New York City Councilwoman Letitia James has seen firsthand the need for better mass transit. The Brooklyn Navy Yard development in her district is an important economic engine, but it is “inaccessible” to workers who don’t live nearby, James said. The district, which includes parts of Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, has been “ground zero for gentrification and displacement,” as low-income individuals retreat to neighborhoods with few subway connections. At the same time, the city faces the twin challenges of scarce transportation dollars and the high cost of expanding or adding subway lines.
“It’s critically important that we move as many people as possible to economic development hubs in the City of New York, particularly individuals who are struggling in the city and those people who are being pushed further and further away from Manhattan,” James, the incoming public advocate of New York City, said during a transportation forum this week. “That’s what I have experienced in my district—more and more people living in Brownsville and East New York, where individuals unfortunately have to rely on one fare but two fares.”
One potential solution that James and others are now touting is bus rapid transit. According to a new report from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Pratt Center for Community Development, such a system would build on the city’s Select Bus Service and could relatively quickly provide critical links to outer borough neighborhoods at a cheaper cost than other transportation alternatives like light rail.
The report, unveiled at City & State’s “Transportation of Tomorrow” forum this week, describes a transit system that is failing to keep up with a changing city. More than 750,000 New York City residents, many working in low-paying jobs, commute over an hour each way to work. More and more residents do not own cars. Communities outside of areas served by subways are growing, and income in those areas is declining.
“What we’re not seeing is a commensurate increase in the quality and reliability of their transit,” Joan Byron, a policy director at the Pratt Center and an author of the report, said during the forum.
One of the advantages of bus rapid transit is that it could provide connections to far-flung parts of the city, with fewer stops along the way. It would go a step beyond the protected bus lanes of the MTA’s Select Bus Service by including barriers separating the rapid transit lanes. The report also calls for stations with real-time arrival information and off-board fare collection, which would let passengers board through several doors at once.
Bus rapid transit would also be significantly cheaper than major subway expansion. James noted that the No. 7 train extension in Manhattan cost $2 billion for one mile of track, while the Second Avenue subway line will cost $4.5 billion for basically three stations. The damage from Superstorm Sandy, which temporarily shut down key subway lines, cost more $3.5 billion to the system.
The report identified eight potential bus rapid transit corridors in areas found to have the highest need, including one along Staten Island’s North Shore and another between La Guardia Airport and the Rockaways. Several would run along wider streets that already have enough space to install new dedicated lanes.
Of course, the plan is likely to face opposition. Local small business owners could lose money while lanes are built, and residents may be unhappy about losing parking spaces. But the biggest challenge is likely to come from Albany, where lawmakers control the purse strings.
Mitchel Moss, the director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, said during the panel discussion that the tug-of-war is between Republican state senators in Long Island, whose chief priority is the Long Island Rail Road, and downstate Democrats who are failing to secure enough funding for New York City.
“If you ever have a chance to watch the confirmation hearings of an MTA chair, you will find out that New York City is almost invisible, because we have an undistinguished state Senate representation when it comes to transportation,” Moss said. “It’s the Long Island constituency which drives the MTA subsidy so high that New York never will get buses unless we recognize that we have to have people in Albany who care. It is not a priority for our state senators today to understand how important the MTA is. That’s the failing. Not in City Hall, and not necessarily in the MTA offices, but in our elected officials who go to Albany.”
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler countered that the real problem is that Democrats have not seized control of the state Senate.
“The problem in the state Senate has not been only—it’s been true to some extent that you didn’t have New York City senators that were very interested in transportation—the problem is that they were powerless,” Nadler said. “That may change. If it changes, you’ve got to make sure you have senators who care, but you’ve got to also make sure the senators who care have some power.”
Byron, the co-author of the report, said that bus rapid transit may be more politically expedient than other proposals since the benefits become clear much sooner. She said that London was able to institute congestion pricing because people saw the transit benefits right away.
“If anybody has been there in the last 10 years, you can hardly step into the street—it is a river of red buses running constantly,” she said. “A benefit from BRT is it’s pay as you go. It isn’t the enormous lump of capital where you’ve got to put in $5 or $6 billion up front and you don’t’ get the benefit for ten years.”