ALL ABOARD! Hochul Seeks Subway Between Bay Ridge and Jackson Heights

Gov. Hochul has edited the Regional Plan Association's Triboro plan. But it's a start.
Gov. Hochul has edited the Regional Plan Association's Triboro plan. But it's a start.

Call it the “Bi-boro.”

Gov. Hochul quickened the hearts of public transit lovers on Wednesday, revealing in her State of the State address that she wants to turn a lightly used rail right-of-way in Brooklyn and Queens into an “Interborough Express” making an arc from Bay Ridge to Jackson Heights and intersecting with 17 subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road.

Calling it “a bold idea,” Hochul said she is “directing the MTA to immediately commence an environmental review so we can get that project rolling down the track.”

Details are light on the how and what and the oh wow it costs a lot of the Interborough, beyond what Hochul shared in her State of the State briefing book. As laid out by the governor, the transit line would use an existing right of way that currently carries only a small amount of freight traffic. Hochul said the resulting service could be a bus, heavy rail or light rail, but, but according to Hochul’s numbers, the service could attract up to 88,000 riders per day and 20 million per year, while providing end-to-end service in 40 minutes, with stops in Sunset Park, Borough Park, Kensington, Midwood, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Lots, Brownsville, East New York, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Middle Village, Maspeth and Elmhurst.

But the “Interborough Express” differs in one key way from the so-called Triboro plan that has been pushed by the Regional Plan Association since its Third Regional Plan surfaced in 1996 — its northern terminus would be in Jackson Heights, not Co-op City in The Bronx. But the state is also moving ahead with its Penn Access project, which will add four Metro-North stations in Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-op City.

Still, the RPA celebrated the governor’s endorsement of an organizational dream that dates back to the last golden age of the New York Knicks.

“We are especially pleased to see Gov. Hochul propose the Interborough Express, which … has long been a priority for RPA,” said RPA President and CEO Tom Wright.

The group also tweeted the news using double ambulance light emojis, the international sign for “This is a big deal,” though the plan that is “moving forward” is definitely not the Triboro.

Before the governor highlighted the idea on Wednesday afternoon, versions of the Triboro have been resurrected on occasion and bandied about by the likes of Christine Quinn, who proposed a bus-based version of it, and Scott Stringer, who embraced the train-based idea in full. The MTA summarily rejected Stringer’s proposal in 2012, citing poor finances (luckily [checks notes] that’s not a problem anymore!).

Nonetheless, in 2020, the MTA awarded AECOM a $1.3-million contract to study the feasibility of using the right of way to provide passenger service between Bay Ridge and Astoria. The MTA has been known to grudgingly undertake studies of proposed system expansions and then wildly inflate the cost when it didn’t feel like doing them, but Acting MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber previously called the project “hugely exciting” back when he was just the MTA’s Chief Development Officer. Lieber was similarly effusive in his praise of Hochul’s somewhat smaller proposal for the Interborough on Wednesday.

“This project would smartly repurpose existing infrastructure to add mass transit and create access to jobs, education, and opportunity for so many residents of Queens and Brooklyn,” he said. “I applaud Gov. Hochul’s leadership, and we are enthusiastic to work with her, and federal and state partners to advance the Interborough concept.”

The MTA also tweeted an image laying out the route of the proposed bus or rail project.

Rider advocates were also ecstatic, given what a 14-mile arc would mean for hundreds of thousands of city residents.

“Increasing connectivity between the outer boroughs is a vital step to creating the 21st century transit system our region and riders deserve,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Directing the MTA to begin environmental review and consider the best transit option for the corridor is an important next step in the process that could benefit hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of New Yorkers.”

Daglian did raise some initial questions, specifically whether the Interborough would play well with others.

“There is much to consider during the next steps of the process including, can the proposed Interborough Express line connect with LaGuardia Airport? How will the line interact with the Penn Access project, and with Amtrak’s Hell Gate Bridge and schedules? Throughout this process, riders deserve transparency to ensure that the MTA is held accountable and can deliver this transformative rail infrastructure to the outer boroughs as quickly as possible,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether cost or conflict with freight rail service might undo the proposal for the transit proposal.

When the MTA awarded a feasibility study on the Astoria to Bay Ridge connection, former federal transit planner Larry Penner and RPA Senior Vice President Kate Slevin wrote dueling op-eds for Streetsblog. Penner predicted that the work to make the right of way ready for passenger service — and then buy equipment for it — could run into the high single digit billions of dollars, while Slevin suggested that since the right of way and tracks already exist, the project could avoid being blown to smithereens by New York’s parodically-high construction costs.

If the proposed transit service jumps from off the page and into reality, there’s a potential for it to interfere in New York City’s stated goal to move more freight through the city by train. In its waning days, the de Blasio administration put out a report on sustainable freight practices that mentioned using the existing right of way for more freight hauling, specifically directing the city’s Economic Development Corporation to “work with local partners to determine feasibility of greater use of Bay Ridge cut and other rail lines for additional freight handling.” Regional macher Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) has also long-dreamed of creating a cross-Hudson freight tunnel that would connect New York and New Jersey through Bay Ridge and has suggested the project is a prerequisite for the continuation of New York City’s existence.

Both the MTA and Gov. Hochul said that the Interborough Express could coexist with increased freight service, with both governor and transit agency writing, “Transportation planners believe that cross harbor rail freight and passenger service on the Interborough Express can work together in concert, which could be a game-changer for the region.”

An MTA source said that the 2020 AECOM study on the Bay Ridge to Astoria connection “laid the groundwork” for Hochul’s announcement today, and that the study specifically looked at how to balance freight service with passenger service. The source also said that the MTA is now meeting with “key entities” and “stakeholders” to talk over the project, and getting federal guidance on what an environmental review will look like. Once the review is underway, the federal environmental review process should take under two years, according to the source.

The Interborough is one of a few big-ticket transit items Hochul mentioned in her speech, all of which will be familiar to anyone who’s pulled their hair out watching various transportation promises get made and unmade in the past decade. In addition to the Interborough Express, Hochul promised to support:

Advocates also reminded Hochul that she will also have to stave off fare hikes and service cuts for the existing MTA service, which is currently being threatened by the agency’s rickety finances and future billion-dollar deficits.

“Last year, New York riders won an unprecedented tens of billions of dollars in federal aid and infrastructure funds to save and improve public transit,” said Riders Alliance Policy and Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. “Gov. Hochul joined Sen. Schumer last fall to postpone fare hikes and service cuts. In this year’s state budget, the governor and legislature must take fare hikes off the table for at least five years and move toward increased rather than reduced service to meet riders’ new and growing needs.”

Of course, some people quickly decided to look the governor’s transit gift in the mouth: