MTA Chooses Busway For Possible Staten Island North Shore Transit Line

Under a plan selected by the MTA, bus rapid transit would run along Staten Island's North Shore, with local bus routes feeding into the dedicated infrastructure. Image: MTA

The MTA announced yesterday that if it builds a new rapid transit line along Staten Island’s North Shore, it will opt for bus rapid transit over light rail, an MTA spokesperson told Streetsblog. The obstacle now, as always, is money.

The proposed BRT line would run along Staten Island’s North Shore, which is twice as densely populated as the rest of the island. Even though no rapid transit exists in the area, over a third of residents take transit to work, relying entirely on buses.

Along much of the route, the busway will use the existing right-of-way of now-shuttered rail service. In some places the tracks are still there; in others, they are overgrown with vegetation or even underwater. At the western terminus of the right-of-way, the system would turn inland and run to the West Shore Plaza in mixed traffic.

In a presentation delivered yesterday at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, [PDF] the MTA outlined its decision to pursue bus improvements over light rail. Though light rail would be marginally faster than buses — and likely higher-capacity — the busway option has two decided advantages, according to the presentation.

In Port Richmond, bus rapid transit would run on an existing elevated structure, refurbished for buses. Image: MTA

First, by using an “open” busway design, in which multiple bus routes can shared the dedicated transit infrastructure before branching off, the busway can speed trips for people across more of the island. As such, the MTA predicts higher ridership on the BRT option than on light rail. Second, the MTA estimates the capital costs of the busway to be far lower than light rail: $371 million versus $645 million.

North Shore bus riders would see their travel times to the St. George ferry terminal cut by around half.

At the same time as the MTA is pursuing the restoration of rapid transit to the North Shore, the city Department of City Planning and Economic Development Corporation are at work on a wide-ranging plan to revitalize the area, including pedestrian and bicycle improvements and efforts to promote mixed-use development. If both the planning and transit improvements move forward, the area could be truly transformed.

At least on the transit side, however, this project isn’t going anywhere without money (it also needs to go through design and engineering work and environmental review before it could be “shovel-ready”). MTA chief Joe Lhota has repeatedly said that the debt-strapped authority’s next capital plan will focus on improving the existing system, not expanding it. While a Staten Island busway is an order of magnitude cheaper than current MTA megaprojects like the Second Avenue Subway, right now there’s no indication at all of how the MTA will fund its capital needs.

  • UkiPiper

    Will bikes be alowed on these busses?

  • I don’t mind this so much.  Most of the same work would need to be done whether or not you’re doing rail or BRT, and most importantly it retains the exclusive right of way for a later date when northern Staten Island gets dense enough that light rail is the only alternative.

    Retaining right of way in a city like NY is one of the best long-term transit investments we can make.

  • Aidry

    This is a horrible idea. Boston tried BRT in dedicated tunnels, which share the same issues with elevated busways, and the buses, for a variety of reasons, wind up having to operate at much slower speeds than light rail. The seating capacity of buses vs. light rail is also quite lacking.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It looks great to me.  The MTA spent a ton redoing the Staten Island Railway.  At the density of Staten Island, they would have been better off with a BRT trunk.

    Suggesting anything on Staten Island is an invitation to having a bunch of people show up and scream “forgotten borough” no matter what you suggest.  It’s generally a thankless waste of time.

    But on the grounds that its better to not do something big than not do something small, how about the bed of the former proposed Willowbrook Expressway?  No one wants an expressway through the Greenbelt, but a two lane busway could provide access — and a transitway through the congested mid-Island at a modest cost.  It would connect the green and yellow lines on that map, now squeezing across on Rockland Avenue and Richmond Road, directly to Hylan Boulevard and Great Kills Park.

  • It would be interesting to see this as it would be the first real BRT system in New York using truly a dedicated ROW and allowing flexibility with multiple bus routes. 

    Boston’s Silver Line is not a good comparison since the tunnel is built with very little room for maneuvering. 

  • Anonymous

    Those people make me sick. There is no reason for that not to be heavy rail.

    First of all, the existing SIR is heavy rail and the neighborhoods it passes through are less dense than those on the North Shore. The new line would get about 14,000 riders per day for just 5 miles, while the current SIR gets 14,000 riders per day over 14 miles. Somehow they warrant heavy rail but the North Shore doesn’t warrant it.

    Second of all, I know this is wishful thinking, but if the line is ever linked to Manhattan or even Brooklyn, that’s a lost opportunity to send the North Shore Line over there as well.

    Third of all, SI is the fastest growing borough, and the areas on the Northwestern part of SI (Arlington, Mariners’ Harbor, Elm Park, Port Richmond, and West Brighton) have seen some of the highest rates of growth on Staten Island. Yeah, the busway may be alright to handle the current ridership, but if the population doubles, then what? It isn’t that far out of the question, as gentrification is forcing a lot of families out of areas closer to the city core and into the outer boroughs and suburbs.

    Fourth of all, the main reason they’re doing this is to serve the Teleport, which is close to 50% vacant. They want to give up all hope of providing North Shore residents with a direct ride to Manhattan (with thousands of jobs) for the sake of a half-vacant office park? Ridiculous!

  • Please correct the pdf link.

  • Anonymous

    This is good, and the main reason is that it has a prayer of actually getting built in under a decade.  Sure if this were a progressive country that allocated its wealth properly, we would fund transit and professionals would be free to design some top quality stuff (i.e.   light rail that would cover all the principal corridors in the borough).  BRT on private right of way has a good track record – see Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Miami.  

  • Given how horrble the shape of the ROW east of Port Richmond is—I see this as a fair compromise. Parts of the ROW east of there are either now on private property or have rotted into the Kill van Kull, especially around Snug Harbor.

  • J

    After riding the Transitway in Ottawa, I think this is a pretty sweet idea. It gives amazing speed and felxibility. Once on the transitway, buses travel as fast or faster than light rail, but unlike light rail, existing local routes can use the transitway with no additional cost. It works really well in Ottawa, and they are continuing to expand their system. The same could be true on Staten Island. It can always be converted to light rail in the future, should ridership explode. In fact, nearly 30 years after opening the transitway, Ottawa is now pursuing the conversion of some downtown sections to light rail to increase capacity.

  • The real failure here is not extending the Hudson Bergen Light Rail over the Bayonne Bridge onto that right of way. 

    Politically this would have been useful because it would mean four senators from two states arguing for money from Congress. 

    From a planning standpoint, it would give north shore residents two options to get to Manhattan: either the ferry to lower Manhattan or the PATH to midtown. Plus it would then connect to Hoboken’s NJTransit suburban regional rail. 

    Already many busloads of passengers cross the Bayonne bridge before transferring to HBLR. 

  • MobilityRules37

    Better yet! a Heavy rail line where the staten island “terminal” is actually in the goddamn ferry. That way the ferry can dock and immediately send the riders uptown without a transferee at south ferry. It could work with the existing SIRR too! Its like containerization. the whole system works on subway cars! But I also like the BRT and the Bergen LRT extension, you know per capita and shit. 

  • Anonymous

    Ian, the grade for the line would be too steep. At the point where the North Shore Line meets the Bayonne Bridge, the North Shore Line is in a trench, so it wouldn’t be possible to climb that steep grade.

    Aside from that, you’d have to have 2 branches: One from Bayonne to St. George and the second from Bayonne to Arlington, but that makes it harder to get from St. George to Arlington.

    The plan is to extend the West Shore Light Rail down the median of the MLK Expressway, SIE, and WSE, to serve the South Shore. See here:

    As for the busloads of passengers, it’s only one bus route (the S89) and ridership really isn’t too great. At the height of rush hour, maybe you’ll have a couple of standees going over the bridge, but that’s about it. I think reverse-peak ridership is incfreasing slightly, though.

    The bus gets about 1000 riders a day, but only about 400 actually go over the Bayonne Bridge. The rest use it for intra-SI travel (me being one of them)

  • More ridership at half the cost?  Win-win.

  • The amount of subterfuge the MTA is engaging in is amazing. It kneecapped the rail option by including a line branching south to West Shore Plaza, combining existing-ROW construction (which is dirt cheap) with on-street construction (which isn’t). The corridor between the North Shore Line and West Shore Plaza is empty, but still needs to be served apparently. The MTA didn’t consider heavy rail for compatibility with the SIR.

    The “bus is cheaper than rail” mantra is only true for on-street construction. Paving over an existing rail line for a busway is much more expensive. $371 million for 5 miles? On-street light rail almost always costs less than that. Likewise, the “light rail is cheaper than heavy rail” mantra is only true when light rail can be done at-grade and heavy rail can’t; if both are going to use the exact same ROW, the differences in costs are trivial.

    What Staten Island needs to get decent transit is a direct connection to Manhattan. This means finding the money for a tunnel to Manhattan. There’s only one mode that can use such a tunnel and then connect to existing Manhattan infrastructure. At the very least the MTA should future-proof the line instead of spend about $300 million more than necessary on paving it over and then another few hundred million in 20 years on restoring rail service.

  • Anonymous

    @05aff3c0a7c94529dc138ce87543764a:disqus Exactly. As for the corridor between Arlington and the WS Plaza, the S46 usually sees less than 5 riders south of the SI Expressway (except maybe for schoolkids on a few runs, and a few rush hour runs that have like 10 people). Yet somehow that low ridership justifies screwing up the whole project.

  • Anonymous

    Everyone is angry at the project and it’s final decision….in short terms this project just killed itself and is not going to work. I myself am outraged along with many others who were there that night when the decision was announced. Most of the stuff posted in that meeting, in my honest opinion, is false and a lie. On top of that it was a Rail Line once before and it should stay that way. Politicians are disgusted, even with no Snug Harbor stop, Environmentalists are outraged, and Civilians along the ROW now are in danger of losing their homes and businesses and I know they’re going to start a resistance towards this project. We have a Rail line that doesnt need to be expanded or be made wider to accomodate a bus that completely sucks! Heck I hate to do this, but i’m contacting the Sierra Club on the Environmental Issue, and am suiting up and planning to spread word in the area about whats going to happen to peoples homes near the ROW.  Plus I have allied myself with a politicians who is against this idea. But the final thing in the bag is contacting CSX Transportation. The MTA wants the bus right of way to tell CSX to eliminate two of their vital tracks they need for the Arlington Yard at South Avenue. So in short terms i’m going to inform them about whats going to happen and tell them to resist the MTA’s demand and tell them, lile they’ve told everybody else, to go to hell.

  • Andrew

    @sonnyy92:disqus What do you mean by “everyone”?

    Here alone, it looks like @twitter-17049744:disqus , @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus , @facebook-26309738:disqus , @Emmily_Litella:disqus , @Uptowner13:disqus , and @yahoo-G4HAJAVAIBOIM7K5LV6JKW6GAM:disqus are pretty satisfied.

    I like trains as much as the next guy, but the ability of buses to branch out and directly serve more riders is pretty appealing. (I hadn’t seen the Human Transit article on open busway design before, but I agree with it.) So you can add me to the list of the satisfied.

  • mcsladek

    At the meeting on Thurs, many individuals in attendance were unsatisfied with the decision, and none of them were ‘forgotten borough screamers,’ but rather intelligent people, waterfront lovers and transit enthusiasts.  I personally was on Team Lightrail, for air quality reasons alone, not to mention other reasons having to do with anticipated delays, ease of use by tourists, allowing for population growth, etc.  A recent report by the American Lung Association in late April gave SI the only failing grade in the city, I’m sure due in part to the expressway and high auto dependence but also attributed to pollution blown over by the other boroughs and New Jersey.  Someone in the meeting referred to the decision as a ‘bus highway,’ which sounds disturbingly apt.  They also stressed that this project will take at least 10 years (in which SI’s population is expected to surpass 500,000), so don’t expect it being completed in under a decade.  I wonder how many commenters here supporting the busway actually live on SI or have visited the western end of the north shore in the past 10 years….

  • Larry Littlefield

    You know what those objecting the the Busway because it isn’t light rail remind me of?  Sheldon Silver holding up the Second Avenue subway from 63rd Street to 125th Street for a couple of years — while allowing East Side Access to go ahead — because it wasn’t a “full length” Second Avenue Subway.

    In the end we got a new EIS for a full length Second Avenue Subway.  And actual construction terminating at 96th Street.  And after 9/11, to add insult to injury, Silver was quoted as saying even that shouldn’t be built.

    Bottom line — build the busway, change the land use, generate demand, and in 25 years you can lay tracks in the ROW if the market demands it.  This is like saying NYC should never have allowed horsecars and the Els because they weren’t the subway.  Horsecars and the Els enabled the density that made the subway possible.  It shows remarkable foresight, relative to past practice, that City Planning is considering a plan for the North Shore in the context of this improvement.  People should be lobbying for a bike path along the busway and to it rather than objecting.

    And with regard to the Bayonne Bridge, one project I believe will get down is raising it.  There is no sense in connecting anything to it until that is done.

  • Anonymous

    @Andrew: And how many of those people actually live on SI and use transit here?

  • Andrew

    @gustaajedrez:disqus I didn’t realize that was a precondition to having an opinion. (Especially since most commenters here will be pitching in to build and operate the thing, if it ever does get built.) You are certainly one of the more intelligent and well-informed participants in discussions of Staten Island issues, but I disagree with you here.

    To address your own comments, the existing SIR would certainly not be built as heavy rail, and probably not even as light rail, today. When ridership grows, switch to articulated buses or run more frequent service. If ridership skyrockets to the point that rail service is really worth seriously considering, it can always be added later, but I doubt it will reach that point.

  • Anonymous

    The other problem or issue here that wasn’t accounted for in this decision is that they appear to only have looked at the Capital costs of the two projects in making this decision.  When you do that, sure BRT looks cheaper.  But one needs to consider the long term operating costs in the equation.

    While the MTA currently has no light rail lines in operation, the national average for light rail is that it costs 70 cents per passenger mile.  The national average for buses is 90 cents per pax mile, and the MTA does far worse than that coming in at $1.25 per passenger mile.  The subway on the other hand beats the national average of 40 cents, coming in at 34 cents per pax/mile.  SIRR isn’t quite as good, coming in at 79 cents.

    But as Salt Lake City learned, the big difference between operating costs quickly closes the gap between buses and rail when all of the costs, both capital & operating, are included.  Just 12 years after they started construction on their first LRT line, they had spent less money on light rail than the buses.

  • Anonymous

    What about connection to HBLRT across the bridge to NJ?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, but the thing is that in the future, it’ll be more expensive to convert the line to heavy rail than if it were just built that way in the first place. And I have a feeling that even if ridership does increase to that point, it’ll be a while before they actually convert it to a rail line, the same way they’re dragging their feet on the issue today. And even then, you have to shut down the busway while you’re converting it to heavy rail, which means that instead of just having the current bus riders in the corridor wait another couple of years for rail service, you’ll have the 12,000 riders who are riding the busway be inconvenienced, and I’m sure a lot of them may have made changes just because of the busway (maybe they bought a house near the busway because they thought it was always going to be there, and then you shut it down for a few years while you convert it to heavy rail. Of course, it’ll be better once it’s heavy rail, but you could’ve achieved that in a less disruptive manner had it been built that way from the start).

    And aside from that, those areas don’t have a lot of NIMBYs, so it wouldn’t be too hard to build more dense housing around the train stations to further boost ridership. And like I said, there’s the potential for it to be directly connected to Manhattan, either through a St. George-Lower Manhattan tunnel or by somehow hooking it up to the PATH. You lose both options if you don’t have it as heavy rail.

    @iSkyScraper: Like I said before, the grade would be too steep. The North Shore ROW is in a trench when it hits Elm Park, and the Bayonne Bridge is 150 feet in the air.

  • Andrew

    @gustaajedrez:disqus As I said, I could be wrong, but I don’t see it reaching that point. Staten Island may be growing fast in relative terms, but its population density, even on the North Shore, is absolutely tiny compared to the population density elsewhere in the city, especially in the parts of the city with direct subway service – and my impression is that much of Staten Island prefers it that way. I’d rather see BRT service branching out over six corridors than unnecessary high-capacity rail service on one.

    @ahblid:disqus Operating costs for rail are lower than for bus because rail generally has greater capacity per vehicle. In other words, the operating costs are lower because the service is less frequent. But if the decision has already been made to meet each ferry arrival and departure, the frequency is fixed. Page 16 of the presentation gives the operating cost: $6.5 million for BRT or $7.0 million for light rail.

    The last page of the presentation has contact information. Looks like they’re willing to field questions and comments.

  • Anonymous


    Capacity is indeed part of the reason for lower operating costs, but it’s not the only reason.  It’s also the fact that you need far fewer employees; plus the fact that there are typically fewer moving parts on a train as compared to a bus, which makes maintenance costs lower.

    But still, it comes back to the fact that while BRT costs less to build, long term rail would have worked out to be cheaper.  Especially since you need many more buses to do the same job and a bus typically lasts 10 to 12 years while a rail car lasts 30 to 40 years.

  • Andrew

    @ahblid:disqus Then I suggest you contact them to correct their mistake, because they show lower operating costs for the BRT option.

  • Rather than building BRT in the old rail right-of-way on the north shore, how about building BRT in old car right-of-way along the Staten Island Expressway (and Gowanus and BBT)? That would actually get Staten Islanders to Manhattan faster than they currently can by driving. By contrast, the above proposal seems unlikely to attract many riders with alternatives, given the ease of driving and parking for trips within Staten Island.  It would also mess up a right-of-way that would be better left preserved for now until upzoning and the sort of rail service Alon Levy refers to become feasible.

  • Anonymous

    @20842f86a69fd37b0c6fb835099387ce:disqus They already have bus lanes running from Slosson Avenue to the VZ Bridge. I believe there are plans to extend them to Richmond Avenue in the future.

    @Andrew: Here’s a map of population density in NYC:

    A lot of the areas on the North Shore are in the 15K-20K ppsm range (and keep in mind that there are a lot of industrial areas by Richmond Terrace, so that explains the ones down in the 10K range). I mean, South Jamaica is in the 25K range, but that doesn’t have subway access (but it is a relatively short ride from subway trains in Jamaica).

    I don’t know if the North Shore could’ve been undercounted (moreso than other areas in the city). In the Port Richmond area, there is a large immigrant population that may have been undercounted (on the form, they may have put down 1 or 2 people when there were actually 10 people in the home or something to that effect). How much of a difference it makes I don’t know.

  • Andrew

    @20842f86a69fd37b0c6fb835099387ce:disqus Because the objective was never to get people to Manhattan quickly.

    @gustaajedrez:disqus Thanks for the excellent resource, although I wish there were some way to change the “buckets” – the defaults are basically useless for New York City. In any case, I stand by my earlier point – that densities in Staten Island, even on the North Shore, are very low compared to parts of the city with subway service, and that it’s better to serve six corridors directly by bus than to worry about capacity issues that are unlikely to ever arise.

  • Andrew, the problem with mantras like “The density doesn’t warrant heavy rail” is that there already exists a mostly grade-separated ROW for this.

    However, the MTA inexplicably wanted to serve the Teleport and West Shore Plaza, so it bundled a situation in which rail is really cheap (pre-existing ROW) and one in which it’s expensive (new on-street construction). In other cities, the cost of on-street construction is routinely higher than that of existing-rail-ROW construction; I’m not just comparing New York costs with rest-of-world costs here.

    This bundling killed heavy rail as an option, because for heavy rail, on-street running is not really viable. Then with light rail the fixed costs, e.g. maintaining a type of vehicle that’s new for NYCT, made everything look more expensive even if the line were cut to Arlington. The correct option – SIR-compatible heavy rail to Arlington – was not considered. At one of the meetings about this, @gustaajedrez:disqus asked why heavy rail was eliminated, and in response the consultants who held the meeting stonewalled.

    As it is, the ROW is too far from Castleton and Forest, so they can’t even reroute the 46 and 48 to use it. They’re just putting new buses hoping enough people will move from the 40, which is the least used of the four east-west buses on the North Shore. So buses using this corridor don’t even have the directness advantage over rail here.

  • TomasG

    This is such a joke. The US spends literally trillions to destroy Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet NY can’t find $645M to build a sorely-needed rail line where one used to stand, in far more enlightened times. And the pathetic Staten Islanders earnestly debate the pro’s and con’s of BRT and why a train is – you know – just way to expensive. I wonder when New Yorkers (and Americans in general) will realize what totally ripped-off, abused stooges they are for the military-industrial complex. The standard of living in Staten Island approaches that of Nigeria, yet the people are so stupid and craven that they line up for the abuse. Thank God my family left blighted Staten Island in 1980. In Germany we live like kings, with beautiful trains, streetcars and lovely cities and towns. Wake up, Staten Islanders! Wake-up Americans! You don’t have to live like animals….

  • Zzzzzzzzz

    Yeah and you are taxed out the wazoo in a world where your socialistic government does everything for you. Real individualism. I’ve spent time Germany and your arrogant post here is way off. How’s the waiting lists at your local hospital these days, hmm? Still need a prescription for aspirin?

  • Long Suffering Motorist

    In case you forgot, Afghanistan and Iraq were nations waging wars upon other parts of the world, including our country. As for this project, the main problem with either a rail line or a busway on the North Shore, is the frequent erosion in the Sailors Snug Harbor/Livingston area.


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