To the Editor
NYC Councilmember Elizabeth “Crowley’s Proposed Light Rail to CB12″ overlooked a number of issues. Receipt of $500,000 in the 2017 municipal budget to fund a feasability study for introduction of a light rail train on portions of the old Long Island Rail Road Montauk branch (Long Island City to Jamaica) sounded great on paper. As always, the devil is in the details. Who will come up $99.5 million or more to pay for the balance of project costs?
Even with a planning feasibility study, several million more will be needed to pay for environmental documents along with preliminary design and engineering followed by final design and engineering efforts necessary to validate any basic estimates for construction costs. Ms. Crowley’s belief that it would be under $100 million doesn’t add up. New Jersey Transit’s Hudson Bergen Light Rail cost $1.2 billion and Newark Elizabeth Light Rail cost $694 million 16 years ago. Clearly costs would be far greater in today’s dollars.
There are no dollars programmed to support any work for advancement of this project contained with the approved MTA’s $27 billion Five Year 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Plan. Ditto for the MTA 2014 – 2034 Twenty Year Capital Needs Assessment Plan.
Cost estimates would have to be refined as progress proceeds beyond the planning and environmental phases into real and final design efforts. History has shown that estimated costs for construction usually trend upwards as projects mature toward 100% final design. Progression of final design refines the detailed scope of work necessary to support construction. The anticipated final potential cost would never be known until completion. Costs would be further refined by award of construction contracts followed by any unforeseen site conditions and change orders to the base contracts during the course of construction.
The proposed route will traverse several neighborhoods impacting thousands of people living nearby. How will they react to potential noise and visual impacts? There are serious legal and operational issues to be resolved with the Federal Rail Road Administration. They have regulatory jurisdiction over significant portions of the proposed route which would run on existing active freight tracks. You have to deal with light rail and freight trains coexisting on the same narrow corridor. There is no available project budget to justify key project component costs. They would have to cover a series of new stations. These will have to meet the Americans Disability Act (ADA) access standards; grade crossing, signal and safety improvements, a fleet of new light rail vehicles, land acquisition, potential business relocation along with construction of a new maintenance, operations and storage yard to support any light rail car fleet. Which neighborhood will want to step forward and host the maintenance, operations and storage yard? Other Queens elected officials, transit riders and transit advocacy groups all have their own transportation priority projects which may conflict with this proposal.
The MTA NYC Transit in 1983 conducted the Queens Subway Options feasibility study for potential conversation of this LIRR branch to a subway on the ground. Intense vocal local community opposition killed this project before it progressed beyond a planning study. The same community opposition has already begun for introduction of any active light rail as well.
You would have to wait for approval of MTA’s next Five Year 2020 – 2024 Capital Program for any chance of MTA funding. The alternative would be 100% NYC funding which is very doubtful. Rather than spend several hundred million dollars to build a Light Rail system which could take a decade or more, why not ask the LIRR to resume service on this corridor? They could run a two car scoot service reconnecting Long Island City, Glendale and Middle Village with other communities including Richmond Hill and other intermediate stops to Jamaica. The LIRR could use existing equipment which would afford far early implementation of service versus Light Rail. This would provide connections east bound to the J/Z and E subway lines, Kennedy Airport via Train to Plane and Jamaica LIRR Station. Queens residents traveling to jobs and colleges in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have access to all LIRR branches except the Port Washington line. Ditto for those traveling to the Barclay Center and downtown Brooklyn via the LIRR Atlantic Avenue branch. There would also be connections west bound at either Hunters Point or Long Island City LIRR stations to the #7 subway line.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years in the transportation field for US DOT Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.