The Sixth Borough Subway

When I was in college I used to walk over to Riverside Park, or down to the built-but-as-far-as-I-know-never-used ferry docks at 125th Street and enjoy the view across the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Until the new store on 72nd Street opened, Google Maps would taunt me by telling me about how the Trader Joe’s (yeah, yeah) in Edgewater was the closest geographically to my dorm on 120th between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. And yet, I didn’t make it over there a single time during college. Why? Because the Hudson River is a pretty damn formidable barrier to decent transit that could integrate northern New Jersey more fully into New York City.

And that’s a shame, because northern New Jersey, and especially Hudson and Bergen counties, is getting increasing attention as one of NYC’s numerous proposed Sixth Boroughs. There’s a reason for that; it’s close (at least as the crow flies), more affordable than most of the city (with certain exceptions), and, like NYC, an extreme outlier from the national norm in terms of density. According to Wikipedia, Hudson County’s overall population density (including uninhabited areas) checks in at 13,495/sq mile, and Union City and tiny little Guttenberg have claims to be among the densest places in the entire country.

wikipedia hudson county table

Wikipedia’s table of densities in individual Hudson County municipalities. 

Bergen County is considerably less dense, but still has significant high-rise development, and other high-density built environments, clustered along the river.

Existing transportation options into New York City are limited. Southern Hudson County has decent access to PATH trains, and buses run into the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. PABT-bound buses enjoy use of the Exclusive Bus Lane in the morning but not for the return, a rather intolerable situation. Within New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail provides north-south travel, but its routing is kind of loopy. More north-south riders use the very frequent combination of jitneys and NJT buses along Bergenline Avenue. As such, Alon Levy has proposed that Bergenline should eventually get a subway, perhaps in combination with a new regional rail station on the Gateway project or the existing Hudson tunnels.

All that is well and good. But–and to be clear, this is purely me indulging my crayonista side on a lazy Sunday–if New Jersey is going to be the 6th Borough, it needs a subway system, right? After all, even Staten Island–less dense than Hudson County–has a semi-subway (well, it runs subway cars). That ties in with a question that Tod Newcombe asked in Governing magazine just about exactly three years ago, and that Daniel Hertz tweeted out semi-recently: when will the US build its next subway? The article is a little out of date–construction on Los Angeles’ Subway to the Sea, probably the single strongest subway project remaining in the entire country, is now underway–but it’s still an interesting and provocative question. So my answer is: why not the “Sixth Borough”?

So here’s my suggestion.

sixth borough subways_final draft

I also recommend looking at the PDF version: sixth borough subways final .

I drew the new lines in Google My Maps before importing them to GIS, and you can view them here:

The system is built around the Bergenline Subway, which connects along its length with several extensions of the existing NYC subway system, as well as HBLR and PATH. We’ll run through each line in some kind of order.

Bergenline Subway

I’ve broken the full-length Bergenline subway into three sections.

bergenline subway

Phase I is from Journal Square in Jersey City–a key transfer to PATH–north to Fairview, where the line would connect with an extension of the city system coming across from 125th Street. I’ve placed the line under JFK Boulevard and Summit Avenue south of the Union City transfer to the Midtown line, but it could just as easily be under Bergenline proper (for part of the distance at least) or Central Avenue.

Phase 2 is from Fairview north to Fort Lee at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, and a connection with the decades-overdue (due to no one really caring) extension of the C train across the bridge.

Phase 3 extends the line south from Journal Square through some dense areas of Jersey City to a transfer with the HBLR near Liberty State Park (once upon a time, a railroad terminal). Phase 3 could take a slightly different routing; there seems to be one available just to the east along railroad ROW that would presumably be much cheaper, but isn’t as close to some residential neighborhoods.

C to Fort Lee

It’s semi-common knowledge in railfan and transit circles that the George Washington Bridge was originally supposed to carry trains on the lower deck, and that provision exists within the subway system for the C train to be extended across it.


From’s track maps. The C currently terminates at 168th St. and turns in 174th St. Yard; as is clear from the map, the two easternmost yard tracks have potential to turn into through tracks onto the GWB.

Given that two subway tracks can carry far more volume than two road lanes, it’s well past time to retrofit the bridge, but there are no plans on the horizon (God Forbid planning focus on moving people rather than cars!). My plan assumes that the line will be a short stub terminating in Fort Lee, where it would meet the northern end of the Bergenline line:

C to Fort Lee.JPG

It could, however, (and eventually should) go further west, as Alon points out.

The obvious target for a rapid transit extension from Fort Lee would be Paterson, which can be reached via I-80 and is dense and poor.

125th to Edgewater

This is the one that would have been useful to college-student Sandy. Yonah Freemark and others have made the case that when (if?) Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway is completed to 125th Street, the logical next step is to turn it west along 125th rather than continuing north to the Bronx, since funding for the huge network originally intended to sprout from the new trunk is unlikely to be forthcoming. As such, I’ve colored this line teal to correspond to future SAS services. But why stop there? 125th Street lines up relatively nicely with the abandoned NYS&W tunnel under the Palisades to Edgewater. The tunnel would need to be fundamentally rebuilt for subway service (it doesn’t seem large enough for double track, for example) but it’s better than having no starting point at all. In my scenario, there would be the further incentive of a north-south Bergenline subway to interchange with. And once you’re under the Palisades, it would be easy to extend to a massive Park’n’Ride (yes, I’m for them under some circumstances) at the Vince Lombardi rest stop.

125th to vince lombardi

Theoretically, the line could also be extended east across the Hell Gate to LaGuardia.

59th Street-Weehawken Line

The BMT line under 59th Street in Manhattan lines up almost perfectly with the Weehawken Tunnel, a former steam railroad facility now used by HBLR. In this vision, the tunnel would be converted to subway use, with HBLR ending at a transfer point at Port Imperial. A branch off of the BMT could make a quick stop at a new lowest level of Columbus Circle before heading under the Hudson to an interchange with the Bergenline line and then a terminus at Tonnelle Avenue. Really, this branch could come off of any of the numerous subway lines in the area just south of Central Park, but the  59th Street line should have extra capacity with the Q shifting over to SAS in a few years.

59th street weehawken.JPG

7 to Hoboken

Sending the 7 train to Secaucus to meet commuter rail passengers has been a hot topic of discussion for a few years. It’s not really that great an idea, but here’s a different (which, full disclosure, I’m not sure is any better): send the 7 down to Hoboken. The tail tracks already extend to 26th Street, so there’s a little less tunneling to do. The new branch could make a stop or two in the lower part of Hoboken before terminating at Hoboken Terminal, or–since the IRT and PATH loading gauges are thisclose–someone could figure out a way to continue service onto existing PATH tracks and create a Flushing-Newark service. (I’d pay money to read a profile of someone who would ride that whole line)

7 to Hoboken

A 7 extension would be somewhat redundant with PATH’s existing 33rd Street branch, but they do serve different areas of Midtown, and the 7 is probably better for most people, since it would open up part of the East Side.

L to Secaucus

Alon offered a tepid evaluation of this route in his post on the 7, but, while low-priority (like, honestly, most of what’s proposed here), it seems to make more sense than the 7. I also think the presence of a Bergenline subway makes either extension more attractive in this scenario. The extension would traverse some fairly dense areas of Hoboken and offer a transfer to the Bergenline subway (and possibly also to the 7 near the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology) before ending at Secaucus Transfer; it could, theoretically, be extended across the Meadowlands on an existing ROW through Kearny into northern Newark. Alon suggested on Twitter combining the 7 and L alignments through Hoboken. That’s potentially doable but would require either four tracks or some fancy work with platform edges, since the loading gauges don’t match.

L to secaucus.JPG


This is all, of course, extremely speculative, and while obviously I’d love to see it happen in a fantasy world–and I think it would be excellent for both New York and New Jersey to have the Palisades towns better incorporated into NYC’s transit sphere–I don’t expect much if any of this to come about. The Bergenline subway from Journal Square to Fort Lee, and the C extension across the GWB, is almost certainly the strongest part of this vision. The areas along the Palisades are already dense enough to support high-order, expensive transit, and the C extension would offer a capacity upgrade over the existing all-road format on the GWB.

The other trans-Hudson crossings would likely be beneficial, but the need for them could be ameliorated somewhat by better incorporation of PATH into the NYC network. I’m particularly fond of the 59th Street and 125th Street plans and more lukewarm on the 7 and L personally, but hey, this is about vision and dreaming. And that’s something that I think many of us feel is sorely lacking in the NYC-area planning world at this moment.

Upstate Must Earn “Parity”

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have finally come to agreement on the scope (though not every detail of funding for) the 2015-2019 MTA capital program. So, naturally, Upstate politicians are again beating the drum of “parity,” demanding an equal amount of capital spending on transportation infrastructure (mainly, of course, roads) Upstate. There’s only one problem.

Upstate doesn’t deserve the funding. Yet.

“Parity” is a problematic concept when it comes to New York State infrastructure spending in any case, implying as it does that the needs of the New York City region and Upstate are somehow equivalent. They’re not. The MTA estimates that its service area contains 15.2 million people; even if we subtract 1.8 million people to account for the inclusion of Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, that’s still approximately 69% of the entire state’s population. New York City alone accounts for between 8 and 9 million of those people. Logically given that population density, NYC’s rapid growth, and the region’s economic success, Downstate taxes heavily underpin state activities Upstate. A world of real parity would reduce that spending, something that few Upstate politicians (or voters) seem to understand. As such, as Cap’n Transit pointed out a few years ago, requests for “parity” are really a demand for various politicians to be able to steer state funds to pet areas, modes, projects, and (this being New York, after all) people.

But the reality of the financial landscape of New York State isn’t the only reason leadership should resist Upstate demands for help with infrastructure funding. Upstate’s been hit hard by economic restructuring in the last couple of decades, and I’m certainly OK with some level of subsidy being extracted from Downstate to pay for ongoing revitalization efforts here. But as an Upstate resident (albeit a recent arrival), I’ve come to appreciate another reason Upstate doesn’t deserve transportation infrastructure spending parity: its inability to control sprawl and create an efficient framework for provision of public services, even as the region’s population shrinks.

It’s not news that by and large Upstate continues to shrink even as NYC and its region grows. That shrinkage is, of course, in and of itself a reason that Upstate shouldn’t receive large amounts of capital funding; it should be focusing on maintaining existing infrastructure, not building new things. What people from Downstate and elsewhere don’t appreciate as much sometimes, I think, is the extent to which Upstate continues to sprawl even as its population declines.

That’s the subject of one of Aaron Renn’s most striking posts (from 2011, well before I knew I was moving Upstate), as well as a 2003 Brookings report titled “Sprawl Without Growth: the Upstate Paradox.”  Though a few Upstate areas, including the Capital District, are growing (even if typically at anemic rates), even in those regions sprawl has outpaced the rate of growth. The Capital District’s pattern is typical. As the local MPO, CDTC, laid out in their new regional transportation plan draft, despite slow growth the region has basically merged into one “urbanized” (really, suburbanized) area stretching from Albany’s southern suburbs all the way to Glens Falls and Lake George.

CDTC New Visions 2040

CDTC New Visions 2040

No one has done better work showing the costs of this kind of development than Charles Marohn and the team at Strong Towns. Their series on the “Growth Ponzi Scheme”  lays out the ways in which sprawl–especially in declining or economically weak areas–becomes a millstone around the necks of local government, demanding ever-greater maintenance spending, as well as facilitating a mindset that thinks the solution is yet more capital spending regardless of economic realities. That describes the broken cycle in Upstate pretty damn well.

“But Sandy,” you say! “We can’t just leave Upstate to suffer a slow economic death, strangled by the decline of American manufacturing and the forces of globalization.” And I agree! There’s absolutely a place for capital spending on infrastructure Upstate; I even wish the state were a little more aggressive about it. But the money must be spent in the right places and in the right ways. That means fundamentally changing the realities of planning and development Upstate to conserve sparse governmental resources and allow efficient ongoing spending into the future. It means curbing sprawl, which sucks dollars out to the perimeter and demands an ever-growing amount of spending, and reinvesting in cities , whose infrastructure already exists. It means an end to resource-agnostic demands for spending billions on objectively wasteful projects like the “Rooftop Highway” in the North Country or tunneling I-81 in Syracuse (a consideration that DOT officials had rejected as absurd, but added back into the alternatives process at the insistence of local stakeholders).

And more than anything, Upstate needs to earn infrastructure investment by articulating a positive vision for fiscally responsible growth (or decline, as it may be) that upends the currently dominant “way we’ve always done it” mentality and begins a movement toward adapting to the new shape of the American economy. That means dropping the territorialism and learning to work with major global concentrations of intellectual and financial capital like New York City and Toronto, to which Upstate just so happens to be adjacent. If (as) housing prices in those markets continue to skyrocket, Upstate stands a good chance of skimming off some overflow–but only if attitudes and development patterns change.

Of course, part of the problem Upstate faces is its geographic isolation. And that’s where I’ll live up to the obligation I’m placing on Upstate to articulate a positive vision for a new framework for transportation and development. What’s the “parity” I envision for Upstate, given the state’s investment in the MTA? How about building out true high-speed rail (HSR) along what’s now called the Empire Corridor, from Albany to Buffalo? Alon took a close look at NYC-Toronto HSR a while back, and has taken the Cuomo administration to task for its lack of interest in the project. For the record, I concur in the judgment that the current administration has probably chosen to sandbag proposals for real HSR in the corridor, and that the “alternatives” analyzed are somewhat absurd.

Current politics aside, the demand for parity and an HSR project actually fit together fairly well. The overall investment in the current MTA capital program is about $29 billion, all but $3.2 billion of which will come from the state and the MTA’s own funds (which are, as much as Cuomo’s people like to deny it, state funds). Even at the inflated prices sometimes quoted for the California HSR project, that’s either just about enough or almost enough to build a full-scale HSR line from Albany to Buffalo, plus upgrading the existing Hudson line for faster, electrified trains. (though it will never be a true HSR line because all those curves that make it so pretty) A few billion more–most of which would be paid by Ontario–would bring the line to Toronto.

Imagine Buffalo, and Syracuse, and Rochester being 2-3 hours from NYC by train. Right now, there are a few unreliable trains per day, plus buses. Air service is massively expensive and spotty. HSR would give people and firms in those cities quick access to the red-hot markets in NYC and Toronto, and likely even bring some transplants looking for a slower pace of life and more affordability back. That would be a positive vision, one worth spending “parity” money on. Let’s change how things work up here. Then we’ll deserve that parity.


The Case for Rebuilding the LIRR Central Branch

Conventional wisdom in the New York region holds that the Long Island Rail Road (or Railroad if you prefer, I believe either is acceptable) needs a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville on its Main Line. Just ask the Regional Plan Association:

The Main Line between Sunnyside, Queens and Hicksville, traverses a distance of 22 miles and passes through Jamaica Station. The number of tracks on the Main Line varies from six to two. A 9.8-mile two-track segment between Floral Park and Hicksville is constrained since four branch lines merge and use the section. At Hicksville, the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk Lines merge with the Main Line. A fourth line, the Oyster Bay branch, joins the Main Line at Mineola.

This imbalance of six tracks from four branch lines feeding into two results in a bottleneck that limits the amount of
service even though the branch lines themselves have sufficient capacity for more frequent service. Today, the
railroad is forced to use almost all of the Main Line’s capacity to serve commuters in the peak-direction, meaning both tracks operate almost exclusively in the inbound directio during the AM period and then in the outbound direction during the PM commute. This handicaps the ability of the railroad to offer reverse-peak service. Plans to run even more inbound service to Manhattan once the new terminal at Grand Central is completed will only increase the pressure on the Main Line and further limit the ability to provide reverse service.

Or, if you prefer, a visual from the same report:

lirr tracks

Aside from operational concerns, many believe the Third Track project is key to reviving Long Island’s flagging economy.

The problem? Well, in a word, NIMBYism. The Third Track project would require a few minor land takings to expand the right-of-way and would result in a few grade crossings being closed more often. This predictably has the suburban residents who rely on the line for their economic livelihoods preparing to make a small sacrifice for the good of the community…oh wait. Several communities along the line (and their classic late ’90s web design, baffling since things came to a head around 2008) have been vociferously opposed to the project, getting it knocked off the last several MTA capital programs.

As large government bureaucracies–especially those scarred by the legacy of Robert Moses–do, the MTA has been trying to satisfy the demands of residents along the line to gain their approval for the project. This results in whiff-of-the-absurd scenarios involving eminent domain takings of private property not to built the track itself, but to create grade separations for all-important local roadways, lest motorists see some impact from the new trains. As a result of these added complexities, and the MTA’s usual cost shenanigans, the estimated cost of the project–less than ten miles of new track, on a mix of existing and slightly expanded right-of-way–has risen to an estimate $1.2-$1.5 billion. At a cost like that, it would be hard to blame policymakers for walking away from the project entirely, and leaving Long Island to stew in its own juices of slow economic decline.

But what if there’s another way to do it? Granted, what I’m about to propose is pretty absurd, and likely to stir up just as much NIMBY opposition as the Third Track project. But bear with me for now.

Today–and for the last century–LIRR is the dominant, and more or less the only, railroad on Long Island. But there was a time when corporate competition in the Long Island railroad market was cutthroat. One of the early competitors was the Central Railroad of Long Island, which built a line extending from Flushing in Queens through Floral Park and Garden City to Farmingdale, and then on to Babylon.There were also branches to Hempstead and the brick works at Bethpage.

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

Today, little remains of the Central. The line from Flushing to Floral Park has been almost entirely developed over. From Floral Park to a point in Garden City, the line remains in use as part of the LIRR Hempstead Branch, and the remaining stub east of the split to Hempstead station sees the occasional circus train.

The circus train in Garden City, recently.

From Garden City to Bethpage Junction, however, the line is entirely abandoned; if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was abandoned in the postwar years because the Levitts didn’t wan’t trains running through their precious development. From Bethpage Junction on, the extension to Babylon is still active, known as the LIRR Central Branch.

But here’s the thing: the right-of-way of the lost middle section of the Central still essentially exists–and it duplicates the functionality needed from the Third Track project. That’s it cutting a bare swath through Levittown in the middle of the picture below (location):

ROW Levittown

Like many other abandoned rail lines, this ROW now carries power lines. Just out of the picture to the left, the ROW passes through a golf course, then (after passing over/under a freeway) rejoins the active ROW. To the east, the ROW runs to Bethpage Junction, where the electrified Ronkonkoma Branch and the Central Branch join up on their way to meet the Main Line at Hicksville. I measure the gap at right around 7 miles, almost all arrow-straight and flat. What if it were possible to reactivate this long-lost line to accommodate the LIRR’s current needs?

modified lirr tracks

As you can see, reactiviating the Central Branch would provide an even more substantial capacity boost than the planned Third Track. Trains from the Ronkonkoma Branch–with or without its second track, though that work is included in the current MTA capital program as of this writing–would feed into the Main Line where it becomes four tracks at Floral Park, rather than traversing a three-track segment between Hicksville and Floral Park (although admittedly, Floral Park interlocking would likely need to be grade-separated). The Hempstead Branch could become a shuttle with direct service at peak hours.

As for cost? Typically, seven miles of electrified double track and a few bridges or underpasses on existing ROW really shouldn’t cost much more than a few hundred million. But let’s say the fierce NIMBYism that has undermined the Third Track project is just as prevalent in Levittown–that seems a decent bet. In that case, the MTA’s best bet would probably be to place the entire line in a trench and cover up particularly obnoxious segments (like through the golf course) with green space.

The closest parallel to that long a trench project in the US is probably the Alameda Corridor out in Los Angeles. The design-build contract for the 10-mile-long central trench cost $712 million in 1998; that would be a little over $1 billion, or $100 million per mile, today. If the costs are even remotely similar–and a Central Branch trench would arguably be a simpler project than the Alameda trench–the cost should come in well below the NIMBY-inflated costs for the Third Track project, although interlocking work at Bethpage Junction and Floral Park could add in significant additional costs.

So for less than the cost of the Third Track, LIRR could buy additional capacity and a format that might placate NIMBYs a little more. A Central Branch reactivation would certainly be thinking outside the box. There would be disadvantages–the biggest jobs concentrations served by the LIRR are along the Main Line, though Garden City has a decent number of jobs in its own right. The NIMBYism would surely still be fierce. But at this point, why not be a little trollish? Nothing’s getting done in the interim anyhow.

Other Places I’ve Been and Will Be, and More Schenectady Pics

It’s been a busy few weeks. As part of my internship with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, I’ve had the opportunity for my writing to show up in a couple of other places.

With the push on to fund the MTA capital plan, I had a piece in the Gotham Gazette about the need for political leadership to make a new plan happen. “Lead, dammit” is of course a cliched, boring thing to ask of lawmakers, but I think there’s some decent blame to be spread around here. And I make the argument that while the MTA is not sliding backwards into the 1970s, it may very well be slipping into the same kind of death spiral as WMATA is currently experiencing.

I also had a two-part series on Tri-State’s own Mobilizing the Region blog about the Capital District Transportation Authority’s BusPlus “Bus Rapid Transit” system, existing and planned. Originally written as one long post, it (correctly) got split into two to keep lengths manageable. The first post is a primer on BusPlus, including the existing line from Albany to Schenectady and the planned routes to UAlbany and Troy. The second (and for me, more interesting) post is about what various stakeholders can do to make BusPlus a truer BRT system.

I also have several posts coming up on Mobilizing the Region, including one about the economic impact of the MTA capital plan on Upstate that should be going up in the next few days. I’ll also be taking a look at the Capital Region MPO‘s long-range visioning plan and their just-getting-off-the-ground study of the future of the I-787 corridor along the Hudson waterfront.

As a total aside, I spent five hours traipsing around in the oppressive humidity at Union College in Schenectady for a site visit for a Jewish retreat I’m involved with. A few pictures:

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company  is now a carwash.

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company is now a carwash.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly  anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm as a "revitalization project" for the neighborhood.  I have mixed opinions on this.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm at the corner of Roger Hull and Park Places as a “revitalization project” for the neighborhood. I have mixed opinions on this.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.