By Larry Penner
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to rezone Flushing West was put on hold for very good reasons. Everyone is aware that the Flushing No. 7 subway has been running at full capacity during rush hour for years. There is no space to accommodate the thousands of new riders that would have been generated by new housing as a result of Flushing West.
There are 525,000 weekday passengers, of whom 68,000 are daily riders who enter at the Main Street Flushing Station. Most Main Street-Flushing riders are transferring from the bus to subway. How could New York City Transit accommodate any additional riders without expanding the service? Flushing Main Street is the 12th busiest station citywide with the greatest number of riders of any station outside of Manhattan.
With three tracks merging into two tracks between the 33rd Street and Queensboro Plaza stations, there is no space to run any additional rush hour trains. It could easily cost $5 to $10 billion to construct a third track plus a new East River tunnel west of Queensboro Plaza. This is necessary to extend express service into Manhattan. The concept is not feasible either technically or financially.
In addition, the existing Corona subway yard, which is already operating at capacity, is adjacent to wetlands and has little space for expansion. Additional trains to provide service for the new Hudson Yards Station have to be stored on lay-up tracks south of the station. Completion of Communication Based Train Control, followed by implementation in 2017 may only result in increasing the number of trains per hour from 30 to 32 in each direction during rush hour. After that, the cold hard truth is that the MTA no longer has any other opportunity to increase rush hour capacity.
The reintroduction this fall of the old W subway line, which ran from Astoria to Whitehall Street in Manhattan, may be good news for some. Perhaps more riders heading for Lower Manhattan may transfer at Queensboro Plaza from the 7 to the W. This might open up standing room for Hunters Point and Long Island City residents attempting to board already packed trains. Ferries serving Hunters Point and Long Island City will provide other transportation options for the thousands of new Hunters Point and Long Island City residents.
There are other alternatives to explore which could provide options for No. 7 riders. NYCT could reinstate the old Q51 Flushing Express Bus. This route ran along Sanford Avenue starting at Northern Boulevard. Additional express bus service on existing or new routes serving two-fare-zone (bus to subway) communities east and north of Flushing could be created. A new fleet of 100 buses could move 5,000 rush hour riders.
Many are not aware of the tremendous capital investments made by the MTA since the 1980s on the No. 7 line, just to maintain existing service. This includes over $8.1 billion by NYCT and $2.5 billion by MTA Capital Construction. Numerous subway stations have been upgraded to a state of good repair, including Flushing Main Street, 74th Street Roosevelt Avenue and Court Square. Several hundred new subway cars have also been purchased.
In the recently approved MTA 2015-2019 Capital Program, funding is provided to upgrade the stations at Mets-Willets Point ($48 million), 111th Street ($16 million), 103rd Street ($18 million) and 82nd Street ($22 million) in 2018. Additional stations including 69th Street ($17 million), 61st Street-Woodside ($17 million) and 52nd Street ($18 million) are programmed for 2019.
Unfortunately the amount of funding identified to upgrade the Mets-Willets Point station may be insufficient. This improvement requires significant coordination with the future new LaGuardia Air Train and existing Long Island Rail Road Mets-Willets stations. The cost for improvements could easily grow to several hundred million dollars. This is due to Gov. Cuomo’s desire for a seamless transfer for airport riders between the LaGuardia Air Train, No. 7 and LIRR.
There is also seed money to look into the possibility of the long-forgotten Flushing Bus Terminal. Construction of a Flushing intermodal bus terminal could facilitate a smoother transfer between bus and subway. A short-term improvement could be construction of bus holding lights at bus stops. This would assist riders transferring from subway to bus when a train arrives several minutes after scheduled bus departures. Missing a bus by a minute or two during off-peak hours is frustrating.
In January, all 14 members of the City Council’s Queens Delegation announced their support for the “Commuter Rail Fare Equalization Proposal.” This would allow city residents to pay the same $2.75 fare on the LIRR or Metro North Rail Road as they do on the subway. It could have a significant impact on Queens residents who are already daily LIRR commuters. This holds true for offering the same riders a free transfer from either the LIRR or Metro North to the subway system. Neither the MTA or NYC has identified a source for $100 to $200 million in funding that would be necessary to implement this proposal. As a result, this will probably never see the light of day as an option for the 7.
Another alternative to the 7 is the LIRR Port Washington branch. Unfortunately, there is little current capacity available to add new rush hour service on this line. This branch provides service in Queens from Little Neck to Woodside. The new Elmhurst Station should be open to the public by 2019. Any significant number of new riders would most likely have to stand. Virtually all existing seats on the current eight Port Washington LIRR Penn Station-bound morning rush hour trains which stop in Queens are full.
There will be significant conflicts when the LaGuardia Airtrain is open for service with connections to the Mets-Willets Point subway and LIRR stations. Imagine hundreds to several thousand airport travelers with luggage attempting to squeeze in on already packed rush hour trains. Cuomo apparently never considered how this issue will be resolved when contemplating this project. While Cuomo promised that the LaGuardia Airtrain would be up and running within five years or by 2019, this probably will not occur until several years later.
Opening the Eastside Access to Grand Central Terminal in 2023 will offer the LIRR ample opportunity to increase the number of rush hour trains. New services on the Port Washington branch could offer thousands of current 7 riders another way to reach Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street corridor and adjacent neighborhoods. LIRR trains upon arrival at Grand Central Terminal will be able to make a return trip to Great Neck in approximately 30 minutes. Clearly more additional trains will be required to increase the frequency of rush hour service.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the USDOT Federal Transit Administration.