Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An F train express, East Side Access, and affordable housing

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's plan for better transit includes some good ideas, such as restoring express service on available F train tracks.

However, this idea wasn't new at all, though that was ignored in some initial coverage last month. Bloomberg's had eight years to make progress, as the Brooklyn Paper editorialized.

And the idea for an F train express has been around for a while, with the most recent push beginning in 2007 with a petition launched by Carroll Gardens activist (and now 39th District Council candidate) Gary Reilly. (Also see coverage by Second Avenue Sagas' Benjamin Kabak.)

The impact on housing

Also, hardly mentioned is an important side-effect of such improved transit: increased production of housing, and thus more affordable housing.

In other words, boosting infrastructure might be a better bet to produce affordable housing than unquestioning support for Atlantic Yards, a lesson AY boosters like Bill de Blasio (who also supports the F express) may not recognize.

(Could it be that there's no activist organization like ACORN behind the more generalized benefits of improved transit? Yes, I know the Straphangers Campaign supports the F Express, but they don't mobilize people the way ACORN does.)

Delays first

The F train express plan, however wise, would be delayed by needed infrastructure improvements. As NY1 reported way back in June 2007, in response to Reilly's effort:
But there is one big problem: plans to rehabilitate the Culver Viaduct — the elevated structure that carries trains over the Gowanus Canal from 4th Avenue to Carroll Street — would knock out the ability to use the express tracks.

Transit officials say work on these elevated tracks won't be complete until 2012 at the earliest, which means it'll be at least five years before they can even consider running F express service.

(Here are some more details on the work.)

The affordable housing impact

One of the solutions for affordable housing is alternative to subsidized construction: investment in transit. "[M]ass-transit investments (e.g., more express tracks to Brooklyn and Queens) would improve the quality of life for millions, rather than for a few who live in subsidized housing," argued the Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas in a 12/12/06 New York Post op-ed.

Such service could lead to increased density--not necessarily high-rise buildings but mid-rise ones (five to nine or ten stories), and infill housing around subway stations.

Urban planner Alexander Garvin has similarly described how adding transit to Third Avenue in the Bronx and 21st Avenue in Astoria could lead to thousands of new housing units, thus--as I pointed out--lessening the pressure for "extreme density" at sites like the Atlantic Yards site.

A request in 2000

Bloomberg doesn't have money for the F express--though he did use city money for extension of the 7 line--and he controls only four of 14 votes on the MTA board.

Meanwhile, an MTA priority is the East Side Access project, to bring LIRR trains to Grand Central Station, which would now cost $7.2 billion, with an opening date in 2015, while an F train express would cost significantly less.

How much? I haven't seen a recent estimate, but, at an April 2000 conference at Baruch College of City University of New York, Brooklyn Ascendant: Metropolitan New York's Second City, transportation planner Carolyn Konheim of Community Consulting Services warned that the cost difference was a factor of one thousand. She then described East Side Access as a $4 billion project.

Konheim said:
You've heard about some wonderful long-range plans for transit, but right now that MTA capital plan does nothing for Brooklyn in terms of the new construction. We are the county with the largest number of transit riders and we're getting nothing more than fare hikes out of that new plan. If we invested less than five percent of the total cost of those big ticket items in projects that are ready to go in Brooklyn, we would cut more travel time faster and in just a few years than all of those long-range plans.

If we opened up the express line on the F train, we could serve as many riders as would be served by this four-billion-dollar link that will be built to Grand Central for Long Island Railroad commuters and at one-thousandth of the cost and we could do it in the next few years, and we would, therefore, if we did that we would make Coney Island and Gravesend and Park Slope and all those places, much more competitive in attracting families because why spend over an hour of commuting from these places if it's easier to do so from Nassau. So we are really penalizing the closed-in areas with this kind of plan and we're fostering the affluent and by that I mean the blue and green areas are the affluent areas surrounding our central city. And the region itself cannot continue this unbalance.

Bloomberg was elected a year later.

Nadler agrees

Eighth Congressional District Rep. Jerrold Nadler, which includes parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. At the conference, he endorsed congestion pricing--tolling the East River bridges for truck traffic--and seconded Konheim's recommendations:
[W]e have to have some intelligent comprehensive transportation planning in New York, which we don't. Carolyn Konheim showed before a very interesting illustration in which she showed that the 4.3 billion dollar East Side Access Project, which is designed -- 4.3 billion is going ahead, Senator D'Amato was in favor of it, the government is still in favor of it, other are too, because it will save 110,000 Long Island commuters 30 minutes a day commuting. But a three-million dollar F Train improvement, which will save 110,000 people in Brooklyn 40 minutes commuting, that wasn't on the table for various political reasons.

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