Restoring Staten Island's Rail Connections

Staten Island's Old North Shore Rail Right of Way

[Update 9/20]: Last night at a community meeting with City Councilmember Michael McMahon (D-North Shore) a disgruntled citizen made this statement:

"The poor people of the North Shore, all they have is the bus, and if they don't have a bus, they're walking," he said. "It's inexcusable that all the politicians of Staten Island can't figure out how to open up the railroad."

In my continuing series on Restoring New York City's region rail network, today I will touch on NYC's forgotton borough, Staten Island. While Staten Island is the smallest borough in population, it has almost half a million people. It is also New York City's least dense and most automobile dependent borough by far. Part of this stems from geographic isolation, but also because the Island was not developed until after passenger automobiles became the norm in transportation. Indeed, it's major railway branch on the North Shore of Staten Island died long before the Verrazano Bridge was completed which brought a flood of development to the island.

However, the over-reliance on the automobile has created a traffic and transportation nightmare for Staten Islanders, who have one of the longest average commutes in the country - 44 minutes. So what's being done to address Staten Island's transit pain?

Staten Island's Current Rail Line (SIRT)

The Mayor created a Staten Island transportation task force to examine problems and recommend solutions (short & long term). While most of these recommendations involve improving traffic flow at particularly high traffic intersections there are a few that could be important to increasing mass transit usage and linking Staten Island up to the regional rail network (June Update Presentation):

Recommendation #11: Restoring the North Shore Freight Rail Service
Recommentation #12: Better Bus Service around the South Shore
Recommendation #13: Improved Bus Service to Brooklyn starting Sept 3rd.
Recommendation #14: Bus Link over the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson, Bergen Light Rail System.
Recommendation #15: Express Service on Staten Island Rapid Transit (decreases trip time by 8-9%).
Recommendation #16: Park & Ride at Great Kills

The bus route across the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson Bergen Light rail would increase access to the North East corridor, provide a new route to Manhattan and further increase utilization of the new light rail connection to Bayonne, thus improving it's financial health and long term growth prospects.

The other more long term project which is receiving broad political support is the restoration of the North Shore Railroad connection between the Staten Island Ferry and Arlington:

Plans for new light rail line on the North Shore of Staten Island have received strong support from Borough President James Molinaro and various members of New York's congressional delegation, as well as the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. The proposed five mile route, which would connect Arlington and the St. George Ferry Terminal, would cost $360 million, with funding coming from federal, state and local agencies. In order to move forward, the project will require a $4 million allocation from congress for a feasibility study which is currently awaiting approval from the House Transportation Committee.

The proposed route would run along an old rail line and could potentially cut commute times between Arlington and St. George by half to less than fifteen minutes, according to a preliminary study released by the Borough President's office. The study also estimated that the light rail would serve between 10-15,000 people and reduce the number of cars on the road by up to 7,500. Construction could be completed within eight to ten years depending on when funds are approved.

The Borough President's office conducted a poll of workers who drive to Bayonne by car if they would use the rail connection and 85% said they would

Eventually, this rail service could also take advantage of Staten Island's restored freight rail network and reach out to the Northeast Corridor line as well, strengthening Staten Island's connection to the regional rail network. This would also help Staten Island refocus it's development along this rail corridor and break it's dependence on the personal automobile.

Again, this shows how regional rail networks can expand and build off one another. Without the success of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail, it's doubtful much of this would be considered for Staten Island. Now, Staten Island can link up to that line and further support it by building up connections to its own new lines.

I bet Binghamton will have rail service before Staten Island.
You mean before the North Shore has rail service!
"Eventually, this rail service could also take advantage of Staten Island's restored freight rail network and reach out to the Northeast Corridor line as well, strengthening Staten Island's connection to the regional rail network."
Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen, since subway or light rail type rolling stock is not allowed to share tracks with freight trains, unless the passenger cars meet ridiculously high collision standards (basically, the train has to be strong enough to stand a 10 car train on end without the bottom car bending). And I think this whole "light rail" business is a bad idea, since Staten Island already has a perfectly good heavy rail line, and indeed much of the heavy rail infrastructure is still there along the North Shore Line, notably the viaduct through Port Richmond. On the other hand, they could extend the HBLR over the Bayonne Bridge, and provide a transfer with the North Shore Line. It's unfortunate that thanks to Bob Moses it is impossible to run a subway line over the Verrazano Bridge, but it might be possible in the far future to build a tunnel from St. George to Bay Ridge.
Another option, somewhat from the realm of fantasy, is to replace the Staten Island express buses with light rail, with street trackage feeding into a line in the middle of the expressway, and then going over the bridge, down the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn, and then through one of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel tubes into a street line up, say, a Broadway that has been dedicated to pedestrians and light rail.
I think the bus route, if successful, would be an easy gateway to eventually extending the HBLR over the Bayonne Bridge (which was actually built to hold rail). And then eventually linking that bus/light rail to the existing Staten Island Rapid Transit and/or the North Shore extension (light or heavy).

You are right about light rail sharing with freight. I was more thinking that they could build new light rail lines along the same ROW. It would either need to use new tracks or be heavy rail. Frankly you are right that considering how much heavy rail exists, it might actually be a better fit. I'm not sure if the politicos have picked up on that nuance or if they just assume light rail is easier in principle.

If Staten Island we a part of New Jersey instead of New York, I'm sure NJ transit would already have several rail links to their regional rail hubs in Newark, Secaucus, Jersey City, etc.

Re: Verrazanno - The Tunnel would be cool! Until then a dedicated bus lane can do a lot of good work during rush hour.

When my grandfather moved to Staten Island in 1930, he commuted to Proctor and Gamble in Port Ivory via trolley from his lovely Port Richmond home.  Has anyone been to Port Richmond lately?  Not lovely, my friends.

I can imagine that some commuters would like a Bayonne/Path connection, but the Bayonne bridge is not a very heavily utilized route, comparatively.

I'm not suggesting that Staten Island, especially the North Shore, couldn't use trains.  My point rather is that it will probably not be a priority there.   The area is relatively poor, and the wealthier parts of Staten Island (which loves the SUV, and maybe NASCAR too) wouldn't really benefit.  IMHO there is little chance that $360 million gets spent there, for that.

I think that if a Bayonne Bridge line is built, the one way that it will really attract a large number of customers is if it is an extension of PATH, turning south at Grove Street, with a stop at Liberty State Park and either replacing the HBLR, or serving as the express line of it, or both, up to the bridge, then over the bridge, with a transfer station for a potential future North Shore Line, and then perhaps continuing south in the median of the highway to Victory Blvd and in the long term forming a cross-island connection via the SI Mall. The key point, though, is the direct connection to Manhattan, with no transfers.
That would be ideal.  Otherwise why go to Bayonne?  Bleh.

My mom would be happy--she could see her grandchildren without the bus/ferry/subway shuffle.

Well first to put a needed footnote to one of
your technical-regulatory positions.  True FRA
regs prohibit running light and heavy rail on
the same track.  However, exceptions exist and
the most important exception is over in Jersey
where Hudson-Bergen runs part of its way on heavy
rail track.

Second, you posit many neat systems, most of
which would still be running if this were Europe.
But,until you posit a way to pay for it you have
really stated nothing.  Staten Islanders have
a thousand reasons why the Ferry should run for
free, why they should have a discount on the
Verrazano, why the Staten Island Railroad should
have the lowest fare-box recovery of any MTA
system.  Never will you find a Staten Islander
who will agree to pay a toll increase for
anything.  Yes there are many interesting systems
as long as someone else pays for them.

"However, exceptions exist and the most important exception is over in Jersey where Hudson-Bergen runs part of its way on heavy rail track."
False. The HBLR doesn't even have any track connections to the mainline network. However, the Newark City Subway and the South Jersey Light rail both have some shared track. However, there is a strict time separation there, with freight trains having the line at night, and light rail at other times. That's why light rail service ends relatively eary on both of those segments.
Just for the record, the ferry is free because of the MTA's one city / one fare system which allowed free transfers between bus and subway for the first time (I believe this only started in 1997) with the formal Metrocard launch. Before then, Staten Islanders commuting to Manhattan faced a three legged commute - bus/train to ferry to bus/train. And the ferry is not that expensive to run and operate and takes many cars off the road.

Remember that all other boroughs have free bridges to Manhattan: Brooklyn Bridge, Queensboro bridge and many free bridges between the Bronx and Northern Manhattan.

Just like anything else, these types of large infrastructure projects are financed through a mixture of federal, state and local money combined with the farebox.

Regarding FRA complications and the light-heavy intermingling:

I think this is a red herring.

The heavy rail line on Staten Island (which, yes, should be running by now) hits Jersey via the Chemical Coast rail line and the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge.

The North Shore line plan rehabilitates and uses track from Arlington to St. George.

The West Shore line plan would connect to the North Shore track from somewhere on the South Shore and then continue north over the Bayonne Bridge.

The North and West Shore commuter rail lines connect, but do not necessarily have to connect to the track PANYNJ is using for heavy rail.  It would sure be nice to have heavy rail line running further east than the road-to-rail yard getting a facelift in Arlington, but is there demand yet?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this an obstacle that can be safely ignored?

I am for any move to increase or upgrade all rail systems.
I lived in Staten Island with my grandmother in the summer between South Beach and Ocean brease byac in the 50 and 60's unit a person named Moses evicted the community for better things so they said. Making travel safer and easier without having to us the car is the way to go. I hope the plan goes through