Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: The Triboro Line may seem great — but it probably won’t happen

July 25, 2019 Raanan Geberer
Broadway Junction. AP Photo/ Julie Jacobson
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A proposal for a Brooklyn-Queens-Bronx rapid transit line that would use existing railroad tracks and share them with freight lines, introduced by Regional Plan Association in 1996, was given a boost this June when Brooklyn State Assemblymember Latrice Walker introduced a bill that directed the MTA to study its feasibility.

Beforehand, the proposal, known as the Triboro line, languished on the back burner, despite keen interest from the press and local planners. The new interest may have been spurred by the fact that the MTA, after years of inertia, is building again, as evidenced by the Second Avenue Subway and the still-incomplete Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project.

Key to the Triboro proposal, according to the RPA website, is the idea that today’s subway system, built to connect the outer boroughs with Manhattan, is inadequate for the growing number of people who don’t work in Manhattan but work in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx (we’ll leave Staten Island out of this for the time being).

While in the past the overwhelming majority of New York City residents commuted to Manhattan, the RPA says, “more than 50 percent of New York’s job growth in the last 15 years has been in Manhattan. For people, say, who live in Queens and work in Brooklyn (and who don’t live near the G train), subway commuting is difficult, “requiring circuitous, time-consuming and multiple transfer journeys by combinations of bus and subway.”

Although the RPA proposal doesn’t dwell on this, shopping habits have changed as well. In the mid-20th century, people either shopped in their own neighborhoods or went to the big department stores in Manhattan, few of which are still around. Now, it’s not uncommon for someone to travel from one part of Brooklyn or Queens to another, or across borough lines, to shop. In fact, this was one of the arguments G-train commuters from Brooklyn used against the MTA’s ultimately successful plan to cut back the train’s route in Queens – that they wouldn’t be able to access Forest Hills’ shopping district anymore.

Under the proposal, the Triboro would share tracks with a number of existing rail lines — the New York and Atlantic’s Bay Ridge Freight Line up to Fresh Pond Junction, CSX tracks in Queens, and tracks used by Amtrak’s main line over the Hell Gate Bridge and into the East Bronx.  RPA points out that freight and passenger rail have shared tracks in other cities, such as Chicago.

The line would have intersections with subway lines in Woodside, Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville, Flatbush, Midwood, Borough Park and Bay Ridge. The question is, what planned stations in Brooklyn and Queens can be destinations in their own right? And how likely is the proposal to succeed?

Let’s look at Brooklyn and Queens, leaving aside my native Bronx. The Bay Ridge station would be an important one, not because of Bay Ridge itself but because of the growing importance of Sunset Park as an industrial hub. Riders from everywhere on the line could transfer to the R train and take it a few stops north to get to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Industry City and other buildings in the area that employ increasing numbers of high-tech workers.

The next important stop, other than stations that can serve as transfers with local subway lines, is near “the junction” at Flatbush and Nostrand avenue. This station would serve Brooklyn College. The college, with more than 17,000 students at last count, is growing, and almost all its students are commuters who hail from every neighborhood of Brooklyn. With a stop here, the Triboro could bring students from Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Flatbush, East Flatbush and East New York to and from the college every day, faster than any bus that currently operates.

Going northeast, we would come to a stop near the Brooklyn Terminal Market in East Flatbush. This food market was designed as a wholesale market and remains so, but it has a large retail presence as well. In particular, it has a large assortment of spices, wine grapes, beer, soda, dairy products, Caribbean products and, at holiday time, Christmas trees and other ornaments. The market is currently a local destination, but the Triboro could make it a boroughwide one.

Proceeding further north, East New York-Broadway Junction would be another important thoroughfare and transfer point. There’s already a passenger platform inside the Bay Ridge Freight Line’s tunnel here, although it hasn’t been used since 1924. Transfers would be available to the L, A, C, and J trains as well as the Long Island Rail Road. To make this a true transit hub, the existing LIRR station would have to be extensively rebuilt. Reviews of this station on Foursquare include “Desolate — be careful,” “Not the best place to be alone” and “This is where people get raped at night.”

In Queens, the Triboro would serve areas like Middle Village and Glendale that don’t have that much transportation today. One Glendale resident observed that to get to Citi Field without driving, he would have to take the M train into Manhattan, then take the 7 train out to the ballpark.

Potential problems

One of the problems of the Triboro proposal is that the line would have to share its tracks with existing routes. As long as the other line is the existing New York and Atlantic, which operates a handful of freight trains a day, there’s little or no problem.

However, officials are once again talking about the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, which would feed into the Bay Ridge Freight Line. The Cross-Harbor, which has been proposed on and off for many years, would feed an estimated 21 freight trains a day onto the line. Although RPA assures us that this is “less than one train an hour,” it seems to me that scheduling would become more difficult.

Also, the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, as currently planned, would be built for double-stacked freight cars. The increased height of these cars could mean that current bridges over the Bay Ridge Freight Line would have to be replaced, an expensive proposition.

Finally, the tunnel, and the height of these trains, would mean that the tracks west of a certain point would have to be rebuilt in a slowly descending grade to enter the tunnel. If one wants to build both the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel and the Triboro line, this could necessitate two parallel sets of tracks in some locations, one at grade level and the other going downward, another big expense.

In addition, the RPA is not a government agency. While some of its proposals have been accepted, such as the Second Avenue Subway, many more haven’t. Among those that have yet to see the light of day are stopping early-morning subway service to end 24-hour transit; moving Madison Square Garden elsewhere to create more room in Penn Station; one-stop subway or rail service from Midtown Manhattan to JFK Airport and others.

In a city where even a small portion of the Second Avenue subway took almost 100 years to get built, the odds are against the Triboro Line ever coming to fruition. The transit improvements that do get built, it seems, are in Manhattan, such as the aforementioned Second Avenue segment up to 96th Street, the extension of the No. 7 line to 34th Street-Hudson Yards, and the still-unfinished East Side Access extension of the Long Island Rail Road.

But things always change, especially in New York. If conditions are right – and the right people are in Washington and Albany – the Triboro could become a feature of Brooklyn and Queens daily life sometime in the future. And that would be a very welcome development.

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  1. Ken Small

    The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has come up with good ideas to connect New York City communities and those of the surrounding suburbs for generations. The big question is can the MTA deliver on a good idea.

    Given the experience of the Second Avenue subway, one has to be doubtful. The original plans for the Second Avenue line date back to 1929. The first tunnels for the line were dug in 1968. We finally had stations opening about three years ago.

    The Second Avenue subway was supposed to begin in Lower Manhattan, run north to 125th street, and then veer eastward to La Guardia Airport. What we have instead is three subway stations added to a longstanding subway line.

    The Triborough subway proposal may ultimately help inform other mass transit plans. However, history suggests that given the sinkhole nature of the MTA that the grandiose plan put forth by RPA won’t become reality.