Skewed North Shore BRT/LRT Proposal (Hoisted from Comments)

The MTA produced an alternatives analysis for transit service on the North Shore of Staten Island. The study contains zingers and various factors making the cost many times higher than it should be, but the agency response to all comments is Decide, Announce, Defend. Commenter Ajedrez reports from a public meeting on the subject on Second Avenue Sagas:

I went for part of the meeting (from about 18:30 to 19:45), and this is a rundown of what happened:

* They discussed the updates from the last meeting. They eliminated the ferry option (that didn’t even make sense), and they eliminated the heavy rail option.

* The people were given the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. This one woman (the same woman from last time) ranted on and on about something historical at Richmond Terrace/Alaska Street that would be destroyed if they paved over it.

Then a few more people made some comments, and I asked why they eliminated the heavy rail option (for those of you who are wondering, I was the kid in the yellow jacket and blue/black striped shirt. Then again, I was the only kid in the room)

* Then we went to the back to talk with the people from the consulting firm. I discussed the heavy rail more in depth, and asked why it was needed if the West Shore Light Rail would supposedly cover the Teleport. I then made a couple of suggestions for the short-term (reverse-peak S98 service, my S93 extension, cutting back more S46s to Forest Avenue) and I gave them the name of a person at the MTA who they could contact.

To elaborate on my statement about heavy rail, they said that they took it completely off the table. It just amazed me that they originally had a ferry line as one of the options, but they didn’t even have heavy rail as an option south of Arlington.

Let me think, you have an abandoned rail line (and a heavy rail line at that), and you want to put a ferry line there. What sense does that make? I could understand maybe having the ferry supplement the rail line, but doing that would have the whole thing go to waste.

I said that the current SIR is heavy rail and the South Shore is more auto-oriented than the North Shore. And I said that it provides better integration with the current SIR (they said they could put light rail in the Clifton Yard, but it’s probably automatically cheaper if you don’t have to retrofit the yard). And I also said that there’s higher capacity than light rail, so in case there’s growth, it is better equipped to handle it

So they said “Well, it was too expensive (because one of the goals was to serve the Teleport) so we didn’t even consider it.” And then they said that SI doesn’t have Brooklyn-type density to support heavy rail (but somehow the South Shore does?). And if you limit it to light rail, you’re actually limiting SI’s growth potential. Think about it: before 1900, Brooklyn had some streetcar lines, but not a whole lot of ridership. When the subway was extended, the population exploded. But if they just extended some streetcar lines from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the population would be nowhere near the 2.5 million it has today.

And then they said “Oh, well during the last meetings (which I attended, so I know they’re not being completely truthful) people expressed a sentiment for light rail”. They didn’t. They expressed a sentiment against a busway, There’s a difference. They didn’t say “Oh, it shouldn’t be heavy rail”. They just said they want rail rather than buses.

I mean, the argument I should’ve made (besides the ones I already did) was the fact that there was heavy rail there before, and the population was smaller back then. I think it’s pretty obvious.

And when I made that statement, everybody was surprised at how young I was (16). One woman said “You should be the one studying this project”, and they actually tried to avoid responding to me (they were like “Thank you. Next question”, and then everybody said “But you didn’t answer his question”, and that’s when they made up the response about expenses)

Besides the wretched DAD attitude, the cost projections and the route choice doesn’t even make sense. The proposal is to use the abandoned B&O right-of-way along the North Shore, from St. George to Arlington, and then cut over to South Avenue and serve West Shore Plaza. Here is satellite imagery of South Avenue: observe that it is almost completely empty.

Here we have a line that consists of 8.5 kilometers of abandoned trackage, which can be restored for service remarkably cheaply, and 5.5 of an on-street segment, which tends to be much more expensive to construct. Compare the costs of regional rail restoration in Germany or Ottawa’s O-Train with those of French LRT lines (including Lyon’s cheaper line). In addition, the areas along the abandoned trackage are of moderate density by non-New York standards, while those along South Avenue aren’t even suburban. And yet, the MTA is convinced that the per-km cost of an option that terminates at Arlington is higher than that of an option that goes to West Shore Plaza ($56 million/km vs. $41/km).

While the cost range proposed is only moderately high for light rail – the French average is a little less than $40 million/km – this is misleading because of the nature of the lines. French tramways tend to be on-street, involving extensive street reconstruction. Sometimes they need a new right-of-way along a boulevard or a highway. In contrast, the North Shore Branch is a mostly intact rail right-of-way, which means that the land grading and the structures, the most expensive parts of any rail project, are already in place. It shouldn’t cost like a normal light rail project; it should cost a fraction.

On top of this, to inflate the cost, the MTA is talking about a train maintenance shop. It says a light rail option allows merely modifying the maintenance shop for the Staten Island Railway. Not mentioned is the fact that SIR-compatible heavy rail would allow the trains to be maintained in the same shops without modification, to say nothing of leveraging New York City Transit’s bulk buying to obtain cheaper rolling stock.

The O-Train’s cost – C$21 million for 8 km of route – included three three-car DMUs, piggybacking on a large Deutsche Bahn order; judging by the cost of a more recent expansion order from Alstom, a large majority of the original $21 million was rolling stock. New York should be able to obtain cheaper trains, using its pricing power and sharing spares with the SIR. The electrification costs would add just a little: electrification can be done for €1 million per route-km, and in high-cost Britain it can be done for £550,000-650,000 per track-km (p. 10).

For an order of magnitude estimate of the cost of a well-designed SIR-compatible North Shore Branch, we have, quoting my own comment on SAS:

For an order-of-magnitude estimate of what’s needed, figure $20 million for electrification, $5 million for high-platform stations, and $25 million for six two-car trains plus a single spare. Go much higher and it’s not a transportation project, but welfare for contractors.

In retrospect would add about $10-20 million for trackwork, since the line is abandoned. On the other hand, fewer trains could be used: I was assuming 10-minute headways and a 25-minute travel time to Port Ivory; with 15-minute headways and a travel time under 17.5 minutes to Arlington, which is realistic given subway speeds (the MTA study says 15), only three trains plus a spare would be required.

On a related note, the loading gauge excluding station platform edges should be rebuilt to mainline standards, to allow future regional rail service to replace the SIR. Eventually Staten Island is going to need a long tunnel to Manhattan or Brooklyn if it’s to look like an integral part of the city, and once such a tunnel is built, it might as well be used to provide RER-style service across the city.

In contrast, the MTA proposal has no concern for cost cutting, and looks like lip service to the community. It’ll be an especial tragedy if the line is permanently ripped up to make room for a busway, which will likely underperform and turn into a highway. The contractors are going to get well paid no matter what: the busway is cheaper, but not by an order of magnitude. It’s just the riders who will not have good transit on Staten Island’s North Shore.


  1. ajedrez

    They wanted to make it seem like everybody was for light rail (when they were just for rail in general). I wouldn’t be surprised if the recorder (who took notes on people’s concerns) didn’t write my comments down advocating for heavy rail. They just made too much sense!

  2. anonymouse

    I know this line well, having walked its entire length at one point. Not only is the ROW mostly still intact, along with bridges and such, but so are many of the station plaforms, down to the white line at the platform edge which you can see on Google Maps. The ROW is considerably more intact west of Port Richmond than east of it, but there shouldn’t be anything that would completely blow out the cost of restoring heavy rail service.

  3. Miles Bader (@snogglethorpe)

    Soooo… if everybody agrees that these hearings are just lip-service, and they’re really just gonna build light-rail no matter what people say, and hate heavy rail, what’s the motivation behind all this?

    Is it just wacky transit-agency fashion?

    • Alon Levy

      The hearings are just DAD. I don’t think they actually want LRT; most likely they’re just putting a bombshell number that won’t pan out with the ridership projection, so that they can say they studied it.

  4. Adirondacker12800

    If they build heavy rail they can’t connect to the HBLR or go to Cranford.

    • Alon Levy

      The latter they can’t do with LRT, either – to go to Cranford they’d need mainline trains, which is feasible iff there’s FRA reform. The former they sure can do: people should transfer at Elm Park, and the important thing is to make the transfer as hassle-free as possible.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The ROW between Cranford and Elizabeth hasn’t see a train decades. FRA regulations wouldn’t be a problem.

          • ajedrez

            Correct. The Arthur Kill Lift Bridge sees some trains: I know for a fact they carry garbage from Fresh Kills out by rail (there’s a track that starts near the West Shore Plaza and connects with the track at Port Ivory, where it goes to NJ). I’m pretty sure they also carry other things by rail across that bridge, though.

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  6. Jeremy

    I might be alone but I thought turning it into a busway would be a good idea, as long as it operated like the subways we’re familiar with: fast, high frequency, pay before boarding, etc (basically Select Bus Service in its own right-of-way). Some of the buses could leave the busway and continue south, eliminating the need for many people to transfer. But I realize buses are so stigmatized that many people in the south shore would unfortunately not use them.

    If you can serve enough people directly along the corridor, heavy rail makes sense. You just don’t want to set up a situation in which the majority of people have to transfer to buses.

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