Should there even be a One Seat Ride to the Airport?

Rendering of proposed LaGuardia AirTrain

Continuing on his infrastructure grand tour Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that he was proposing a $10 billion overhaul of JFK Airport. Included in the proposal are plans for expanding the Van Wyck Expressway (how “green” of him) and finding ways to expand and improve the AirTrain. From the report’s website:

Increase the capacity from two to four cars per train and increase its frequency – These changes would allow the AirTrain to roughly double its capacity and handle more than 40 million passengers annually.
Improve the east of connection from the Subway or LIRR by top-to-bottom rebuild of interconnections at Jamaica and Sutphin Blvd – Completely overhaul the subway and Long Island Railroad connection to the JFK AirTrain. These improvements would include essential modern amenities such as high-performance elevators and escalators, charging stations and expanded walkways. A modernized mezzanine will create simpler navigation and smoother transfers to the AirTrain including improved wayfinding and LED flight status screens. Images of the transformed Jamaica Station and AirTrain connection can be found here.

That sounds affordable and effective. But the next line is what really grabbed transit activists:

Explore the feasibility of one seat ride to JFK – JFK is one of the only major airports in the world that does not offer travelers a one seat ride from its city center. Therefore, the panel recommends that the MTA and its partners jointly explore the feasibility of a one-seat ride to JFK.

A one seat ride from an airport to a city center is considered best practices for developed countries. Transit access in general is considered a basic necessity for airports but this is something that American cities leave as an afterthought. LAX is famously impossible to get to via the Metro even though the Green Line terminates relatively close. NYC had subway plans in the works for connections to Floyd Bennett Field (before LaGuardia built his own airport) and when the IND Queens Blvd subway was built provisions were added for a line down Van Wyck Blvd which could have easily been extended to then Idlewild Airport (today JFK Airport) until Robert Moses chose to build an expressway instead. In the 1990s plans were floated to extend the N train to LaGuardia but were shot down by local politicians. The MTA once ran the Train-to-the-Plane but this proved unpopular given the need to transfer to a bus at Howard Beach. The Port Authority built the AirTrain, which opened in 2003, and has proved much more successful even though it still requires a transfer from the subway or LIRR.

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MTA Plan for Mass Transit 1969, 1971 showing alternative proposals for JFK connections.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the newly formed MTA proposed sending the LIRR to JFK via the abandoned Rockaway Branch and even a branch of the LIRR through Baisley Pond Park in South Jamaica. Even as the Port Authority was designing the AirTrain there were proposals to extend it to lower Manhattan via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and then over the Manhattan Bridge or via a new tunnel. These proposals had high price tags and would have had a negative impact on existing subway service.

RPA One Seat Ride Options to JFK

Right after the Governor made this announcement the Regional Plan Association put out a colorful breakdown of various one seat ride options which Alon Levy did a very good job of ripping apart. I’m not here to repeat everything he said but rather throw a couple ideas out.

JFK

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NYC Program for Mass Transit Map 1969 showing LIRR to JFK Airport

As New York has bounced back from 9/11 the growth of subway and LIRR ridership has meant that more and more commuters are coming up against more and more tourists (with their luggage) in ever packed train cars. There is no doubt that better transit is needed but the idea that we need to invest billions of dollars to give tourists a smoother trip into the city seems completely misplaced. I also question the very idea that we need to have a one seat ride to JFK Airport considering the size of NYC. Governor Cuomo has received many donations from the hotel industry in the city which is why he has supported legislation clamping down on AirBNB. No doubt it is the hotel lobby which is also pushing for a one seat ride to ferry tourists and business travelers directly from the airport into their hotel rooms as seamlessly as possible. In essence a one seat ride to the airport is a give away to the hotel industry while citizens of the city see only packed trains with increasing fares. And a one seat ride in this case means a one seat ride to midtown Manhattan which completely overlooks the needs of travelers coming or going ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE CITY OR REGION. AirBNB isn’t going anywhere which means travelers have more options for lodging and therefore will always need to have a multiple seat ride to/from the airport.

I like the idea of the AirTrain as it serves its purpose very well. Getting to the AirTrain via the A, E, or LIRR can difficult for locals as well as travelers and segregating travelers (and their luggage) from everyday commuters would free up space on trains which can be packed at all hours of the day. But getting the AirTrain into Manhattan would prove to be far more costly than it’s worth. The AirTrain was supposedly designed to allow it to run on the LIRR tracks with the same rail gauge and third rail power. This means that sending the AirTrain to Manhattan via the LIRR would be the most obvious answer except that LIRR runs 10 car trains at high speeds while AirTrains run at 60mph max and usually have only 2 cars per train. Connecting the AirTrain to the LIRR and sending it to Penn Station would be a logistical nightmare for LIRR trains. The alternative option of having full length LIRR cars serve JFK Airport wouldn’t be worth the cost as most trains would be empty and the track curves along the existing AirTrain are far too tight. Platform slots at Penn Station are already full and it won’t be until at least 2022 when the massive East Side Access project opens a new LIRR at Grand Central would there even be space for airport trains.

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Extension of the JFK AirTrain to Atlantic Terminal via Atlantic Ave Line.

But East Side Access will do something else; Since LIRR will now have more flexibility to terminate trains in midtown the need for the downtown Brooklyn Atlantic Terminal will be almost eliminated, save for the passengers who actually use it. While no exact plans have been put in place yet it has been speculated that the LIRR will, once East Side Access is open, reduce the Atlantic Branch to a shuttle service between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica. If this does come to pass then this would be a perfect fit for the AirTrain which is already a glorified shuttle. While Atlantic Terminal does not reach Manhattan it is served by 11 subway lines. AirTrain riders now are forced to catch the A or the E, already packed express trains, but if it terminated at Atlantic Terminal travelers would have a buffet of subway options from which to chose. Additionally the service would still act as a shuttle to Jamaica for existing commuters. The LIRR ticketing space would be converted into a check-in facility. The existing Nostrand Ave and East New York stations would be closed to speed up the trip. All that would be needed is a new ramp connecting the existing AirTrain to the LIRR Atlantic Branch at Jamaica. Atlantic Terminal would give the city the most bang for its buck: offer a fast ride directly to the airport with connections to the most number of subway lines, offer Jamaica bound commuters an equal service replacement, and frees up space on packed A and E trains in Queens.

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Extension of the JFK AirTrain to Atlantic Terminal via Atlantic Ave Line. Connection via Jamiaca.

Politicians and the RPA would argue that the AirTrain would then need to be extended into Manhattan but I still disagree. Lower Manhattan has changed considerably in the last 15 years and is much more residential. AirBNB as well as the rise of low cost hotels around the city means that travelers have more options than ever before. Midtown transit centers like Penn Station, Times Sq, and Grand Central are already overflowing with commuters and tourists alike and Atlantic Terminal offers a place to transfer trains which is far less crowded. Express subway trains serve Atlantic Terminal which can bring travelers to midtown, east and west side, quickly. If the AirTrain went to Penn Station it would still require a complicated crosstown journey (the less confused, lost travelers at Penn Station the better). According to Google Maps it takes 48 min to get form Terminal 4 at JFK to Atlantic Terminal via the AirTrain and LIRR, by subway it takes 20 min longer. This, however, requires transferring at Atlantic Terminal and then Jamaica Station, and by subway means transferring multiple times in stations which can be hard to navigate with luggage, which all adds additional time and confusion. Extending the AirTrain to Atlantic Terminal may not save much time in terms of train speed but it would remove the burdensome transfer at Jamaica. A one seat ride would be nice, no doubt, but the cost can’t be justified so a two seat ride is still far better than a three seat ride.

LaGuardia

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Governor Cuomo’s plan for the new AirTrain

The Request For Proposal for the design of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain was just announced which means the state and Port Authority is looking for an engineering firm to design the new structure. It’s too early to tell yet what the new AirTrain will look like but many transit activists have come out against the AirTrain. Two years ago I wrote a post which tentatively supported the AirTrain but the most obvious choice in the matter would be to extend the N/W trains to LaGuardia via 19 Av in northern Astoria. Politics being what they are the local NIMBYs won’t even get to shoot the proposal down since Gov Cuomo is picking the Port Authority to built their own line via the Grand Central Parkway. The reasoning, I assume, is that since the PA owns LaGuardia they should also provide the service to the airport and collect any revenue that goes along with it.

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IND Second System plans to extend the BMT Astoria Line into central Queens.

New York is littered with bad planning decisions that were built because a particular politician got their way. I have no doubt that the LaGuardia AirTrain will be built as an elevated shuttle between the airport and Willets Point for a transfer to the 7 and LIRR. The service will be popular enough, though I’m sure the M60 and Q70 buses will still transport just as many travelers. But I see a future for the little shuttle which may seem odd at first until you look back at the subways which were planned and never built. In 1929 the city, as part of the infamous IND Second System, proposed extending the BMT Astoria Line (today’s N/W trains) down Ditmars Blvd and Asotira Av to 112th St where it would jog south until it reached what is today the Long Island Expressway, continuing east to what today is Francis Lewis Blvd. What I am proposing is that after the AirTrain is built the MTA could buy the line and incorporate it into a larger extension of the N/W trains which would follow a similar route.

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Map showing how the LaGuardia AirTrain could be integrated with the Astoria Line extension.

When the original BMT Astoria Line extension was proposed in 1929 most of this area of Queens was still developing and was farmland; Flushing Park wouldn’t exist for another decade. The modern extension would extend the N/W from Ditmars Blvd up to 19 Av where it would veer east to 45th St where it would dive underground to a new station under LaGuardia Airport. Trains would continue east to a new portal that would connect to the AirTrain. Assuming the AirTrain is built to a location between the 7 and LIRR stations at Willets Point the new line could easily be extended east along the ROW of the long defunct Central RR of LI which was converted into the Kissena Park corridor by Robert Moses. The AirTrain terminal at Willets Point would then be expanded to be a terminal for W trains while N trains would continue east; N trains would run peak express using the third track between Queensboro Plaza and Astoria Blvd.

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Extending the Astoria Line via LaGuardia AirTrain further east through Flushing.

There are many different route and construction options available, whether built along an elevated viaduct through the park or as a cut and cover tunnel, but ideally the line would make it’s way southeast until the Long Island Expressway where it would continue until Springfield Blvd. As there is precious little land left for new train yards the park space would be perfect for a new underground yard somewhere along the route. Incorporating the LaGuardia AirTrain into a larger subway expansion would be a boon for locals and travelers alike and would actually reduce crowding on the 7 train rather than adding more travelers with their luggage onto already packed subway cars. This, however, would take the state, city and MTA all working together for a common goal, something that sadly is impossible under our current circumstances.

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Map showing proposed M train subway extension to LaGuardia Airport.

A second subway option would be to use the abandoned (i.e. never used) terminal at Roosevelt Ave to extend the M train through Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst to the airport. The Roosevelt Terminal was built for a future line to the Rockaways and was never used. The terminal itself is on the eastern end of the mezzanine at Roosevelt Ave and is an island station with tiles but no tracks. The trackway leading east connects to the Queens Blvd Line bellow and turns south at 78th St. Instead the new branch would use the trackway connections to the existing subway and turn east down 41 Av, then northeast down Baxter Ave and finally north under 83 St finally turning towards LaGuardia Central Terminal at 23 St. While this extension would be the most expensive of the lot it would also serve as a local subway line for the undeserved areas of East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights north of Roosevelt Ave. The line would be more politically acceptable as it would be a subway the whole route and do more for local residents than the other options.

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Improving Transit with Midtown East Rezoning

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Ad advertisement touting the new express platforms at the 59th St-Lexington Ave station in 1962. The formerly local station was expanded as ridership grew between Manhattan and Queens.

Last week the NYC City Planning Commission moved forward with one of former mayor Bloomberg’s last major rezoning proposals for Midtown East (the area between Fifth Avenue, Third Avenue, East 39th Street and East 57th Street). The idea is to encourage large new development in a transit rich area of the city which was last built out in the 1950s and 60s. This was the prime showcase for the city’s 1961 zoning plan which introduced plazas as an incentive for taller buildings. The Seagrams Building on Park Ave between 52nd and 53rd streets was the first and arguably most successful of the new modern glass and steel towers built in the International Style. Unfortunately as more and more developments took advantage of the plaza-for-height clause the avenue began to lose it’s street wall to bland, windswept corporate “open space”, not to be considered a city park as it was now privately owned space. Today the issue isn’t public space but rather old space; the office spaces in this post-war towers can only be renovated so many times and today cannot meet the needs for 21st Century high tech companies (which pay top dollar, mind you). Midtown East is built out as far as the previous zoning will allow so a change is in order.

Much like the plaza clause in the 1961 zoning law which brought more “open space” the new zoning being proposed by the City Planning Commission is giving incentives to developers who will in tern create better pedestrian areas (probably indoor winter gardens), improved street access, and expanded transit services which include new, larger entrances to subway stations and in the case of Grand Central adding more space on platforms by shaving back obstacles such as large support beams. The city is also banking on the MTA’s last major expansion project, East Side Access, to be open by the time much of the new development gets underway. East Side Access is bringing the Long Island Railroad into a new cavernous station below Grand Central Terminal. And while the first section of the 2nd Ave Subway has just opened through the Upper East Side it seems like it will be another generation before 2nd Ave through Midtown East will see trains. While I could suggest that the city and MTA work together on expediting Phase 3 of 2nd Ave through Midtown East I actually think that time should be taken to reconsider Phase 3 especially with this new rezoning. Phase 3 has always been designed as a 2 track line from 63rd St to Houston St but given ridership growth over the last 5 years and projected growth with rezoning the city and MTA should seriously consider a 4 track line for Phase 3.

While I trust the City Planning Commission to continue with its public-private partnership approach to subway access improvements there is one idea which is larger and more involved. The city and the MTA are working closely on this new rezoning because the MTA can only gain from third parties expanding their stations for them at minimal cost to the MTA. New connections and mezzanines through private buildings will help keep additional pedestrians off the clogged sidewalks but it will also funnel more and more riders onto an already maxed out subway line.

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1 Vanderbilt developers are proposing expanding the Grand Central Concourse and subway station for the ability to build a taller building.

There are three major subway hubs in the Midtown East study area: 42nd-Grand Central (4,5,6,7 & Shuttle trains), 51-Lexington/53rd St (6,E,M trains) and Lexington-59th St (4,5,6,N,R,W trains which doesn’t include Lex-63 F,Q trains). As the Lexington Line is the only subway running north-south through Midtown East these three stations handle not only north-south riders but any riders coming from Queens and continuing south. 42nd-Grand Central has the most publicized improvements thanks to the new 1 Vanderbilt tower now rising next door. The 1 Vanderbilt developers have proposed expanding the mezzanine connecting Grand Central to the subway and shuttle to Times Sq as well as shaving back the support beams on the subway platforms to allow more people to be on the platform. With the opening of the 2nd Ave Subway from 63rd St to 96th St the connection between the 4/5/6 and N/R/W trains at 59th St should see some relief as now riders looking to get to Times Sq or even Union Sq can take the Q train and avoid 59th St entirely.

This leaves 51-Lexington/53rd St. This station has seen a number of improvements over the years through public-private partnerships, most famously with the development of the CitiCorp Tower at 53rd St which created a large new mezzanine connecting the IRT 6 station to the IND E/M station. When the building at 560 Lexington was built a large open plaza was built into the base of the building at the corner of 50th and Lexington which allowed for a new subway entrance at the southern end of the IRT 6 southbound platform to be built. Adding new staircases here would be beneficial to passenger flow, especially given how congested the platforms can get, but that will only go so far.

What’s needed is a major upgrade for the station. 51 St on the IRT Lexington Line is a local station sandwiched between two express stations which means that any rider coming from downtown or uptown and the Bronx needs to take a crowded local train or change at 42nd or 59th St from an express to a crowded local train. The city and MTA need to consider adding new platforms on the express tracks. Upgrading the station to an express station means fewer transfers at 42nd and 59th Sts stations and gives riders coming from Queens via the E/M trains an alternative transfer option than just the R train at 59th St. This second fact would allow for a radical reorganization of Queens Blvd trains: R trains could now run via the 63rd St tunnel instead of the 60th St tunnel which is also used by the N/W trains. The 60th St tunnel is a bottleneck in the system as it forces three services to use it; shifting the R to 63rd St would allow for more R trains as well as more N/W trains to Astoria. M/R trains both run local in Queens so riders would have the choice, should they need to transfer to the 4/5/6 they can take the M, if they need to go west or south they can stay on the R which will now avoid the crowds at 59th St; this will also improve N/W riders commutes with less crowding at 59th St.

Ideally the N and R train would be swapped. Keeping the local trains on local tracks and express trains on express tracks saves time by removing switching tracks. However, in order for this to work here the Astoria Line would need to be extended north and a new train yard built to allow R trains access to storage and repair shops. Upgrading the switches and signals along the Broadway Line should cut down on switching time in the meanwhile. Express train riders might initially balk at the idea of adding more time to their commute the truth is that crowding on the Lexington Ave Line is so bad that it actually delays trains. Reducing local-express transfers means less delays due to crowding so adding an extra station stop to their commute will have a minimal impact and may actually speed their commute. Additionally in Queens Plaza the MTA could partner with a third-party developer to build an underground concourse connection between the Queensboro Plaza elevated station and the Queens Plaza subway station.

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A before and after map showing proposed changes to subway service. Expanding 51st St station with express platforms allows Queens riders an alternative transfer point to 59th St and would stop crowding due to local-express transfers at 59th St and Grand Central. The R train would be rerouted along 63rd St. An additional transfer could be built by a third party developer between Queensboro Plaza and Queens Plaza stations.

The idea for new express platforms isn’t as crazy as it sounds. When originally built the IRT Lexington Ave Line only had express stations at 42nd St, 86th St, and 125th St. With the growth of Queens after World War II the Transit Authority saw the need to expand 59th St as it was a crucial transfer point. Because of how narrow Lexington Ave is the city built the express tracks of the Lexington Ave Line below the local tracks. At 59th St this meant that the new express platforms at were below the BMT Broadway-Astoria Line so a new lower mezzanine and escalators were installed. The IRT designed their subways (the 1/2/3 on the west side and the 4/5/6 on the east) with fewer express stations in midtown because at the time it had not yet developed into a business center and more riders were headed to the Wall St area. As midtown developed the IRT noticed crowding at 42nd and 86th St as more and more riders needed to change to reach midtown. When the city began developing their own subway, the IND, they designed their routes to avoid this transfer-crowding with more midtown statons being built for express and local trains.

What Midtown East needs is the 2nd Ave Subway but that will not be built in time. Ironically much of the last build out of Midtown East was due to the removal of the 3rd Ave El in 1955 which increased real estate values though the area. What can be done in time is expanding 51st St station. The city and MTA should seriously consider new express platforms which can be integrated to the existing station complex at 51 St-Lex/53. Doing so will have a ripple effect on service along the east side and would allow for more efficient train routing in Queens, further reducing congestion on the east side.

Removing the 3rd Ave El in 1955 paved the way for a massive build out of Midtown East.

Building a better city: QueensWay vs Subway

A park along the Prospect Expressway.

I live in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn a block away from the Prospect Expressway. Built in the 1950s by master builder and Parks Department head Robert Moses it cuts through southern Park Slope (literally cutting through the glacial moraine) and divides Windsor Terrace before connecting to Ocean Parkway. Construction of the highway was as destructive as any of his roads and forced the removal of many homes and businesses. But when I see the traffic lined up at rush hour I try to imagine the area without the highway and my nice quiet tree lined streets would be packed with traffic. Moses knew the need and what it would take to build such a road but he also knew that the road didn’t have to be just an eyesore. All along the route from Park Slope to Kensington there were parcels of land left over from building the road. Moses turned all of these into parks and paths. One can walk along the highway from one end to another and there are seating areas built in overlooking the highway; where there is larger land he built parks. There is even a park-path from the height of the hill down to the nearest subway station at Fort Hamilton Parkway, though this is mostly closed off due to concerns from neighboring homeowners. So while he saw that the highway would cut apart the neighborhood he also understood how to knit it back together.

This is not to try and paint Moses as a saint, far from it. The community through which he was ramming his roads used the new park space as a bargaining chip to offset the losses to their neighborhoods. Other, less influential, areas of the city didn’t get to benefit from this urban design choice. But none the less it was a compromise that worked.

LIRR Rockaway Branch today via Friends of the QueensWay

This brings us to a current day infrastructure vs. neighborhood battle: the QueensWay park vs. restored Rockaway Branch transit. A quick recap for those just joining us: the LIRR Rockaway Branch railroad once ran from Rego Park straight down to Howard Beach and then jumped across Jamaica Bay as a quicker way to the Rockaways. In the 1950s ridership was dropping and the LIRR wanted to cut the line loose. The city bought the line and converted the southern section to rapid transit which is today the A train. The norther section, from Rego Park to Liberty Ave, Ozone Park, was left fallow with the future potential to restore LIRR service or connect the line to the IND Queens Blvd subway which was built with multiple provisions for such a connection. In the 1970s reactivation was studied as a way to get to JFK Airport via rail but ultimately the AirTrain was built along the VanWyck Expressway instead. Since the beginning there has been the issue of NIMBY resistance. NIMBY is an urban development acronym for Not In My BackYard. While the term is thrown around for any kind of opposition the label works more literally here since the remaining ROW runs along the backyards of Queens residents. This opposition combined with questionable ridership statistics over the years means nothing has been done for generations.

Enter the High Line, poster child for the 21st Century urban park. The success of the High Line was a shot in the arm for the rails-to-trails movement which before had seen most success in converting abandoned railroads in the suburbs or rural areas. The High Line was the first major urban rail line to be converted and gave inspiration for other abandoned rail infrastructure in older cities with industrial pasts. Queens residents were inspired and looked at the old Rockaway Branch as the perfect project. Thus was born the QueensWay. Governor Andrew Cuomo threw his support behind the project and green lit funding to develop a working design proposal.

Artists rendering of proposed QueensWay

But transit advocates balked at the idea of turning the only preserved ROW through Queens into a park, thus killing any chance of restoring train service. For many other rails-to-trains projects the ROW usually ran through an area that would not likely see the density of development needed to justify reactivation. Rockaway Branch was different as it ran through densely developed neighborhoods and paralleled Woodhaven Blvd, a 6 lane highway that offered one of the only north-south routes through central Queens. Woodhaven Blvd is currently the focus of a new Select Bus Service aimed at adding bus lanes with fewer stops to speed up travel. There has been well publicized resistance to the plan as it would take away parking and turning lanes which, as opponents argue, would increase traffic congestion. Restoring Rockaway Branch rail service would mean a faster route through central Queens and take cars off of Woodhaven Blvd. The city, state, and MTA have been cool to such a project so far given the cost overruns of basically every large scale rail project undertaken by the MTA since its inception. The MTA claims that rail service would only take bus riders off the road and not do much for traffic congestion. Local politicians have been mainly in favor of restored service but haven’t pushed the city to do more (though they did get the MTA to start a new study on restored service).

R Train extension along the LIRR Rockaway Branch via NYObserver

Last week an op-ed was published by Friends of the QueensWay throwing more fuel on the fire claiming that restoring rail service would be a detriment to the children playing in the nearby parks and distract students at nearby schools. They also claim that restored LIRR service would cost too much to ride for most southern Queens residents, take away riders from the AirTrain (which doesn’t even make sense since any subway rider would still need to transfer at Howard Beach to the AirTrain to reach JFK), and that any subway ride would be too long to reach Midtown to justify the costs. This op-ed, besides being laughably hyperbolic, points to the biggest issue we have in addressing the future needs of our city which is pitting sides against one another instead of finding common ground. Battle lines seem to have been drawn yet I can’t help thinking that both sides are right.

There is no denying that restoring Rockaway Branch rail service would be a boon to all residents of Queens. The line would serve as the only north-south crosstown line and reduce traffic along Woodhaven Blvd, especially in the summer when the only option for anyone north of Atlantic Ave is to drive to the beach or take the Q53 bus from Queens Blvd. Subway service would connect the most number of residents and could be improved with a new half-express service which I’ll outline later. But park advocates have valid points about expanding park space (which is virtually impossible in this built up city) as well as connecting lower income neighborhoods with Forest Park. Building a bike network through Queens would be a game changer and give commuters a viable biking option through areas of the city dominated by automobile traffic. These are all ideas to make the city a better place. So why is there even a fight?

Neither side has all the answers. The reasoning for building a new subway line along the Rockaway ROW is that it can just be reactivated for much cheaper than building a new line (such as the multi billion dollar 2nd Ave Subway). What transit activists fail to grasp is just how much of the line needs to be rebuilt. The last trains ran in the 1950s and anything there, rails, bridges, stations, electrical equipment needs to be completely rebuilt. Also while the norther section from Rego Park to Forest Park runs above ground the southern section runs along an embankment which has not been maintained in almost 70 years. This will need to be rebuilt in parts if not totally. So the low cost aspect goes out the door; we are talking about a billion dollar project to start with. Transit activists also need to seriously consider the noise impact of a new rail service that runs above ground. While many contend that buying a home next to a rail line, even an abandoned one, gives abutters little say in the matter the truth is that we live in an age of environmental review and noise issues need to be considered. The park space issue is more of a grey zone since Queens has some of the most park space of any borough but there area areas which lack any space for even building a new park. Ozone Park, despite the name, has very little park space and the QueensWay would open a route through Ozone Park that would directly connect it to Forest Park. The High Line model is popular but advocates need to consider that Chelsea was already a hot gentrifying neighborhood before the High Line was built. Just building a High Line but in Queens doesn’t mean it will work the same way (despite cheery renderings). And removing the ROW from transit capability for good will condemn Queens to further automobile dependency.

QueensWay North

Satellite view of the northern section of the Rockaway Branch. The green strip is the existing abandoned ROW.

To me the answer is obvious, build both. The ROW needs to be rebuilt for either project so why not take the opportunity to build it for both. The best option for service is to build a branch of the Queens Blvd subway. Tunnel provisions were built between 63 Dr-Rego Park and 67 Av stations in the 1930s for such a branch. The new subway tunnel would run down 66th Ave past Burns St but continue in a tunnel to Forest Park. Building a simple box tunnel under the ROW could be done for much cheaper than if it ran under a city street; no underground utilities would need to be moved and the tunnel ceiling would only need to carry the new path above it. The new path would seamlessly integrate into the existing parks along the ROW through Rego Park and Forest Hills. The park itself would start at 63rd Dr at the LIRR tracks and could use the vacant land once used for the LIRR junction. From 66th St/Fleet St south to Union Turnpike the line runs through the backyards of residents and where building a tunnel would be most beneficial in terms of reducing noise. The path above would then create a parkway from Rego Park south leading directly into Forest Park.  This also avoids the issue of trains rumbling by the new school, though that argument against the line screams frightened suburban helicopter parent and should be laughed away.

QueensWay South

Southern section of the Rockaway branch. Ozone Park is much denser with less open space.

Just south of Jackie Robinson Parkway the subway would come above ground and from Forest Park south the embankment would need to be rebuilt. The lower elevation in southern Queens means that there is a higher water table and any subway would need to be expensively water proofed. From Park Ln South to Atlantic Ave is the most difficult part because the ROW directly abuts the backs of homes. Park and bike space is sparse here so the path from Forest Park would need to run along Woodhaven Blvd. The frontage roads on the outer sides of Woodhaven Blvd would be reduced from 2 lanes to 1 with the medians being expanded for bike lanes.  Atlantic Ave boasts a wide concrete median which can be reduced so that protected bike lanes can be built along the length from Broadway Junction to Jamaica without the need for eliminating parking.  These bike lanes would connect to a new park which is today a bus parking lot but was once used as a junction between the LIRR Atlantic Ave branch and the LIRR Rockaway branch.  This park would run along the rebuilt embankment to 97th Ave.  From 97th Ave to Liberty Ave exists the old 4 track embankment with an abandoned station at 101-103rd Avs.  This embankment may need to be rebuilt and if so would be rebuilt with only 2 tracks.  It’s also questionable if this is the best place for a station as Atlantic Ave and Liberty Ave seem more suitable.  The extra space can be used as a linear park extending the bike lane south to Liberty Ave. The space under the new smaller embankment can be used for parks and markets in the way the QueeensWay proponents show in their renderings (see above).

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The old Ozone Park embankment is 4 tracks wide. A new 2 track embankment would leave space for parks, bike paths, and markets beneath.

The southern section obviously lacks the park space of the northern section and improved bike lanes may not seem like a worthy trade off.  The benefit would be that residents would have a subway to take them directly to Rockaway, Forest Park, or the expanded parks of Rego Park.  Landscaping the new embankment would also allow for noise reducing trees to be installed, further improving the neighborhood.  Bike lanes could be extended south along Cross Bay Blvd and new lanes installed along Conduit Blvd and the Belt Parkway which today have expansive, but empty, landscaped medians.  This last part is beyond the scope of the QueensWay but is in keeping with the desire to reuse transportation infrastructure for better park access.

Subway Service

Subway service would be via the local tracks of the Queens Blvd subway and this poses a problem.  While improved subway service is needed so too is a faster commute to Manhattan.  Ozone Park has two subway lines (J/Z and the A/C), one of which is express to lower Manhattan so the prospect of adding a new line which won’t reduce travel times isn’t much of a selling point.  Queens Blvd is also at capacity and many feel that adding a branch line would only increase congestion.  This point may or may not matter much since Woodhaven Blvd is a major bus hub and the new Rockaway branch would collect those riders sooner so station platform congestion might be reduced.  The MTA is budgeted for upgrading the signals along Queens Blvd to the new CBTC system which is computer controlled and knows where all trains are at any time.  This allows for more trains to run per hour and opens up capacity by about 10 trains per hour.  The seemingly obvious answer is to just run more trains but ridership levels along Queens Blvd are not equal; ridership is highest between Roosevelt Ave and Forest Hills where local trains terminate (also express stations have much higher ridership than local stations).  Much of the congestion issue is along this section because riders prefer to switch from local to express at Roosevelt Ave even if local trains are less crowded.  The solution is a partial express service: currently M trains run local from Queens Plaza to Forest Hills but with CBTC they would have the wiggle room to run express from Queens Plaza to Roosevelt Ave and then switch to the local tracks (doing so with the current signal system would cause delays on both local and express tracks).  Local riders would then not have to change trains at Roosevelt Ave.  The time savings is only 3-4 minuets but the idea of express service being “better” than local means that riders don’t actually take that into consideration.  This new express-local service would then branch off at 63rd Dr and head to Howard Beach.  The commute would seem faster and would actually improve service along Queens Blvd.  Additionally, due to the fact that the M train would no longer terminate at Forest Hills, there would be enough space there to allow for G trains to be extended and terminate at Forest Hills once again.

Money is the problem and this points to the city and Albany. The MTA, which ultimately answers to the governor, also stands in the way because it is in their best interest to do nothing.  Building the line may not attract that many new riders which is the narrow way the MTA evaluates a project.  The need is more about giving commuters another option that isn’t driving but this is on the city to push.  Mayor de Blasio has proven completely ineffectual at consensus building and at this point isn’t even trying. His fallout with Gov Cuomo means that the city cannot push any subway project.  Gov Cuomo seems to be anti-transit and has put money into studying the QueensWay park and would only benefit from keeping the pro-park forces fighting the pro-transit forces.  What is needed is someone to bring both sides to the table and see the common goal of both projects.  It does not make sense to start building a park now when a subway would only require rebuilding the whole thing.  The city needs a leader who can bring all parties to the table and find a solution that helps everyone.  Construction costs need to be looked at too, especially now that the MTA is wrapping up the 2nd Ave Subway.  If the project was financed primarily by the city, such as the 7 Line extension, the MTA would be much more open to the idea.  The city has the most to gain here as gentrification moves more and more people into southern Queens from Brooklyn.  Ridership growth is robust here and the city needs to be proactive for once; bus lanes aren’t going to cut it and new highways aren’t an option. If we continue on this one side takes all mentality then the city will suffer for it.

Fixing the Myrtle-Broadway Problem

Two Myrtle Ave trains merge at Myrtle Ave, one coming from Manhattan and the other from downtown Brooklyn.  Photo by Frank Pfuhler via nycsubway.org

Two Myrtle Ave trains merge at Myrtle Ave, one coming from Manhattan and the other from downtown Brooklyn. Photo by Frank Pfuhler via nycsubway.org

Starting in the summer of 2017 the MTA will shut down service along the Myrtle Ave Line (M train) from Broadway to Metropolitan Ave. The closure is so the MTA can rebuild a crumbling bridge and viaduct to allow for better service once the Canarsie Tubes of the L train are shut down for Hurricane Sandy related repairs. While this relatively small project is important for keeping the system moving it is really only a band aid on a larger issue: the BMT Jamaica and Myrtle Ave Lines have some of the oldest continually operating track structure in the entire NYC Subway and the junction at Myrtle Ave is a bottleneck along two lines which are seeing continued ridership growth due to the popularity of both Bushwick and now Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is a missed opportunity by the MTA to not just rebuild aging infrastructure but do so which eliminates a crucial bottleneck and expands capacity along both lines.

Both the Jamaica Line (J/Z trains) and the Myrtle Ave Line originally date back to the late 1880s when Brooklyn was still its own independent city and was growing rapidly. What we have with the M train today is only a vestige of a longer line which continued down Myrtle Ave to downtown Brooklyn and over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The Myrtle Ave Line eventually had direct connections to many of the other Brooklyn elevated lines which have now been torn down as well. In 1914 the direct connection between the Myrtle Ave Line and the Jamaica Line at Myrtle-Broadway was opened allowing dual services to run, one via the Brooklyn Bridge and one via the Williamsburg Bridge. Originally a connection was planned from Chambers St station with the Brooklyn Bridge which would have allowed elevated lines to loop back into Brooklyn offering a variety of services. Such a system never came to pass as the new subways proved more popular than the old elevated lines which the city soon began to replace. After WWII the population of central Brooklyn declined and so too did ridership on the Myrtle Ave Line which ended downtown service in 1969. The elevated structure from downtown Brooklyn to Marcus Garvey Blvd was town down and all service east of Broadway ran exclusively to Manhattan via the Williamsburg Bridge.

An M train passes at grade over the J train track causing delays.  Photo by Paul Pesante via nycsubway.org

An M train passes at grade over the J train track causing delays. Photo by Paul Pesante via nycsubway.org

As the popularity of Williamsburg and Bushwick has grown over the last 20 years so too has ridership. In 2010 the M train was rerouted from downtown to 6th Ave which has proven very popular and an alternative to the crowded L train. This is where the bottleneck at Myrtle-Broadway starts to become an issue. As more trains are needed to account for ridership growth the at-grade junction keeps capacity limited. This wasn’t as much of an issue when the M train terminated at Broad St since the J/Z provided additional downtown service. But the M now continues on to Forest Hills via the notoriously congested Queens Blvd Line. Due to the bottleneck M trains can only be scheduled at about 8 trains per hour leaving time for up to 5 more trains per hour available if the bottleneck was removed (theoretically there could be as much as 15tph but due to congestion along 6th Ave and Queens Blvd realistically the max is 12 or 13 tph). Not only would this mean better service for Williamsburg and Bushwick but also for Queens as well.

M train passes by the abandoned upper level at Myrtle Ave.  Photo by Filip Matuska via nycsubway.org

M train passes by the abandoned upper level at Myrtle Ave. Photo by Filip Matuska via nycsubway.org

The MTA is planning on rebuilding the concrete viaduct that connects the Broadway Line with the Myrtle Ave Line but not eliminating the bottleneck. This bottle neck can be eliminated by building a new flying junction between the Flushing Av station and Myrtle Ave station. The current local tracks would be moved outward so that two new tracks can be added between. These two new tracks would connect to both the local and express tracks. As they approach Myrtle Ave the new tracks would rise up and a new upper level station would be built over the existing Myrtle Ave station, though slightly to the west. This new station would mirror the existing station with three tracks and two island platforms. The remnants of the old Myrtle Ave El would be removed south of Broadway so that the new tracks could be extended along the abandoned trackways as they turn down Myrtle Ave. The trackways are still in good shape as they are connected to the existing junction structure. This new upper level station would serve Myrtle Ave trains exclusively and the reason for the mirrored design is so elevators could be installed to connect the platforms. Additionally a third track could be installed between the new Myrtle upper level and the existing Myrtle Ave Line. A third track was installed between Central Ave and Wyckoff Ave but was only used for storage and was removed in 1946. With an increase in trains per hour a third track may be useful for turning trains at Wyckoff Ave at rush hour or for emergencies.

Track map showing current and proposed Myrtle-Broadway connections.

Track map showing current and proposed Myrtle-Broadway connections.

A dual level station like what I am proposing has precedent throughout the NYC Subway. At West 8 St on the Brighton Beach Line (Q train) and the Culver Line (F train) each train has a separate level with the Q train rising up to the upper level exactly how the new Myrtle Ave connection would do so. Historically at Gun Hill Rd on the White Plains Line (2/5 trains) there was a similar connection with the now demolished 3rd Ave El with each line on a separate level and then merging north of the station. Not only does this design eliminate trains having to pass in front of one another but in the case of Myrtle Ave the sharp 90 degree curve would be eliminated so trains can turn faster and safer, not to mention the reduced wear and tear as well as noise.

Q train approaching W 8 St station.  Photo by David Tropiansky via nycsubway.org

Q train approaching W 8 St station. Photo by David Tropiansky via nycsubway.org

The repairs the MTA is undertaking next year are part of a larger recovery plan and not part of any long range strategy. As time is of the essence when it comes to the Canarsie Tubes I cannot fault the MTA for deciding to go for the quick option for rebuilding the Myrtle Ave connection. But as more and more people move into central and northern Brooklyn the limitations of our existing infrastructure are becoming apparent.