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Proposed Rail Link

by Bruce Schaller, May 21, 2004
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Pushing ahead with plans to dramatically improve rail service to Lower Manhattan, Governor George E. Pataki announced his support this month for a $6 billion rail link from Downtown Manhattan to Kennedy Airport and Long Island. The project would create the long-sought one-seat ride from JFK to the World Trade Center area, and also provide a direct commuter rail service to Downtown for Long Island Railroad (LIRR) commuters.

The central part of the governor's plan is to construct a three mile tunnel from the Long Island Railroad's existing Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, under the East River and terminating at Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. There would also be a new 1,500 foot connector between AirTrain and LIRR tracks in Jamaica, Queens.

According to a fact sheet released with the governor's speech, the new line would provide 36-minute travel times from JFK to Manhattan, down from 55 minutes currently via the new JFK Airtrain and the A train. For Long Island Railroad commuters, the proposal would reduce travel time from Jamaica to Lower Manhattan from the current 36 minutes to about 21 minutes.

The LIRR service is expected to attract "up to" 100,000 riders per day; as many as 6,000 riders are expected to use the JFK connection daily. The line could be up and running by 2013.

Lower Manhattan business interests have pushed strongly for the rail link to create direct access to the suburban labor market. Currently, workers living in Long Island, Westchester and parts of New Jersey must take commuter rail trains into Midtown and then the subway downtown. This is one reason that many businesses choose Midtown over Downtown in deciding where to locate or expand their offices.

As with the Second Avenue subway and other transit projects currently under consideration, funding is a major hurdle for the proposed tunnel and rail link. The Port Authority has at least $560 million lined up. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation could tap into $1.2 billion in community development block grants, although some downtown community groups prefer that the money be spent on housing, community services and cultural institutions. Senator Charles E. Schumer has said that he will fight to obtain transportation funding from up to $2.5 billion in unused tax benefits that were allocated as part of the $21.4 billion post-9/11 federal aid package to New York.

Transit advocacy groups were cheered that the governor opted for a new tunnel rather than using the Montague Street subway tunnel used by the M and R trains. Transit advocates feared that using a subway tunnel for LIRR and JFK trains would compromise existing subway service for New York City residents. Moreover, building a new tunnel under the East River creates the possibility of extending into Brooklyn the Second Avenue Subway, which is planned to terminate near Hanover Square (a couple of blocks south of Wall Street). Such an extension would improve access to the East Side for many Brooklyn residents. A new tunnel might also allow the E train to continue into Brooklyn.

The governor pledged not to allow the tunnel and rail link to compete with other projects for funding. Transit advocates, however, fear that a new tunnel will eventually compete with other projects, principally the Second Avenue Subway, for scarce dollars.

They also question the official ridership projection. Based on 1990 Census data, the LIRR carries about 40,000 work trips per day between Long Island and Lower Manhattan. Especially since it is questionable whether all Long Island Railroad commuters would use the new link, it is difficult to see how the "up to 100,000" ridership projection is realistic.

Another way to evaluate the LIRR link is to compare its costs and ridership with those of other major rail projects that are currently in various stages of discussion, planning, design and construction. In addition to the tunnel project, these are:

- Second Avenue Subway, which would run from 125th Street to Hanover Square.

- East Side Access, which will allow LIRR trains to deliver passengers directly to Grand Central Terminal.

- #7 line extension, which would extend the #7 train west from Times Square to 11 Avenue and then south to 33 Street.

The table below shows ridership projections and construction costs for each project (except that ridership projections are not available for the #7 extension):

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Peak hour AM ridership

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Weekday ridership

Capital cost

Capital cost per daily rider

Source (ridership and costs)

Second Avenue subway

85,900

723,000

$17 billion

$24,000

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

East Side Access

Not avail.

178,000

$6.3 billion

$35,000

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

LIRR link to Lower Manhattan

Not avail.

Up to 100,000

$6 billion

$60,000 or more ($120,000 if ridership is only 50,000)

Lower Manhattan Development Corporation

#7 line extension

Not avail.

Not avail.

$2.2 billion

Not avail.

Partnership for NYC

This chart is a very rough cost comparison and does not take into account the economic development benefits that proponents say are major benefits from the LIRR link - though it should be noted that the Second Avenue Subway is expected to generate economic development in East Harlem and perhaps on the East Side. The chart also does not distinguish between additional ridership attracted by the construction of new capacity and simply shifting riders from one line to another. Nor does the chart take account of benefits in reduced crowding and travel time.

All that said, however, the comparison is a useful starting point to evaluate the relative merits of each alternative. Clearly, the chart highlights a central question - in terms of ridership, the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access show costs per rider of about one-half or even one-quarter of the LIRR link. It will be the task of proponents to show that the LIRR link to Lower Manhattan has separate funding sources, or that in the overall equation, it is a more beneficial project than the seemingly lower-cost Second Avenue and East Side Access projects.

Bruce Schaller is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation, and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.


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