4 train passing by the Kingsbridge Armory / Image Credit: Wikipedia
4 train passing by the Kingsbridge Armory / Image Credit: Wikipedia

The following is a guest post by John Rozankowski, PhD

For decades, New York City public policy has encouraged large commercial and residential developments without asking the obvious questions: How will the large numbers of people, which these projects attract, get around?  Mass transit was rarely discussed.  As a result car dependency has grown dramatically with more traffic gridlock, pollution and fatalities the inevitable result.

As public policy became increasingly environmentally conscious, a punitive attitude against drivers has grown: reduction of traffic lanes, the lowering of speed limits, street bumps, cameras, proposals such as congestion pricing and bridge tolls to make driving more expensive, etc.  While the intent of these measures is generally good, they do suggest that driving is somehow “evil” and make drivers the scapegoats.

To reduce the need for driving, it’s necessary to offer realistic choices. Spinning the idea that bicycles are mass transit and ramming bike lines down the throats of New Yorkers–who, in most cases hardly use them and in some cases, don’t even want them,–is not a realistic option.  The right alternative is real mass transit: commuter rail, subways, buses and ferries.  Making them more accessible, faster and more efficient is the right way to go.

Just How Should People Get Around?

Historically, mass transit has been ignored during the approval process for big development projects:

  • Co-op City brought numerous tall buildings and some 40,000 residents into a remote area.  This project should never have been approved without a subway line right at its doorstep.  One may argue that in the 1960’s, the problems associated with massive car dependency were not obvious.  Since then, not only have there been few efforts to rectify this omission but residents were forced to fight for a restoration of numerous bus service cuts.  It’s shocking that after agitating for the extension of the 2nd Avenue subway to the Bronx for years, no Bronx politician has challenged MTA plans to turn the new line west on 125th Street instead of continuing it to Co-op City via Amtrak.  As I argued in an earlier article, the Amtrak track-bed has enough space for both the 2nd Avenue subway and a Metro North extension which together would dramatically reduce car dependency.
  • Far more recent is the Brooklyn Waterfront development with hi-rises rapidly appearing along the southern portion of the East River.  As in Co-op City, mass transit needs were ignored.  When former Councilwoman, Diane Reyna, argued that a new East River subway tunnel was a necessity, the MTA casually dismissed her concerns.  Today, the “L” train, the only Manhattan bound subway which runs through this area, is completely overwhelmed. (Reyna proposed extending an East River tunnel from the never used South 4th Street station to the 2nd Avenue-Houston F train station.  A connection to the planned 2nd Avenue subway would be included.  On the eastern end, the South 4th Street station would launch the very badly needed Utica Avenue subway.  To rely exclusively on the Manhattan Bridge to connect Brooklyn with Midtown Manhattan is not prudent.)
  • Back in the Bronx, ice hockey rinks have been approved for the Kingsbridge Armory.  The original proposal, for Shops-in-the Armory, was rejected partially for negative traffic impacts.  Yet, no one has discussed how mass transit should be enhanced for the new hockey center. A new subway service on the Concourse line, in addition to the D train, which would connect directly to Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal would be extremely helpful to this Armory project as well as a great blessing for Bronx riders at all times.
  • Ed Garcia Conde has brought recent rezoning on the Lower Concourse to my attention.  The area bounded by the Harlem River, the Grand Concourse and East 149th Street is slated for major development, both commercial and residential.  There are plans for over 4,000 residential units. Everyone knows that the #2, #4, #5 trains are overcrowded to almost dangerous levels.  How will even more people be able to move around?

Conde has suggested building a new Metro-North station at East 149th Street, which would certainly help.  Although there is no subway line that could be extended there, a new bus service could be created which would take these new riders directly to the underused #3 train at 148th Street.  Perhaps, the area should have a stop on a ferry service to Manhattan.  A new ferry service, however, will require major advance planning. (One community cannot sustain ferry service.  A great deal of planning is necessary to establish a ferry route: it must serve several communities, have park & ride facilities and have local buses providing a direct connection to the ferry landing.)

As it stands, new people coming into the lower Concourse will have little choice but to use cars.

Bringing Mass Transit into the Picture

Since all New York City zoning changes and development projects go through the Uniform Land Use Process, the primary initiative is in the hands of the local community boards.  No Community board should approve any major project, which will attract large numbers of new people into their area, unless mass transit options are fully explored.  Questions which must be asked include:  “Is there sufficient mass transit to support the project?” “What effect will the project have on the current mass transit?” “What transit enhancements are necessary?” Realistic answers must be given to these questions.  It goes without saying that local elected officials and the borough presidents must encourage, support and participate in these efforts.

It’s important to note that when an attractive mass transit alternative, the new Metro-North station was provided for the Yankee Stadium, the results have been spectacular.  Some of the new parking garages, built for the stadium, are empty and will have to be torn down.  And, a major reduction in car use was achieved without any punitive measures!  If the new subway service proposed for the Armory (above) were to be added, it would also benefit the Yankee Stadium area reducing car use even more.

Paying for Mass Transit Improvements

The only cloud hanging above the Yankee Stadium Metro-North station is that the New York Yankees didn’t pay a dime for it!  Developers who bring large numbers of people into an area must be forced, either by a Community Benefits Agreement, or by a new City-wide law to put up money for mass transit improvements.  Developers may not even oppose this since in the long run their projects would benefit from better mass transit access.

This idea is already gaining momentum in discussions about Midtown East development.  Whether the idea of building numerous hi-rise office buidlings in this already congested area is wise is a question itself.  But the fact that planners realize that the present mass transit setup cannot support the proposed projects is a step in the right direction.

Transit proposals, thus far, have focused on improving access to Grand Central station which is a laughable Band-Aid.  Before a project of this scope can be realized, the 2nd Avenue subway must be in place and the problem of the #7 Grand Central station must be resolved. (The MTA is kicking the proverbial can down the road with the #7 train Grand Central Station.  During the AM rush hours, so many Manhattan bound riders disembark at this station that the entire platform is covered with people.  After development on the Far West Side, the Queens bound #7 will also be packed.  If the two trains arrive at the same time, neither will be able to move until the platform clears.  Add even more riders from East Side Access and dangerous overcrowding conditions and severe delays are inevitable.  This issue must be addressed and solved before it becomes a problem.  A possible solution is to connect the #7 to the 2nd Avenue subway to divert some trains downtown.  Special convertible subway cars would have to be used since the 2nd Avenue line is being built to B Division standards while the #7 has A Division standards.)

The primary beneficiary of developer money should first and foremost be the area immediately affected by the project.  If the mass transit of the area is deemed adequate, then the money should be provided for mass transit improvements in the affected borough.

What is vital is that the disbursement of the funds be under the complete control of the Mayor and the New York City Council.  Simply handing this money over to the MTA would be a travesty since the agency would spend it on what it wanted to do rather than on what the people want to do.  More often than not, these goals are not the same.

What About the Nimbys?

One of the problems associated with subway construction projects is the frequent opposition of those directly affected by it, popularly called the Nimbys (not in my back yard).  Years ago, proposals for new subways generated excitement and very strong public support.  Today the MTA’s horrible record and glacial progress in construction (only 3 stations on the new 2nd Avenue subway in 7 years and counting) has given subway construction a bad name.  Thus, it’s not even surprising that those directly affected by construction fight to stop it.

Even if construction is speedier and more efficient, there will be noise, dust and normal lives will be disrupted.  Thus, it’s necessary to be fair to the so-called Nimbys.  The best way to do this is to suspend property taxes to those building owners directly affected by construction for the duration of the construction.  Building owners with tenants would be eligible for this exemption only if they do not raise the rents of their tenants for the duration.  Store owners could be given other tax breaks as well.  These measures would go a long way to diffuse opposition to the construction of subway projects.

In conclusion, New York City cannot grow economically while generating more car dependency.  Mass transit enhancements are critical to mobility and must proceed in tandem with major development projects.  Planners must place mass transit needs on top of an approval agenda.  And developers who make millions in profits from these projects should provide funding for mass transit rather than simply building more garages and parking lots.

About John Rozankowski, PhD

Although born in Brooklyn, John Rozankowski, PhD spent most of his life in the Bronx and received his Ph.D. in history from Fordham University at Rose Hill.

After selling his rental property, John became a community activist fighting against the new Yankee Stadium, the term limit extension, the Kingsbridge Armory Shops-in-the-Armory proposal and for Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz’s living wage campaign.  Last year, he was a volunteer in the Letitia James for Public Advocate campaign and continues to campaign in Queens for the reactivation of the Rockaway line.

John has a very strong interest in mass transit issues especially relating to the subways and buses.  The outer boroughs have always been shafted and it’s high time that Bronxites did something about it.

In addition, he is a writer and blogger on New York City issues.”

Dr Rozankowski has lived in the Bronx for 58 years and currently resides in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx.

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