New York City’s subway system was designed to bring workers from the outer boroughs to downtown and midtown Manhattan. If you want to take the subway from Brooklyn to Queens, you typically get there by going through Manhattan. In addition, many parts of Brooklyn and Queens are mass transit deserts where there are no trains and only bus service. The part of Brooklyn I grew up in, Flatlands (specifically East 59th street between Avenue O and T), was in what used to be called a “two-fare zone.” In the era before free transfers, you took a bus to the subway and paid separately for each. In a move to reduce the problem of train-deprived neighborhoods, Governor Hochul, in her first state of the state address last week, announced her intent to build an inter-borough express train. According to Jen Chung of the Gothamist:
“A long sought train connection between Brooklyn and Queens may finally become a reality, as New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced she wants to ‘take an old, unused, 14-mile-long right-of-way and create what we're calling the Inter-Borough Express’ during her State of the State address Wednesday. The route occupies existing freight train tracks that begin in Bay Ridge and go into Astoria, running through neighborhoods including Sunset Park, Borough Park, Kensington, Midwood, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Lots, Brownsville, East New York, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Middle Village, Maspeth, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. If the project moves forward it would create new stations in underserved communities, or ‘transit deserts.’ Hochul directed the MTA to conduct an environmental review immediately. In early 2020, the agency initiated a study on the feasibility of using the route for passenger use.”
One of COVID’s impacts on land use development patterns has been to combine work and home in the generally larger homes available in the outer boroughs. This may well be reinforcing the earlier trend of more decentralized economic development in New York City. People are looking to reduce their commute time and avoid the high costs of Manhattan. Long Island City, downtown Brooklyn, and other neighborhoods are attracting businesses. Commuters who live in Brooklyn and work in Queens often find that driving a personal vehicle is their fastest way of commuting. This train would change that calculus for many.
The Regional Plan Association has long advocated this project. In fact, since 1996, they have advocated what they call the Triboro Line, a surface train that would end at Co-Op City in the Bronx. According to the group’s website:
“Running 24 miles on existing track from Co-op City in the Bronx to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, the Triboro would be an above-ground rail line connecting 17 subway lines and 4 commuter lines…Transit improvements are typically focused on moving people in and out of Manhattan. Yet today, more New Yorkers commute within the outer boroughs than into Manhattan, and the city is gaining more jobs in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island than it is in the urban core. The majority of people living in the four boroughs outside Manhattan don’t use public transit to travel to work within the boroughs, even though they live in the city with the largest subway and bus network in the U.S… New York City’s subways were built radially from the core to connect people to Manhattan, limiting the system’s value for residents traveling to other places. Indeed, the vast subway network, with 470 stations, isn’t within a reasonable walking distance for 43% of the city’s outer borough residents. Yet more than 50% of New York’s job growth in the last 15 years has occurred outside Manhattan. Many residents’ work or shopping trips are difficult or impossible to accomplish via the subway alone, requiring circuitous, time-consuming and multiple-transfer journeys by combinations of bus and subway.”
An environmentally sustainable New York City should encourage the use of mass transit, and that requires the construction of rail lines outside of Manhattan. Even more important is the impact a train line might have on the city’s use of land and the potential for building affordable housing. New train stations will encourage higher density development nearby. The city and state governments could create public-private partnerships to allow zoning changes and larger buildings in return for low-cost housing. This could enable economic development to be channeled into often overlooked neighborhoods and would allow for equity and diversity goals to be incorporated into the re-development of these areas.
Most New Yorkers (over 6.5 million) live outside of Manhattan, and the New York neighborhoods they live in often include vacant lots, abandoned buildings, undeveloped train rights of way, and even above-ground freight train lines. The new trainline could be designed to combine passenger and freight trains that would reduce truck traffic within the city. A trainline built on old train rights of way and existing freight tracks like this one would be far less expensive to build than an underground subway line. It could also be built quickly if the MTA could contract with the firms that rebuilt LaGuardia Airport in record time.
The federal government under Joe Biden has gotten back into the infrastructure business. That means for the first time in a long time, the city and state might have a federal partner. The cost of the line is estimated to be about $2 billion, which does not even add up to the $2.4 billion it cost us to extend the number 7-line to Hudson Yards. The 7-line extension was financed by New York City alone. According to Bloomberg CityLab's Eric Jaffe:
“The funding structure they devised, known as ‘tax incremental financing,’ was an innovative one—at least by the standards of U.S. transportation funding. The city issued bonds for the construction to be repaid by future tax revenue from developers whose property value would soar once the extension was complete. On paper, at least, the plan was a great example of what’s called ‘value capture’—leveraging real estate gains for the good of public transit.”
The 7-line extension is having a major impact on real estate development on the West Side of Manhattan. A $2 billion investment on transit in Brooklyn and Queens would have a massive impact on real estate development in New York for generations. A financing structure similar to the 7-line extension might be utilized on this project as well. An exciting public works project like this would be a great psychological lift to a city that, over the past two decades, has persevered through the endless pain of COVID, the battering of the 2008 Great Recession and the horror of 9-11. For our new outer-borough mayor (following two from Boston), the new train line would be a concrete (and steel) example of his commitment to the New York that lives and works outside of Manhattan.
It would also reduce traffic congestion in the outer boroughs. As Brooklyn and Queens have become more attractive over the past several decades, its traffic problems have gotten worse. Anything that helps concentrate population and employment density and enables mobility makes our city more environmentally sustainable and attractive. I’m with our new governor. Let’s build that interborough train line and once it’s up and running, build a second phase to the Bronx.
This article was originally published in State of the Planet.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.