard, in part because “they thought they would get a rail tunnel out of him,” Mr. Raskin said.

Long before he was mayor, Hylan was a train operator in Brooklyn. He would prop up his law school books in the corner of his cab and study when he could, Mr. Raskin said. He got into a crash and was fired.

Hylan was elected mayor in 1918. A boorish man who maintained a grudge against the subway companies, he actively tried to halt funding to transit projects. Gov. Alfred E. Smith even opened an investigation into allegations that Hylan was being an obstructionist. Stories of their battles frequently occupied the front page of The Times, much like the coverage of a similar political rivalry does today.

One transportation project for the borough Hylan did support was a tunnel big enough to accommodate freight trains. The tunnel would connect New York City, by way of Staten Island, to the rest of the United States, and would be more direct than the existing routes. It was a move that he saw as revolutionary, one that could increase New York City’s potential as a commercial center and heighten his legacy for decades to come.

To sell the idea, he argued that the tunnel could serve both passenger and freight trains.

But there were critics, said Thomas Matteo, Staten Island’s borough historian. Some argued the funds should be used for subways in denser areas. Others questioned the long ride to Brooklyn and thought a train directly to Manhattan made more sense. Then there were the Staten Islanders who didn’t care for freight trains chugging through their backyards.

The borough’s population at the time was only at about 120,000, and few even commuted; many lived and worked locally.

“It was entrepreneurs and businessmen who wanted it,” Mr. Matteo said of the proposed subway. “It was never the local yokels.”

The freight factor was important — railroad companies were willing to pay for a portion of the cost to dig the tunnel if they could move freight through it. Without their support, the tunnel would be too costly.

Hylan sensed his opportunities were dwindling. He quickly ordered workers to build a tunnel that would be big enough, in his memorable phrase, to “take an elephant.”

In 1923, he hoisted a silver pick ax high above his head at groundbreaking ceremonies, where he aired his frustrations with pushback from state officials. “It takes a man of iron to deal with these people,” he said.

A number of events finally killed the plan. In 1925, the governor’s transit investigation determined it would cost $60 million instead of $20 million to build a tunnel to accommodate freight, and it recommended a passenger-only tunnel.

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit, the company that would have operated the subway, was in financial turmoil from a worker strike and from the aftermath of New York’s deadliest train disaster, which killed an estimated 100 people. On top of that, it was campaign season, and Brooklyn Rapid was denied a desperately-needed fare increase as politicians promised to make the price — a nickel — sacrosanct.

Then another more appealing idea emerged: building a bridge to connect Brooklyn and Staten Island.

In 1955, The Times said that not including train tracks on the bridge would be “one of the great planning blunders of our generation.” But that’s just what happened when the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964 under the auspices of the car-centric city planner Robert Moses.

There has been limited interest in a Staten Island subway since then.

In 2013, Joseph J. Lhota, the former M.T.A. chairman, asked city planners during his mayoral campaign whether the Verrazzano Bridge could support the weight of a train; it couldn’t, they said.

Even if a subway tunnel were feasible, there is the sense that it would never get enough support from Staten Islanders, said Allen P. Cappelli, a former M.T.A. board member who was a proponent of a Staten Island subway.

“Probably a fair number of people would love it,” said Mr. Cappelli, now a member of the City Planning Commission “and probably there would be old-timers that would hate it.”

Mark Cannon, who spent years commuting for an hour to his job as an attorney in Manhattan, embodied those conflicted sentiments. He feared a subway would make Staten Island a more desirable place to live. “The commute would probably be a lot better,” he said. “But the best thing about Staten Island is it’s kind of separate from the rest of the city. It would get too crowded.”

 

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To be honest, a Subway to Staten Island would be interesting. If anything, there are a handful of ideas that we can put on the table already!!:

1 ) Nassau-4th Avenue Staten Island connector via the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Though, in order for this to work, two lanes of traffic would be removed in place of train tracks. 

2 ) HBLR connection via the North-Shore Branch to St. George

3 ) Triboro RX tunnel to Staten Island

4 ) Second Avenue Subway extension beyond Phase 4 to St. George via a new tunnel (which will allow trains to exceed 60 MPH)

5 ) Broadway-Whitehall connection to St. George and points beyond (I wouldn't prefer this at all for a number of reasons but it still works) 

These are just a handful of ideas, but there are more. (maybe better than what I had just described)

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Mark Cannon, who spent years commuting for an hour to his job as an attorney in Manhattan, embodied those conflicted sentiments. He feared a subway would make Staten Island a more desirable place to live. “The commute would probably be a lot better,” he said. “But the best thing about Staten Island is it’s kind of separate from the rest of the city. It would get too crowded.”

Yeah, so is Hart island, Mark.... It's not all that crowded out there & the best thing about it is that they don't say much of anything.... They don't call 'em the best neighbors in the world for nothing.... Go live out there instead.

I love how some Staten Islanders tend to paint this rosy picture like it's this serene suburb, but at the same time, quick to b**** about how they're always left out whenever something is considered in one of the other 4 boroughs first.....

Those types are the main reason why we can never move forward/expand/branch out in terms of public transit.... Tired of these keeping up with the joneses ass suburbanites that (quietly) want city amenities in their hip pocket....

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Honestly I'd rather have the HBLR come to SI instead of the subway. And to have better bus links to NJ.

Commute to Manhattan may suck because (MTA) doesn't understand that buses should arrive before the ferry departs and leave after it arrives, but I'm sure many SIers would rather have more connections to NJ for shopping or work than another mismanaged subway line that'll turn SI into Queens.

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One idea would be to route a SI subway through the Bayonne waterfront, up I-78 and either tying it into the PATH network or making it an extension of the (E) 

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9 minutes ago, shiznit1987 said:

One idea would be to route a SI subway through the Bayonne waterfront, up I-78 and either tying it into the PATH network or making it an extension of the (E) 

No way to extend the E past WTC. PATH is a better bet.

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Staten Island wants to be suburb and isolated from other 4 boroughs like Long Island, then they want all benefits of being in NYC, then when they get something special only for them that no other borough has like being only borough not to get jail once Rikers closes, they still think they are left out compared to other 4 boroughs. A good thing about Long Island is they do not ask for it both ways and take pride in not being a part of NYC and pay higher property tax to be isolated from NYC. 

Edited by Q101viaSteinway

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17 hours ago, shiznit1987 said:

One idea would be to route a SI subway through the Bayonne waterfront, up I-78 and either tying it into the PATH network or making it an extension of the (E) 

For the record, there was a plan where the SI-Manhattan route would pass through NJ. But NYC were not trying to deal with the related legalities of jurisdiction.

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1 hour ago, LTA1992 said:

For the record, there was a plan where the SI-Manhattan route would pass through NJ. But NYC were not trying to deal with the related legalities of jurisdiction.

Speaking of New Jersey connections, I wish the S89 actually ran outside of rush hours. If you're looking to get back to Staten Island from Bayonne without a car, you're basically screwed until 4 PM or you'd have to pay an expensive cab fee.

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On 1/19/2019 at 2:49 PM, LaGuardia Link N Tra said:

To be honest, a Subway to Staten Island would be interesting. If anything, there are a handful of ideas that we can put on the table already!!:

Nassau-4th Avenue Staten Island connector via the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Though, in order for this to work, two lanes of traffic would be removed in place of train tracks.

The bridge is not strong enough for trains, and it was built that way on purpose. Never gonna happen.

The Verrazano is also very tall, so you'd need the mother of all el tracks to punch through Bay Ridge. Also never gonna happen.

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You can have the Triboro Rx run over the Bridge if you have it as light rail. I would have it run via the SI Expressway.

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1 hour ago, bobtehpanda said:

The bridge is not strong enough for trains, and it was built that way on purpose. Never gonna happen.

The Verrazano is also very tall, so you'd need the mother of all el tracks to punch through Bay Ridge. Also never gonna happen.

Ok, that's one option that gets a nail in the coffin. What do you think about the other ones? 

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Only way i see them building a Staten Island connector is thru the new 2 av subway or thru 4av-Bay ridge

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I’d prefer it to be thru the 2nd Ave subway. Yes, it would be a much longer underwater tunnel versus thru 4th Ave-Bay Ridge. But it would be a much faster way into Manhattan versus the ferry and the express buses. Going via 4th Ave also has the potential to overwhelm the existing 4th Ave and Broadway/6th Ave lines, due to all the branching and reverse branching already present on those lines.

But that, of course, would require a major change of heart on the part of a large number of Staten Islanders on having the subway connection to the rest of city, whether thru Manhattan or Brooklyn.

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Agreed. Not to mention the (R) is a long enough line as it is. What Staten Islanders would switch from the express buses to the long, local (R)? If there are any, they’d almost certainly bail out in favor of the (D) or (N) at the first chance they get, which would likely overwhelm the (D) and (N). A new Staten Island subway connection has to be time-competitive with the SIM (can’t believe they actually renamed them that!) express bus runs.

It’s funny because years ago, I thought about extending the (N) from 59th into the existing tunnel provisions under Owl’s Head Park, which would at least provide an express run with very few stops in Brooklyn. Problem with that idea was that another line would have had to replace the (N) on the Sea Beach Line. I had the (T) replacing the (N) on Sea Beach. But then Sea Beach riders would once again be relegated to a fully local service, like the 1988-94 (N) (save for that brief time in 1990 when the (N) was back on the Manhattan Bridge). Not to mention the very real need for a second SAS service to carry the load if the (T) were to get hit with delays in Brooklyn.

Edited by T to Dyre Avenue

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As for the options, 4th Avenue would need an express train running to SI to make the service even remotely viable to SIM routes and the ferry. While it is possible, I’m sure I’d be a pain to manage that on a daily basis and in rush hour, but I’m no engineer either. So not too sure about it...

That being said, a 2nd avenue connection has its risks as well. Connecting Manhattan to Staten Island with a 5 mile tunnel is super pricey, and won’t be completed for years, along with SAS phase 4. Running into troubles would set it even more years behind in such a troubled agency as well. And I suspect it might have unforeseen consequences like increased homelessness, since a 5 mile tunnel along with an entire line in Manhattan underground is basically asking for that stuff. Staten Islanders would be pissed at that for sure...

 

Edited by NoHacksJustKhaks

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It would be hard to get an express train to Staten Island while the (D) and (N) run as normal, and Staten Island commuters would not take the local. However, what if the Sea Beach Line was rerouted? To start, a new line would have to replace the (M) to Myrtle Ave, maybe the (B)(D) or (T) or another second avenue line depending on which plan is used. Then the (M) could go on Culver and replace the (F) to Coney Island, allowing the (F) to run express. The (M) would go on Culver. Then, the (F) would go under a new tunnel that splits off from the express tracks and continues under Fort Hamilton Parkway, then goes where the Culver line used to go westward with a new stop at 10th Ave (9th ave would have to be closed in this plan). Then the (F) would take over Sea Beach and the (D) could go express to Staten island. What do you think?

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4 minutes ago, W4ST said:

Then the (F) would take over Sea Beach and the (D) could go express to Staten island. What do you think?

 

Then what will serve West End? You mean have the (F) serve West End and the (N)  run as normal on Sea Beach? And the (D) wouldn't be able to go express south of 59 St unless two entirely new tracks were built (can't really share with the (R) either because those tracks are determined for local service)

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46 minutes ago, Bay Ridge Express said:

Then what will serve West End? You mean have the (F) serve West End and the (N)  run as normal on Sea Beach? And the (D) wouldn't be able to go express south of 59 St unless two entirely new tracks were built (can't really share with the (R) either because those tracks are determined for local service)

The (F) would serve West End, and the (D) would split from the (N) south of 59th Street to go west under a new tunnel to Fort George, in my plan.

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