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Staten Island's New Decongestant Plan

by Bruce Schaller, Apr 17, 2006
 

While New York City is known as the transit capital of the country, sections of the city are primarily dependent on the automobile. This is most notable in Staten Island, the eastern half of Queens, the northern half of the Bronx and sections of Brooklyn that are beyond subway lines – all areas where (as Census data show) the majority of workers commute by car.

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No borough of the city is more car-dependent than Staten Island. Rapid population growth has combined with high rates of car use to create traffic congestion that rivals northern New Jersey and other areas around the country where traffic congestion has become a political issue. Staten Island’s congestion is made worse by a confluence of unfavorable forces. Among these is a lack of new roadway capacity despite population growth and the borough’s position as a through route for trucks and autos traveling from the mainland to Long Island. Thus, drivers can run into traffic jams not only at rush hour, but almost any time day or night, weekday or weekend.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his State of the City speech earlier this year, charged his commissioners of transportation and of city planning to report back with a plan within 60 days to tackle Staten Island transportation needs. In March, the mayor announced 40 recommendations to relieve congestion bottlenecks, improve traffic enforcement, move forward with construction projects, improve mass transit and strengthen cooperation between city and state agencies.

Short-term steps, to be completed within a year, include:

  • adjusting signal timings
  • increasing turn-on-red opportunities
  • reducing parking at intersections
  • completing construction projects at two key intersections
  • adding limited stop bus service
  • increasing frequency on the Staten Island railway
  • reactivating a north shore rail track to remove trucks from roadways

Longer-term plans include considering bus rapid transit on Hyland Boulevard – part of a citywide bus rapid transit study – as well as road widenings and realignments and new park and rides and stations for the Staten Island railway.

The Bloomberg transportation plan for Staten Island reflects the consensus for addressing traffic congestion that is seen both inside and outside of New York. There is a strong emphasis on public transportation as well as traffic-related initiatives. The traffic aspects of the plan emphasize operational improvements -– getting better use of existing lanes -– rather than building new highway or street capacity. The plan thus considers numerous steps that each have fairly small impacts but together can noticeably improve traffic flow.

There is also an emphasis on community involvement and consensus building. The mayor acknowledged in announcing the plan that the “lack of community consensus” had stymied previous attempts to deal with transportation needs. To help get everyone on board, the mayor’s task force included elected officials and community boards as well as city and state officials. Implementation of the proposals will depend on a continued high level of involvement and engagement by the local communities.

The plan also perhaps inadvertently underscores that just as there has been a neglect of elements of the physical infrastructure ranging from potholed streets to the obsolete Goethals Bridge, so has the operational infrastructure been neglected. Why, for example, are there so many major intersections in need of re-timed signals? Why is it novel for the City Planning Department to coordinate adjacent parking lot designs to allow cars to move between parking lots without re-entering the roadway?

In pledging that city agencies will focus on ensuring that capital projects proceed on schedule, the plan acknowledges that without special attention, project schedules may easily lag.

The plan also puts off some very contentious issues. Reconstruction of the Goethal’s Bridge, first recommended in a 1987 study conducted for its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is listed as a long-term goal.

The mayor’s plan lightly touches on transportation impacts of land use decisions, a hot topic in much of the country. A short term goal is for the city Transportation Department to be consulted “early in the process” when builders apply for permit waivers –- presumably to look at traffic impacts of larger-scale developments.

Finally, it is notable that while promising action, the mayor’s plan does not promise results. There are no estimates of how much congestion will be reduced or traffic speeds increased –- no doubt at least in part due to how rapidly the plan was put together. Staten Islanders and others traveling into or through the borough can only wait to see how the administration’s new focus on transportation improvements will bear fruit.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 


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