Quick Note: Why Quinn is Unfit to be Mayor

The Triboro RX plan calls for using preexisting freight rail rights-of-way with minimal freight traffic to build a circumferential subway line through the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. It was mentioned as a possible project by then-MTA head Lee Sander and more recently by Scott Stringer and on The Atlantic Cities by Eric Jaffe. Despite not having nearly as much ridership potential as Second Avenue Subway or a future Utica subway, the presumed low cost of reactivating the right-of-way makes it a promising project.

According to Capital New York, leading mayoral contender Christine Quinn has just made up a price tag of $25 billion for Triboro, while claiming that paving portions of the right-of-way for buses will cost only $25 million. This is on the heels of city council member Brad Lander’s proposal for more investment in bus service. The difference is that Lander proposed using buses for what buses do well, that is service along city streets, and his plan includes bus lanes on major street and what appears to be systemwide off-board fare collection. In contrast, Quinn is just channeling the “buses are always cheaper than rail” mantra and proposing to expand bus service at the expense of a future subway line.

There is no support offered for either of the two cost figures Quinn is using, and plenty of contradictory evidence. Paving over rail lines for bus service is expensive; a recent example from Hartford and a proposal from Staten Island both point to about $40 million per km in the US. The map in the Capital New York article suggests significant detours away from the right-of-way, including on-street turns making the bus as slow as the existing circumferential B35 route, but also several kilometers on the railroad in Queens. Conversely, reusing rail lines for rail service is not nearly as expensive as building a subway. The MTA’s own biased study says a combined on-street and existing-right-of-way North Shore service would cost 65% more if it were light rail than if it were a busway; since the Triboro right-of-way is intact, the cost of service is in the light rail range, rather than the $25 billion for 35 km Quinn says.

But the reason Quinn is unfit for office rather than just wrong is the trust factor coming from this. She isn’t just sandbagging a project she thinks is too hard; the MTA is doing that on its own already. She appears to be brazenly making up outlandish numbers in support of a mantra about bus and rail construction costs. Nor has anyone else proposed a Triboro busway – she made the logical leap herself, despite not having any background in transit advocacy. Politicians who want to succeed need to know which advocates’ ideas to channel, and Quinn is failing at that on the transit front. If I can’t trust anything she says about transit, how can I trust anything she says about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, or about housing affordability, or about the consequences of labor regulations?

Update: Stephen Smith asked Quinn’s spokesperson, who cited a $21 billion figure for a far larger RPA plan including Second Avenue Subway and commuter rail through-running with new lines through Manhattan. I am not holding my breath for a retraction of the bus paving plan from the Quinn campaign.

Update 2: Quinn admitted the mistake on the rail plan, and revised the estimate of the cost down to $1 billion, but sticks to the bus plan and its $25 million estimate.


  1. Yonah Freemark

    Her knowledge on New York history is also shockingly off. The Capital article claims that she said:

    “Our subway system was completed in the 1950s, when more than half of New Yorkers lived in Manhattan and less than 200,000 lived in Queens.”

    In 1950, Queens had 1.55 million people and Manhattan accounted for a quarter of the city’s population. Is Capital quoting her incorrectly, or is she just really uninformed?

    • Stephen

      Not sure, but I remember when I listened to the audio of the speech and reporters’ questions, it seemed like Quinn would make on average two or three factual errors per minute.

  2. LetsGoLA

    $25 million for a 25-mile long route? Ridiculous. In NYC prices, you couldn’t even pay for paving 25 miles of two-lane busway, let alone build the subgrade, build any stations, buy any vehicles, demo stuff in the way, etc.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    The Deseret News in Salt Lake City came up with a number for the recent widening of I-25. 27 million a mile if I remember correctly. The usual number tossed around for Interstate grade lanes is 25 million a lane mile. Or 50 million per mile for one lane in each direction.

    • LetsGoLA

      In an urban area, the per mile cost will vary widely depending on ROW needs, number of bridges, stations, utility relocations, work windows, etc. But Quinn’s number is beyond any sane estimate.

  4. Zmapper

    The Mason Corridor busway in Fort Collins is about $86 million for about four miles of dedicated guideway, a new 11-bay bus terminal, and fancy station shelters. Construction costs are lower in the interior of the nation compared to the coasts.

    The takeaway lesson – it is safe to say that Quinn is absolutely clueless of even approximately how much transportation projects cost.

    • Jean-Luc Lemur

      And, given New York’s (or even the general American) cost environment, $1 billion for 25 miles of rail transit is a real bargain. And although I’m reasonably sure she picked that $1 billion out of a large-sounding-numbers-hat and has no intention of backing up that number with any sort of legitimate analysis, it doesn’t help your “this is too expensive” cost estimate if it ends up, on a per-mile and per-passenger basis, one of the least expensive American transit projects of the last decade.

  5. Beta Magellan

    (@Alon I recently switched browsers and my autofill and accounts are all mixed up).

    This reveals a couple of big things about Quinn, too:

    1. A tendency to micromanage projects that don’t necessarily require heavy intervention from the mayor’s office.

    2. A tendency towards idée fixes over certain policy ideas and approaches that leads to a “my way or the highway” (semi-literally in this case) attitude.

    Even setting aside the particulars of the Triboro Rx case, these aren’t good qualities.

    I’m also continued to be baffled by the sustained transit hostility of elected officials in NYC. Is this a class thing, a response to the high costs of new transit in New York, a wrong impression due to mainly hearing about local NYC politics via the transit blogosphere, or something else?

    • Tsuyoshi

      It’s a class thing, but also somewhat a racial thing, and definitely a generational thing. The type of person who holds elected office in New York tends to be – in class, race and age – the type that has a car.

      I also tend to think that the sheer number of immigrants has some kind of influence, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s pro- or anti-transit.

  6. Pingback: The RPA Continues to Push for the Flawed Crossboro Plan | Pedestrian Observations

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