Sunday Train: The Triboro RX & the G Train to the Brooklyn Army Terminal

A transit rail corridor plan has been taken off the shelf, dusted off, and tossed into the NYC Mayoral Race, and according to Alon Levy, the circumstances are enough to disqualify Christine Quin, one of the leading candidates:

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.

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 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.

What Is the Triboro RX?

While the Triboro RX plan was first introduced in a Regional Plan Association study in 1996, it was injected into this year's NYC Mayoral Race back in April of last year by Manhattan Borough President and Mayoral Candidate Scott Springer: Scott Stringer: NYC needs a commuter tax, new 'X' subway line:

Stringer said the next big transit projects should include adding an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport and adding a subway route — he called it the “X” line — to connect Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The Regional Plan Association first floated the idea in 1996, according to Jeffrey Zupan, a senior transportation fellow for the group.

“The transit system that we have is oriented to Manhattan,” he [Zupan] said Tuesday. “Very little of the subway system connects the boroughs — you can't go very easily from the Bronx to Queens, for example; you need to go through Manhattan.

“This would eliminate that,” he said.

This is what is sometimes called an "orbital" line. It is common for major transit lines to have a spoke and hub pattern, with the hub being some major commute destination ... like the New York subway lines converging into midtown and downtown Manhattan. One result of a hub and spoke arrangement is that it disciminates against trips between neighboring areas that are on the outer ends of the spokes. That reduces access to employment and other destinations that exist in the areas outside of the central hub.

An orbital is a transit corridor that does not go to the hub, but rather connects the areas on the outer ends of the spokes directly together while providing access to the hub via transfers onto the existing spoke corridors. Paris is a widely cited example of a large metropolitan area that is aggressively pursuing orbital lines.

And that is the idea of the Triboro RX: directly connect the three boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, and provide connections with the subway lines that run from those boroughs into Manhattan.

The details of the proposal involve using existing rail freight corridors, most of which have substantial unused capacity from the time when they were last used by passenger rail. It is the relatively low cost of reactivating the passenger capacity of these corridors that made the original $25b cost claim by Christine Quinn so immediately and obviously absurd. Indeed, it seems doubtful that there is a substantial savings to be made in paving a busway next to these active freight rail lines compared to expanding the rail corridor capacity to accommodate passenger rail service, which also makes her $25m cost claim for a Triboro RX busway just as suspect.

How Much New Work Will a Triboro RX Require?

How did the RPA propose to create an orbital subway corridor in New York? By stitching together multiple rail corridors. And, as Cap'n Transit noted in May of last year, that has led to some objections:

There have been objections about using the right of way for rapid transit. The old New York Central Port Morris Branch in the Bronx is the only portion that is currently unused. The Hell Gate Bridge is used by freight and Amtrak trains. The rest of the way is occupied by the New York Connecting Railroad and the Bay Ridge Branch of the Long Island Railroad, freight railroads that see a significant amount of traffic. If the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel is ever built, it will connect to these lines.

As Cap'n Transit discussed, the existing capacity on the Hell Gate bridge is not a serious obstacle, as the bridge has the capacity for four track, is presently provided with three, and the existing freight and Amtrak traffic can be accommodated by two track. The original proposal called for connecting through to Yankee Stadium using a freight rail tunnel under St. Mary's Park in the Bronx, which once connected to warehouses in the area but which is no longer in use. So from the north end of the Triboro RX into Queens, there does not appear to be serious capacity constraints.

And at the southern end, from a potential terminus at the Brooklyn Army Terminal through to New Utrecht Ave, the right of way has ample room for two new subway tracks next to the existing freight rail track and tracks for the N line. So capacity there is not a problem.

However, between the two markers on the Google Maps image to the right, the TriboroRX proposal proposes to a rail corridor with capacity for two tracks, with one track in use for freight. This is where the corridor is either (1) capacity constrained or (2) expensive. It is capacity constrained if two track are shared between an at-grade subway line and freight traffic. It gets expensive if you provide a cut-and-over freight rail tunnel underneath the corridor with the subway at the surface. Not that even in the expensive alternative, using the freight rail corridor saved money, since a cut and cover freight tunnel is cheaper than a subway passenger tunnel.

According to modelling by Micheal Frumin, in cooperation with Alexis Perrotta and the above-mentioned Jeff Zupan:

I helped to develop a possible alignment for the Triboro RX, and a crude estimate of what levels of initial commuter ridership one could expect to see if it were built. The fruits of this labor can be seen on the web at (including sections on the alignment, our data sources, the demand model, and detailed results). There I describe in detail how the line and its stations are laid out and how we made our estimates. At the end of the day, we can comfortably say that at least 76,000 New Yorkers (including 32,000 diverting from other modes of transportation) would use the Triboro RX to get to and from their jobs every day. This number that is quite competitive with many existing lines, and without ever touching the island of Manhattan.

At the current level of freight rail use of about eight freight trains per day, the simple solution is to just share the corridor, with a freight curfew during morning and evening peak demand periods and a passenger rail schedule that allows freight train use during other parts of the day. During off-peak service, the subway could operate on bi-directional single-track sections, next to single track freight sections, connected by double-track passing sections. The freight train would be held out of the double track passing section until the northbound and southbound trains had passed each other, and would then run through to the next section of corridor that operated as a freight-only section outside of peak hours.

The fly in the ointment, as Cap'n Transit pointed out back in June of 2008 is the proposed Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel:

... Currently, rail freight going from New Jersey to or through New York City needs to either be floated across the river on barges, or hauled over 150 miles north to the bridge at Selkirk and 150 miles back south. In practice, it's cheaper and easier to transfer the freight to trucks and drive it over the bridges. Of course that wears down and clogs up the city's bridges, highways and streets, pollutes the air and increases traffic carnage, hence the need for the tunnel.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Study for the tunnel, instead of eight train trips a day, there would be 24-64 freight train trips using the Bay Ridge Branch per day (page 8-69 of this PDF), depending on whether one or two tunnels were built. ...

That is 1-3 freight trains per hour, and that would require two freight tracks for at least some part of the two-track-wide corridor.

It is not clear whether the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel will be built: according to the Wikipedia Machine Mayor Bloomberg came out against it in 2005. It would, however, make a natural extension to the Steel Interstate system, allowing a coastal electric freight corridor between Boston and Philadelphia to bypass the Island of Manhattan without having to swing inland via the Selkirk bridge.

And this leaves us with a multi-cornered fight over a transport corridor. Christine Quinn wishes to pave some rail corridors for a Triboro Busway, offering what seem likely to be pure guesswork costs for a project which seems unlikely to be the preferable passenger transport option for a corridor that can attract 50,000-100,000 passengers. The strongest Triboro RX proponents would likely prefer to relegate freight rail to late night hours, to allow them to offer up the cheapest possible Triboro RX build cost. Cross Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel proponents would likely prefer that the central section be expanded from one to two freight rail tracks and never see any subway trains.

Meanwhile, the passenger/freight compromise requires a substantial increase in cost in the middle section, which both sides of the compromise would surely want to see charged against the other user. And it is hard to see how one could proceed with the lower cost version of the Triboro RX until the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel is definitively ruled out, which gives an incentive to those who oppose the prioritizing of the Triboro RX over their own preferred project to claim to being Cross Harbor Tunnel supporters.

A Way Out Of The Tangle

One way out of this tangle is to recognize that the problem is on the central section of the corridor. That means that the sections proposed at the ends could be put into service up front, with the disposition of the central section to be determined later.

Now, out here in the outer suburban edges of "Greater Akron", that idea would sound crazy. How could one run the two ends of the route and not run the middle?

But for an orbital that was originally designed to cross the large majority of subways from Manhattan to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, there is nothing crazy about it. One simple identifies a subway line that can be extended to run along some section of the proposed Triboro RX, and builds that extension. If the Triboro RX is ever built, one then runs the Triboro RX subway services on the outer sections alongside those Manhattan-bound services, with the Triboro RX trains heading across the newly built central section.

Those extensions of existing subway service has been one of the reasons that Cap'n Transit was looking at the Triboro RX, well before it was introduced into run-up to the 2013 NYC Mayoral campaign. In a June 2008 post, "TriboroRX: Brooklyn Army Terminal to East New York", he identifies two that could use the southern part of the Triboro RX route:

The L currently takes 40 minutes to go from Eighth Avenue to Rockaway Parkway. It would probably take another ten minutes to get to Brooklyn College, and then another 10-15 to New Utrecht Avenue. Another possibility would be to extend the G train, which takes only 35 minutes to get from Court Square to Church Avenue. It would require tunneling new tracks under the elevated F viaduct from Church Avenue to the right-of-way.

From New Utrecht Avenue west to Fourth Avenue, the right-of-way runs right next to the N train (with two unused express trackways in the N right-of-way). It does not make sense to duplicate the N service, unless the frequencies are too low. West of Fourth Avenue, there are two reasons I can think of to run a train to the Brooklyn Army Terminal: jobs and the ferry. If this is desired, then extending the G would probably be the best choice. The L would be extended to MacDonald Avenue, and the G to the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

These two extensions combined would do wonders to connect the southern parts of Brooklyn with each other, and with Manhattan. It would go a long way towards making Brooklyn College more accessible to people from all over the borough, and bring new service to the areas of East Flatbush, Flatlands and Brownsville that haven't had rapid transit in many years.

Does It Serve The People? Does It Serve Property Developers?

One of the principle challenge for these kinds of proposal is the tension between transit investments that provide substantial improvements of service to current residents, and transit investments that strike property developers as being likely to spur demand for new property developments. This is an issue raised this week by Benjamin Kabak at 2nd Ave. Sagas.

At present there are two ongoing subway extension projects in New York: the 2nd Avenue Subway and the 7 Line Extension. At the recent Next New York dinner of the Forum for Urban Design, John Zuccotti and Dan Doctoroff dismissed the usefulness of the 2nd Avenue Subway project. Kabak quotes the reaction of Stephen Smith of the Observer, who was there to report on the dinner:

Are we talking about the same subway…? The one that will serve one of the densest neighborhoods in the city? The one that’s supposed to relieve a subway line that carries more passengers than the entire Washington Metro system? The one that’s been planned for the better part of a century? The one that Yorkville was upzoned in anticipation of decades ago? The one that, despite having only four stops, is projected to carry more riders than the entire length of the L train?

But alas, the comments were the perfect illustration of the mile-wide chasm between transit planners and real estate folks when it comes to picking projects. Transit planners think of projects in terms of the riders who will be served (200,000 each weekday for the Second Avenue line’s first segment, from 63rd Street to 96th)—to many transit advocates, a neighborhood with an existing population deserves infrastructure more than an empty one whose sole constituency is developers.

Real estate insiders, on the other hand, think of transit primarily as a way of spurring development, and are not swayed by arguments about easing overcrowding or serving tax-paying citizens. And it wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Doctoroff has argued that transit should serve the needs of developers over existing New Yorkers—when the 7 train stop at 10th Avenue and 41st Street was cut, he downplayed the significance, since buildings were already going up in Hell’s Kitchen without it. (By that logic, what was the point of the entire Independent Subway System, now the A/C/E, B/D/F/M and G trains?)

This is the principle challenge faced by the Triboro RX proposal, and likely why it enjoys brief spells of attention only to fall back into the shadows again. If the Harbor Freight Tunnel is not built, then the Triboro RX seems likely to be able to offer a quite cost-effective means of offering service to over 50,000 New Yorkers daily, at a quite reasonable benefit/cost ratio.

But unless the rewards to property development swing from empty lot development to infill redevelopment, "too much" of that value would be offered to people who already live in the places served by the corridor, and not enough of that value experienced by people not yet living in what are presently empty or underused properties.

Indeed, that is another reason for considering a subway extension strategy to develop parts of the Triboro RX: the subway extensions allow identification of new property development opportunities, which would then allow for the recruitment of the property developer support base that appears to be necessary to keep the attention of the government of the City of New York on the benefits of transit investment.

Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

As always, rather looking for some overarching conclusion, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusion among those who might be tempted to yell "off topic!", feel free to use the shorthand "NT:" in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.





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nemesis's picture

I almost flagged this post as offensive by mistake!

Bruce, there is a lot going on in Minnesota with respect to light and commuter rail, even though Walker killed SuperTrain. The main rail hub meets in downtown Mpls at the Twins stadium and there is a lot of poliyltics about the southwest (read affluent) corridor. They are talking about digging a deep tunnel going under 2 lakes because snooty residents don't wants to see or hear (electric) trains. Just thought I would wet your whistle selfishly.

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I presume that they are also insisting that ...

BruceMcF's picture

... all road improvements go under the lakes, because anything like the road traffic is substantially noisier than electric passenger trains.

OTOH, maybe not. There's a lot of people who suffer just a bit of status quo bias.

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