Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Bridging Divides

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One of the more fanciful and ambitious proposals of the ever-evolving list of regional planners and transit authorities over the last century or so was a passenger rail connection to Staten Island. Several, actually, over the course of New York’s history: From a relatively mundane subway tunnel under the Narrows that the Verrazano Bridge crosses to rail connections over the Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey that connect to new tunnels under the Hudson near Hoboken to pie-in-the-sky trans-bay crossings that would cover miles underground and underwater.

Most of these were shelved sometime in the 30s, reconsidered in the 40s, shelved again in the 50s, dusted off in the 90s, and shelved again, and the names involved in their inception and evolution as gleams in a planner’s eye are enough to cook alphabet soup: New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the independent Regional Plan Association, the New York City Transportation Authority before the MTA, and even, long ago, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, the Baltimore & New York Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, all looking to find ways of hooking up the Staten Island Railway to something.

The problem, of course, is money. We’re so behind in desperately-needed and immediately applicable projects to increase capacity on existing routes such as the shelved Access to the Region’s Core project (thanks, Christie!) and the revivified Gateway Project (which is the ARC project with glasses and a fake mustache) that the idea of running new routes is almost entirely out of the picture. But that doesn’t appear to stop anybody from making plans. Plans are the planner’s mana, food and air: I suspect if you boarded up the doors of the Department of City Planning and checked back in thirty days, everybody inside would have drowned under the volume of their newly-created maps and blueprints of alternative exits.

But let’s take money off the table. Let’s assume that Franklin Roosevelt rose from the grave to complete his Second New Deal. Choosing Lyndon Johnson as his running mate (stop snickering, it’s my fantasy: I can do what I want), he handily beats a reconstituted GOP ticket of Abraham Lincoln/Teddy Roosevelt in the 2016 election thanks to low voter turnout in the South. Once in office, he invests tens of billions in capital funding in the New York metropolitan area and we can start looking at all those old plans from the 30s and 40s and 50s and… man, we made a lot of plans.

The question then becomes, would Staten Island even want that connection?

Oh, sure, the State Senator from Staten Island Diane Savino complained that New York cared more about running the 7 line to New Jersey than connecting with Staten Island, like a jilted date, but Staten Island… isn’t very much like the rest of the city. Prolonged isolation has produced a local character more attuned to outer suburbia than the urban core. This borough has by far the fewest immigrants, the fewest minorities, the greatest ratio of homeowners, the highest rate of car ownership, and the most Republicans. Basically, it’s Connecticut. Because it’s almost diametrically opposed culturally to the rest of the city but doesn’t have the population to assert its political will, it’s been dubbed the Forgotten Borough.

They say they like the idea of connecting directly to the rest of the city on principle, but the practice may be more than they bargained for. A direct rail connection to the rest of the city would immediately open up Staten Island to an influx of, well, everybody else in the city looking for cheaper housing options, on top of the folks already willing to brave the ferry. This is, however, the borough where even a proposed expansion to express bus service must first kowtow to local community boards that their precious parking will not be taken away, where the construction of apartment housing has been comparatively anemic due to resistance against upzoning, and where even a proposed bike lane across the Verrazano Bridge – largely promoted by Brooklyn politicians like Vincent Gentile – that wouldn’t so much as take a lane away from car traffic has been held up and put on the back-burner because of an comparable lack of support from Staten Island politicians. It’s too dangerous, say Staten Island city councilmen James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, and besides: Nobody bikes anyway.

That sounds like a cultural difference, to me; the work of people who wish to preserve their character, such as it is. And there’s guaranteed to be more pushback: As it stands, were it not for Latinos around St George and Stapleton, the borough wouldn’t have grown at all over the last 20 years, and the rest remain firmly entrenched. Hell, this is the borough that hated the city so much that they successfully voted to secede in 1993. Their turnout was so great on the referendum that the mayoral election that was on the same ballot may have been decided by them: 25,000 more Staten Islanders voted in 1993 than in 1989, and almost all of them voted for Giuliani, the first true conservative in the mayor’s office in, well, forever.

It’s a moot point anyway because we don’t have the money, but if we ever did, I propose a grand bargain: We give New Jersey Staten Island, and they give us Hudson County. It’s a fair trade, and there’s a subway running out there already.

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