Summer 2003, p.2

Provocateur: Light Rail Can Save New York!

By George Haikalis

An artist's rendering of the proposal for a pedestrian-only 42nd Street with a river-to-river light rail system. Light rail--the modern version of streetcars--is a cheaper, faster and better-received solution to to expanding the transit system than many of the current proposals for new subways and regional rail lines.

An artist's rendering of the proposal for a pedestrian-only 42nd Street with a river-to-river light rail system. Light rail--the modern version of streetcars--is a cheaper, faster and better-received solution to to expanding the transit system than many of the current proposals for new subways and regional rail lines.

Proponents of plans to build the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway, Mayor Bloomberg's single-minded advocacy of an extension of the 7 subway line to the West Side of Manhattan and champions of a long list of other transit mega-projects have sparked a great deal of debate about the best way to expand New York City's transit system given limited funding sources. As the MTA weighs its options, it must consider three key issues: cost, construction time and public reception of the project. One proposal that is not currently a top contender for MTA approval is a light rail transit system on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Though it may not be as well known as the subways, light rail-the modern version of streetcars-would actually be a cheaper, faster and better-received solution than many of the proposals for new subways and regional rail lines.

Cheaper to Build, Cheaper to Maintain
The New York City Department of Transportation, in its 1994 Final Environmental Impact Statement, estimated the cost of the two-mile 42nd Street light rail line at $70 million, and the costs of rebuilding the remainder of the street-clearly in need of repair-at $30 million. Allowing for inflation, and inclusion of a plan for dramatic upgrading of the pedestrian environment, costs might be double the earlier estimate, or about $200 million. This would still be a bargain. At $100 million per mile, light rail costs would be less than one-tenth the cost of new subway construction in New York. The City's proposal to extend the 7 subway line for 1.2 miles to the West Side Rail Yards is estimated to cost some $1.4 to 2 billion. In addition, the operating cost of light rail would be substantially less than the bus service it would replace.

A Fast Solution
The excitement generated by such mega-projects as the Second Avenue Subway is often quickly quelled by the sober realization that the MTA would not complete the project until 2020. Similarly, the extension of the #7 train might take ten years to complete just 1.2 miles. The two-mile, river-to-river crosstown light rail on 42nd Street, by contrast, can be built in four years, with much less disruption to the everyday lives of people already living and working in the area.

Well Loved in NYC and Around the World
Though New York City's trolleys were once heavily used and much appreciated by thousands of people each day, the City systematically destroyed its 600 mile street railway system, the world's largest, beginning in the 1920's. Why? Streetcars got in the way of motorcars, which were becoming increasingly popular with the city's wealthiest and most influential citizens.

But the trend is changing. Over the past twenty years, new light rail lines have been installed in more than two-dozen North American cities. These new lines have proven very popular, often doubling or tripling ridership in corridors where they replaced bus service and stimulating economic development in the cores of these cities. The appeal of light rail is its panache, offering something new and attractive, and its reliability and sense of permanence. New York City should be especially interested in the role that light rail can play in revitalizing the ailing post-9/11 tourist economy, much as San Francisco has used its heritage trolley to stimulate tourism along its now-vibrant waterfront.

Popular and Political Support
In 1994, the two-mile river-to-river crosstown line was approved by the City Council by a vote of 49 to 2, but it died in the Giuliani Administration after a debate about the cost of replacing utility lines and the loss of front door limousine access for a few real estate moguls. The current squabble about transit mega-projects is the perfect time to revisit the once-popular 42nd Street light rail line. This is the essence of "vision42"-a citizens' initiative that continues to gain public support.

George Haikalis is a civil engineer and transportation planner, a long-term member of T.A. and a perpetual provocateur--chairing Auto-Free New York and co-chairing vision42 (auto-free.org).

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