What are Roosevelt Island’s transit options…
What are we dealing with here?
Roosevelt Island transit choices jumped into focus again, last winter, when the MTA threatened to gut bus service. And followed up with mangling a subway shutdown. Then, the pandemic threw it all out of sync, but as we ramp back to normal, here’s current overview.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By David Stone
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Roosevelt Island‘s transit needs are unique. We can’t walk to needed services, jobs or events. We need special consideration and always have. It’s obvious…
We’re smack dab in the middle of a river.
And that’s what makes it so surprising when we don’t get what we need.
Related: MTA’s Smart Bay Ridge Branch Idea
Option #1: NYC Subway
No transit choice is more heavily used on Roosevelt Island than the subway. And none are less loved.
Three years ago, we published Third World In Our Backyard, a report on the dreary state of our station. The MTA responded with a small outburst of cleaning, but that didn’t last.
Take a look at the photo gallery we added. See if you can find much difference today.
There are differences, of course, after three years. More crowding is one, much of it caused by opening the Second Avenue Subway Line. As we predicted, that enhanced the value of the F Line to commuters.
Cornell Tech’s opening added more travelers to and from Roosevelt Island. As the campus grows and two new Southtown buildings open, it gets worse.
And planners come up blank when Roosevelt Island transit choices are needed.
Instead, officials marked our lack of clout by rerouting M Trains, not along the congesting F Line, but as a supplement to the Q along Second Avenue.
The answer’s the same as it was when they asked famous robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks.
“That’s where the money is.”
A subway solution…
I argued this with everyone from State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s office to Steve Shane, RIOC’s president three administrations back.
Send more trains through Roosevelt Island during rush hours.
The response never changes. The MTA says they can’t. Seven minute gaps are all they can manage.
Which is a pile of crap.
Anytime they need to reroute Es or Rs though Roosevelt Island, for whatever reason, those gaps shrink to three or four minutes, and everything works fine.
But we don’t even need that frequency. Increase by two or three trains per hour, and that clears the platforms.
Easy peasy. But not for the MTA.
This needs to be explored, but as we reported in our ghost tunnel under Roosevelt Island piece, the tunnel now delivering F trains has a twin beneath it. It’s part of the boondoggle Midtown Access plan, departing from the F after 63rd Street, curling toward Grand Central Station.
As one reader pointed out, the platforms and tunnel are already there. All we need are addition escalators, stairs and elevators to go a single flight.
It’s the most economical solution; so, why not?
Roosevelt Island Tram
Our Tram‘s damn near a miracle.
Sure, we had some interruptions when our 43 year old system needed improvements, but rain or shine, the Tram just works.
It’s shortcomings are unfixable. Capacity, with just two cabins, will always be limited. And it’s route is even more limited.
To get anywhere but home or the near East Side, you transfer or walk.
But unlike its sister agency, the MTA, RIOC keeps the Tram clean, neat and courteous, respectful of riders.
UPDATE 9/18/20: COVID-19 restrictions currently limit cabins to 20 passengers at a time, and that sometimes creates waiting lines. The may worsen once schools open and commuting increases.
If Tram operators asked passengers to remove their backpacks and stop battering their neighbors, that would also conquer something the subway finds insurmountable.
Roosevelt Island’s Ferry Landing was a mass transit gift from Mayor Bill de Blasio. While the New York Post whines about how the NYC Ferry loses money, so does every other government service.
When was the last time NYPD turned a profit? Public schools? It’s a bogus, conservative complaint. They don’t like it because it helps people like us.
Ferry service connects us quickly and comfortably to otherwise hard to reach neighborhoods. Its run to Wall Street takes some load off other transit options.
But capacity, like the Tram, is limited, a situation worsened by, unlike the Tram, serving other transit hungry communities. It’s also limited by landing, in most places, far from other mass transit choices for transfer.
Roosevelt Island Transit Option #4: MTA Bus
Q102 service was devalued a few years back when deep thinkers at the MTA chose to stop alternating routes on Roosevelt Island, ending the chance for direct MTA bus travel from Tram and Subway all the way north to Coler Hospital.
But it’s still valued by many riders needing access to Queens and by visitors and workers at Coler.
Unfortunately, more brilliant thinking has the MTA threatening to gut remaining bus services. An active proposal takes away the Q102, replacing it with a QT78 which reduces services by more than 50%.
As with the earlier thickheaded move, transit volume on Roosevelt Island would shift to already overcrowded RIOC Red Buses.
Buses that are free because they’re there to serve residents will be further swarmed by nonresidents in need.
RIOC, State Senator José Serrano and Coler volunteer Judith Berdy mounted a campaign, hoping to change MTA’s plans. Optimism abounds, but there’s no guarantee of success.
Other Roosevelt Island Mass Transit Ideas and Alternatives
Three ideas pop up perennially, like weeds that won’t be killed, but let’s try anyway.
- Build a Stairway and/or Elevator to the Queensboro Bridge: Even pretending the Department of Transportation hasn’t already said, “No,” a hundred times, who’s climbing up 10 flights of steps, just to walk another half-mile to land? Who pays for the elevator and maintenance? And what destination is great enough to send walkers across that icy river in mid-winter? It’s a stupid idea and needs to be suffocated.
- A Walking Bridge Across the East River: Anyone gifted enough to find funding for engineering and construction of a bridge, a quarter of a mile long, to nowhere anyone wants to go, is immediately qualified for a MacArthur Grant. Next challenge: find enough hearty souls willing to take the long time-consuming route during rush hours to provide any serious reduction in subway crowding.
- Construct a New Subway Station for Roosevelt Island: Among transit options, this one makes the most sense. Two subway lines besides the F’s 63rd Street passage run under us. Construction would be costly and likely to take more than a decade to finish. The Second Avenue Line took a half-century after groundbreaking. The F Line itself was twenty years in the making. And it needs to be said again: we have no political clout here. We’re small and partially ruled by an unelected caretaker.
Funny thing is, the most viable solution to Roosevelt Island’s transit dilemmas is also the easiest to solve.
Were it not for the MTA.
A few more trains down that 63rd Street tunnel and “Hallelujah!”
But they decided to help the Upper East Side instead, and you’re free to guess why.
Our best hope: a growing and influential Cornell Tech campus forces the issues. Among the many benefits Cornell’s brought us, developing civic muscles may, in the end, be the best.