Light rail plan gathers steam in growing area
Study shows SI, NJ link would be feasible; costs may scuttle it
By Anita Jain
Published on December 20, 2004
Some days, Unique Sotirakis' commute by express bus to her midtown Manhattan office from the south shore of Staten Island lasts only an hour. Those are the good days.
With traffic, it can often be an hour and a half or longer-like the time a couple of months ago when she got stuck in a tunnel for 45 minutes. "It's not very reliable because of the traffic," the advertising sales executive says.
Staten Island officials, however, are working to make Ms. Sotirakis' daily journey a bit less tedious. After years of discussion, they have taken the initial steps toward building a light rail system that would greatly reduce travel times for daily commuters from the south shore of the borough.
An initial study of the project, funded by New York City's Economic Development Corp., was completed over the summer.
Long way off
But Ms. Sotirakis shouldn't plan on sleeping in anytime soon. A solution--if it were to see the light of day at all--is still years away. Difficulties with receiving environmental approvals and finding funding for the nearly $1 billion project could scuttle plans for the rail system.
Officials have been taking the idea of a light rail system more seriously of late because of the recent explosive population growth in the borough. From 1990 to 2000, the Tottenville area in southern Staten Island-where the light rail train would commence-has been the fastest-growing region in the borough, which itself has been the fastest-growing county in New York state. In that decade, Tottenville's population grew 50%, while Staten Island's population increased 17%.
The completed study established that a light rail train going from the southern tip of Staten Island over the Bayonne Bridge into New Jersey would be feasible to build. Once in New Jersey, the train would discharge commuters near a PATH station. "Commuters could switch once to the PATH and be in Manhattan in under an hour," says Randy Lee, executive vice chairman of the Staten Island Economic Development Corp.
The system, which would take between 10 and 15 years to build, would clearly be aimed at residents in the southern, western and central parts of the island who experience lengthier commutes. All told, nearly 100,000 Staten Island residents commute to one of the other boroughs or New Jersey daily.
The next stage in the process to bring a light rail transit system to Staten Island would be a second, more detailed study that would look at the environmental impact of the project. The costs associated with the first study were fairly minimal at $50,000, but the next study could cost as much as $500,000, Mr. Lee says. He adds that the SIEDC is seeking funding from city and federal officials for the second study.
"I will try to secure funding under the transportation or economic development appropriations bill," says Rep. Vito Fossella, R-Staten Island.
But some city agencies are already distancing themselves from the project. Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for the city's EDC, says that while the agency funded the first study, it might not be involved in a second. "Since the city does not normally undertake transportation projects of this magnitude, the next step would be for the MTA or the Port Authority to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement if they felt it warranted," she says.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey claims to have even less involvement. A spokesman says, "We have no involvement with this, nor have we been asked to, either."
Staten Island officials, however, remain firmly in favor of the project. "We've established the basic need for it, and that's important," says James Molinaro, the borough's president. "Once you have that, you can move forward."