New York City

Roosevelt Island Transit Choices

What are Roosevelt Island’s transit options…

What are we dealing with here?


Roosevelt Island transit choices jumped into focus again, last week, as the MTA threatened to gut bus service. And follow up with mangling a subway shutdown on Monday. Let’s take a look at the state of things.

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. It’s obvious…

And that’s what makes it so surprising when we don’t get it.

It may look familiar but this photo of crowding in the Roosevelt Subway is from November, 2016. It’s worse now, and like then, the next train will be packed on arrival. Shove on or get left behind.

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.

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 recognized our lack of clout by rerouting M Trains, not along the congesting F Line, but as a supplement to the Q up Second Avenue.

Why?

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.”

Head’s up: fresh news, ideas, calendar and features daily at Roosevelt Island News.

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, excuse me, 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 everyone does fine.

But we don’t even need that frequency. Step up two or three trains per hour, and that would clear the platforms.

Easy peasy. But not for the MTA.

Roosevelt Island Tram

Our Tram is 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.

A nostalgic look at the original Roosevelt Island Tram alongside the historic Queensboro Bridge by Roosevelt Island Artist Deborah Julian.

It’s shortcomings are unfixable. Capacity, with just two cabins, will always be limited. And it’s route is even more limited.

To got anywhere but home or the near East Side, you transfer or walk.

And unlike its sister agency, the MTA, RIOC keeps the Tram clean, neat and courteous, respectful of riders.

Possible solutions…

If Tram operators asked passengers to remove their backpacks and stop battering their neighbors, that would also conquer something the subway finds insurmountable.

NYC Ferry

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.

Susan Rosenthal arrives on First Roosevelt Island Ferry
On a cool August morning in 2017, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal was the first commuter to arrive by ferry on Roosevelt Island. City Council Member Ben Kallos stands by.

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.

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: 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.

Conclusion

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 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.

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