Staten Island Rapid Transit

The great missing piece of New York’s rail network, and the most controversial of any of my proposals, is Staten Island. Connected to New Jersey by the B&O but not toward Manhattan, it relies on buses to the subway and the ferry for its connection to jobs in the rest of New York. Unsurprisingly, this is too slow and low-capacity for the full benefit of rapid transit to emerge, and the borough’s character remains suburban.

Plenty of railfans and transit supporters believe that the subway should be extended from Bay Ridge to Staten Island across the Narrows; the Fourth Avenue Line contains some landside infrastructure preparing for such an extension. While this is one of the options that should be studied, it suffers in two ways: first, the Narrows are the deepest part of New York Harbor, at about 25 meters (83 ft.), and second, the Staten Island end would be at Grasmere, a low-density area.

In contrast, according to the nautical chart, paths that go from St. George to any point between Manhattan and the Bay Ridge freight terminal are at the deepest 16 meters (53 ft.) below mean low water. In addition, the North Shore is the densest and most densifiable part of the borough, and would get better service; the South Shore would get about the same amount of service no matter where east of the Narrows the tunnel landed, but is the less important part of the borough to connect.

I contend that the list of options is as depicted on this map. The main choice is between a direct route and a route that goes through Brooklyn, trading off speed versus intermediate stops and possibly cost. Observe that it is much easier for a line that detours through Brooklyn to serve Downtown Brooklyn at Borough Hall than at the existing train station; this provides some justification for adding a Borough Hall station to a New Jersey-Brooklyn regional rail tunnel.

Not depicted on the map is the interaction of the various alignments with Harbor geology. If the primary factor is minimizing tunnel depth, then there are two options, one more easterly, near or under Governor’s Island or even farther east, and one more westerly, near the mouth of the Hudson. The westerly option opens the possibility for an east-west alignment through Manhattan that goes the “wrong way” – that is, has the Uptown direction pointing in the same direction as the Brooklyn-bound direction of the New Jersey-Brooklyn tunnel. This would give a cross-platform transfer from Staten Island to Brooklyn, which is lacking from the standard direct option.

Another issue is a South Ferry stop. As discussed in my post about the Lower Manhattan station siting, a South Ferry station becomes necessary if the main Lower Manhattan station is too far north, roughly north of Fulton Street. Even if the station is at or marginally south of Fulton, a second Lower Manhattan station could help reduce dwell times at the main station, increasing capacity.

A related issue is keeping all traffic that doesn’t need to be in Manhattan out of the main station. The Staten Island-Brooklyn transfer hogs passenger circulation space. It’s bad enough that a greenfield 100 km/h regional rail tunnel would get people from Atlantic/Pacific to Grand Central in about 11 minutes plus transfer time, versus about 20 on the 4/5, which make more or less the same stops, adding cross-platform transfers. A relief station at South Ferry, or Borough Hall, would go a long way toward mitigating this. (Observe that in the service patterns I’ve proposed for the lines that converge on Midtown, the main transfer points are Secaucus and Sunnyside, avoiding Penn Station.)

For the options that detour through Brooklyn, the choice of neighborhoods to serve and the choice of how much land versus sea tunneling both give rise to several options. One option would serve Red Hook, connecting it either directly to Manhattan or via Borough Hall, giving it a rapid transit connection it currently lacks. Offering new rapid transit service to neighborhoods that lack it is always a positive, and could also get very good ridership: for a similar example, the MTA’s ridership model for New Rochelle-Penn Station commuter rail service was bullish about the potential of a Co-op City station.

A separate choice is regional rail versus subway. A subway alignment’s main advantage is that it requires less tunneling, just enough to hook the Staten Island Railway into the Fourth Avenue Line. The main disadvantages are that it’s slower than express regional rail, and that the southern Brooklyn subways already suffer from excessive branching and middling frequency.

From the start, the BMT had a problem with merging eight tracks to six, with suboptimal junctions. The Chrystie Street Connection did not change this – it merely allowed all six tracks (the four Broadway Line tracks and the two express Sixth Avenue Line tracks) to serve Midtown. On top of this, Manhattan-Coney Island is not as thick a market as it used to be; with today’s usage patterns, nobody would think to build four different routes to Coney Island plus one to Bay Ridge while leaving Utica unserved and Nostrand a short stub. Additional branching would cut into the frequency of existing lines, worsening service to existing middle-density neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn. Thus, a regional rail option, if it’s at all affordable, would provide much better service. Even the option of connecting the new line to the 59th Street station in Sunset Park would be preserved if the line followed the Gowanus Expressway.

For a few numbers: the proposed cost of the Cross-Harbor Tunnel is $7.4 billion for the double-tracked option; the length and geology are comparable to Staten Island-Manhattan. As of 2000, the total commute market from Staten Island to Manhattan is 53,000 people, i.e. 106,000 trips; additional travel to Brooklyn is 29,000 people, and travel to points north and east of Manhattan is 8,000. Cutting one to two transfers and about twenty minutes from each one-way trip could ensure nearly 100% mode share for travel to Manhattan, as well as a significant mode share to other parts of the city.

Moreover, a zoning deal raising density in St. George and right next to the train station could raise the size of the commute market, adding to ridership. While Staten Island is not particularly pro-development, and has engaged in downzoning recently, a deal in which Staten Islanders get their commute improved so much in exchange for accepting change to their neighborhood could be acceptable. Tellingly, for the North Shore Branch reactivation, the people near the line seem more interested in the higher-intensity options: rail over bus, and possibly heavy rail rather than light rail. NIMBY attitudes are reduced when the change in question is bundled with solving a known local problem, in this case very long commutes.


  1. Dennis Griffith

    Could this be routed via New Jersey and tie in with one of your earlier Jersey City proposals?

  2. Brian McMahon

    Would there be any merit to talking the PATH through Jersey City and part of Bayonne to and from Staten Island as an option to avoid the extensive deep water tunneling?

    • al

      There is a problem with building a tunnel shallow. It limits the draft of the ships that can pass above. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel limits the draft on the ships that can enter the Chesapeake Bay to 40′-50′. They are just big enough for the ships (New Panamax) that can fit through the new larger set of locks built at the Panama Canal. Shippers want a new set of tunnels built so that ships with drafts as deep as 63′ (Suezmaz) can get into the Chesapeake Bay. New York Harbor currently does not have a tunnel limiting the draft of the ships entering and exiting. It has a height restriction due to the Bayonne Bridge (which is getting raised to 200’+).

      If a tunnel connecting Staten Island to Bklyn/Manhattan were to be built, it needs to be 100′ deep at top of tunnel. That way, as ships get bigger (and many ships are already too big to fit either the Suez or Panama Canals), New York Harbor can still cheaply and quickly dredge (deep sediment layers southeast of Narrows to Hudson Canyon) to the required depth for these humongous ships (draft 80′) to come and do business.

  3. Zmapper

    Being from Colorado I am not too intimately familiar with the area, but I have to question if a 5 mile rail tunnel is really the best way to solve the problem. There appears to be an existing HOV lane on I-278; couldn’t that be converted into a median running BRT system? Stations would be added along the freeway, with presumably some buses stopping and others travelling non-stop.

    I roughly sketched out an idea here:

    Starting at Eltingville, the BRT route would travel up Richmond in a painted lane until Heartland Village. From there, it would run in an at-grade median alignment up Richmond, continuing onto Victory. Once at I-278, the bus would take a special ramp leading to a renovated median lane. From there, it would travel in the median of the freeway, stopping at median stations until Manhattan. Presumably, 2 lanes of the Brooklyn Battery tunnel would be set aside for buses, with 2 remaining for private cars.

    Once in Manhattan, and this is where it gets rather fuzzy, the bus would take a street alignment of sorts to where Fulton Station is built. I sketched out an alternative as to how it could be routed, but there are other routes to take of course.

    Costs would be measured in the low hundreds of millions instead of in billions. The cost savings would allow either more local Staten Island improvements, more buses to NJ, quicker construction time for the other regional rail routes, or any combination of these. In short, you get 90% of the bang for 20% of the buck.

    • Alon Levy

      There are a couple of problems with a BRT option:

      1. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel has two lanes in each direction, making it politically impossible to give buses their own lane as is done in the Lincoln Tunnel.

      2. Like with a direct subway option, the service to the North Shore is terrible. Google Earth puts the X1 trip time from Grasmere to the Battery at 17 minutes. The timetable concurs in the off-peak but puts the trip at 23-27 minutes at the peak. For North Shore residents, it’s slower than taking the ferry, and even for people living in Grasmere and points south, it is not that much faster than the ferry could be with just reconfiguring the schedules to make the transfer faster (travel time is 35 minutes rail plus ferry, but transfer time adds 12 minutes most of the day). As a result, the weekday ridership of all express buses crossing the Verrazano combined is 30,000, vs. 65,000 on the Staten Island Ferry.

      3. The connections at the Manhattan end are worse than with rail. Buses would get stuck in traffic. Judging by the speed of French trams, dense cities with medium-width avenues – wider than the side streets of Tokyo, but narrower than the roads Transmilenio runs on – can hope for an average speed of at most about 20 km/h for on-street transit. The 1st/2nd Avenue SBS averages 11 km/h most of the day, and would average 15 km/h but for red lights. To put things in perspective, the average speed of greenfield regional rail from St. George to Grand Central with three intermediate stops would be about 60 km/h.

      4. The main advantage of BRT is that it can be open. Thus, a single express alignment from Grasmere to Manhattan could branch out in Staten Island and provide service both to the interior of the island as on your map and along Hylan Boulevard, among other options.

      • Zmapper

        1. Good point. Not quite sure what to do about that. One option, I suppose, is to have the tunnel function as a HOT facility. It already functions somewhat like that considering the other bridges aren’t tolled.

        2. Sure, it wouldn’t help the North Shore out much. However, they already have the ferry. A freeway BRT option would allow North Shore residents improved access to Brooklyn, and possibly New Jersey.

        3. True, but almost immediately after the bus exits the tunnel you can transfer to the subway. Transit can go slower at the end of the route, especially if it is in the CBD, because most people will be getting off. Preferably, the stop would be built with a direct subway entrance, or have one less than 100′ away.

        4. What I was having a hard time showing easily is the flexibility of the routing options. The line shown would be more of a core service, featuring buses designed for hauling masses of people. Other express routes would use the route, probably with more comfortable coaches. All routes, of course, would feature some sort of off board fare collection.

        One other thing I should point out is the stop spacing in Staten Island. I drew 5 stops along I-278; it is likely you can cut one or two and still have enough to adequately serve the area.

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  5. Steve

    Such BRT already exists, to a certain degree. I believe they’re called “Staten Island Express Buses”. They’re still too slow.

    Alon, looking around Staten Island, even though it is indeed the least dense New York borough, it’s still quite dense by suburban standards. A strong grid underlies most of the island; the built-form, while single-family, utilizes much smaller lots than normative farther away from the city core. It can certainly support a large streetcar network with only a couple of heavy- or regional-rail lines along the spine.

  6. IvoryJive

    Maybe connect to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line in Bayonne? The terminal is at 8th Street and Avenue C, little more than half a mile from the Bayonne Bridge. To best utilize existing rails, you could connect through the port in New Jersey over or under the water to the Staten Island Railroad terminus. It wouldn’t be IDEAL since if you’re heading to NYC you still need to transfer to the PATH, but it would be amazing if you worked in Newport, and comes with minimal new track – only about 2-3 miles (including a costly water crossing, of course).
    Here’s a potential route:
    You could extend out the SI Railway tracks that pop out from below the SI Yankees ballpark and run along Richmond Terrace by the ferry parking lot. You’d have to sacrifice some of the waterfront esplanade but either via bridge or tunnel you could hop the Kill Van Kull and land in the big cleared out industrial area on the other side.Then follow New Hook Road to 440 and borrow as much existing right-of-way as possible, acquiring whatever else is needed, to get you to a connection at the 34th Street Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station, using part of the existing parking lots for the space needed. If necessary you could acquire some nearby property to replace the lost parking. I’m not sure if the track and equipment formats would allow for continuing service without a transfer (either at St. George or at 34th Street), and it comes with the annoying problem of having separate operators and farecards, but for anyone living on the SI Railway going to midtown it could be a lot quicker than transferring to the ferry and then the 1/R trains

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right, I was starting to think the same thing. Although track-sharing with the HBLR is pretty much impossible technically and undesirable operationally, tracks could use the same ROW. East of the HBLR tracks is empty or industrial land, which is bad for ridership at intermediate stations but good for easy construction. It’d be a little slower than going direct, but still much faster than the express buses, which take 17 minutes to get from Grasmere to the Battery (according to Google Earth) and more than 30 to get to 23rd and 6th (according to the X1 timetable).

  7. IvoryJive

    Actually I see there are some existing freight rail lines on the New Jersey side that hook right in to the 22nd Street Hudson-Bergen station. If it’s possible to share those, all you’d need to do is get across the water

  8. PaulC

    There already exist a tunnel that was built on the Brooklyn side, but never finished, to take the Subway to SI. SI residents fought it and now they get what the deserve, bad traffic. I say let SI struggle and continue building 2nd ave subway and new line in Brooklyn and Queens.

    • Andre Lot

      This mentality can’t have its way in transit planning. Using transportation as means to “wage war’ on communities, unless they are blighted or crime-ridden, is not a viable (or IMO correct) political choice. I’d have no problem “starving” a drug-and-crime-ridden are of transportation to facilitate its dismantling and large-scale demolition, but I don’t think anyone would classify Staten Island as a place that needs to be demolished as a whole.

      • Alon Levy

        To be honest, I think both mentalities are destructive. Denying neighborhoods services because they’re against what the planners want is a recipe for more Moses-style authoritarianism; all it does is make sure that people will permanently mistrust government and that government will permanently be untrustworthy. And denying slums services was done in the 1970s in the South Bronx, leading to a massive population exodus and more blight, which the neighborhoods have only begun to recover from (much of the improvement came with the drop in crime in the 1990s, coming from citywide and nationwide social trends as well as an improvement in the quality of policing); something similar was done earlier in the 1930s with redlining, and this again accelerated the decline of neighborhoods that the government denied mortgages to.

  9. anonymouse

    Wait wait, where does the BMT merge eight tracks into six? North of DeKalb, you have one pair going via the Montague tunnel, and two pairs going over the bridge. South of DeKalb, you have one pair going to Brighton, and two pairs (express and local) going to Fourth Avenue. The only tricky part there is sending half the Brighton trains to 6th Avenue and half to Broadway, and vice versa for the 4th Avenue express trains. The locals stay in the tunnel and out of the way. So the subway option is fairly straightforward: dig the tunnel to 59th Street, and stick the N on the local and the new Staten Island train on the express at 59th Street, so it would take the place of the N on the 4th Avenue Line and in Manhattan. Which actually works out pretty well for the Staten Islanders: neither the ferry is nor the express bus are too terrible if you’re going to Downtown. It’s the transfer to the subway or long slow slog on surface streets on the bus to get to (the much bigger destination of) Midtown that’s the problem.
    Also, I would hope that NYCT eventually sees the folly of slowing down the trains as much as it has, and reinstate higher speed running. Right now, the N takes 11 minutes from 59th to Pacific Street, an average speed of 19.6 mph, with only one intermediate stop. Around here, light rail trains running on the surface with stops every half mile do about that well (17 mph or so), and in LA, heavy rail tends to have average speeds in the 35 mph range. So it’s not completely implausible to shave some 5-10 minutes off total travel time to Midtown with no changes in concrete, and only minor changes in electronics, mostly on the trains.

    • Alon Levy

      Sorry, the Brighton Line is four-tracked, and merges into two. (Not that it needs the capacity of four tracks, but in 1913 things were different). In the 1930s-50s the merge was really into four tracks going into Manhattan, since the Nassau Street tracks weren’t too useful.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The Culver Line (F train), West End (D train) are three tracked, The Sea Beach has room for 4 tracks but they haven’t used them in decades and one has been allowed to rust away. The F and the D even have express stops. There’s the eternal argument in Park Slope and environs over whether the G should be local or the F should be local.
        One of reasons they don’t run expresses is that there isn’t enough demand, part of the reason that they don’t is there isn’t enough capacity in Downtown Brooklyn and in Manhattan…….. Second Ave subway to Brooklyn via the West End Line( D train) ?

        • anonymouse

          For quite a while, the West End had both local and express service (the D and M). The M was rerouted to 6th Avenue instead, because the Brooklyn end was never all that well-used. The express tracks on the Sea Beach line are mostly useless: there are no stops on them at all, so they’re only good for fast service to Coney Island. Even the relatively well-used Brighton Line has 20 tph, which is below the theoretical 30 tph capacity of the tracks, though maybe not that of the bridge structure itself. Plus, the Montague Tunnel now only has 10 tph, which is fairly low, so there’s definitely plenty of room there. And if you look at existing SIR service, it’s 8 tph at the peak, with four car trains. The subway option would allow at least 10 tph of 8 car trains, if not 15, which ought to be plenty for both the North and South shore lines.

          • Alon Levy

            Sure, but what would it connect to at the other end? The only genuinely under-capacity option is the Jamaica Line, which is inconvenient for Midtown destinations. The Broadway Line has some spare capacity now, but won’t have any once SAS Phase 1 opens and the W is restored.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The express tracks on the Sea Beach line are mostly useless: there are no stops on them at all, so they’re only good for fast service to Coney Island.

            It made a lot of sense when a million people a day would decide it was a good idea to go sit on the beach. Far less popular today. They can always rebuild a station or two or three. Assuming there’s demand, there might not be.

  10. jim

    When I lived in New York, we used to joke that we didn’t understand why Staten Island didn’t secede and join New Jersey. My wife’s aunt lived there and coordinating a visit (my in-laws lived in Queens and we in Upper Manhattan) was a major endeavor. I’m not convinced that creating a transit connection to Staten Island is that high on anyone’s priority list. There are, after all, fewer Staten Islanders work in Manhattan than Brooklynites work in Queens. It seems to me that running the SAS along 125th St. or building the Triborough RX are much more important transit improvements than connecting Staten Island. Additional Manhattan-New Jersey links, too. Penn Station to Grand Central. There is a long list.

    If it were to be done, the connection to the Fourth Avenue BMT seems best, certainly cheapest. The R train doesn’t use the available capacity on its dedicated tracks. And north of Canal St. there’s room on the BMT Broadway express tracks. So the fear of additional branching is misplaced. It would be a long ride, of course, but it’s a long ride from southern Brooklyn, too.

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      • Phake Nick

        After some Google searches, I cannot find out exact numbers, but apparently 25m water depth is shallow enough that the cheaper immersed tube tunnel construction method can be adopted, that is prefab tunnel elements being made from factories and then immerse into water in order to form an undersea tunnel. I know nothing about cost of this method in relation to depth, but going by the description of the engineering method, I would suspect tunnel length impact the cost more. So even if the Gowanus route in the Google mymap have to go through a little deeper water, it might still result in lower cost.

        Second thing I observed is that, the Gowanus route is the only route among all presented options that wouldn’t cross into NJ’s maritime border, according to border depicted on Google Maps. I am not sure whether crossing into NJ’s maritime border will require additional coordination hence having any effects on cost/time needed for such tunnel.

        A third thing is that, in proposed New York Regional Railway system, if the Gowanus route is picked, then the line the go toward Staten can be treated as a branch from the Line 5 at Brooklyn, according to line numbers you assigned to route proposal in some of your later blog posts. In this sense, the Western part of Line 5 in NJ and the Manhattan part of Line 4 will be a reverse branching of this line from Staten&Brooklyn? To avoid this reverse branching, The NJ part of Line 5 after crossing the Hudson River, should probably turn north toward union square and grand central and quadruple tracking the section to provide extra capacity, instead of turn south to connect to Brooklyn which will split frequency of trains crossing the track from Brooklyn into Manhattan?

        • Tom M

          Looks like the Marmaray tunnel is an immersed tube running up to 60 m below sea level. Port authority lists the container terminal having a 50 ft / 15 m deep draught (Panamax compatible), so you might be forced to go for the deeper option anyway?

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