Mayor Bill de Blasio, like Michael Bloomberg, gives roughly the same appearance of being open-minded about transit investments as our Mike Bloomberg, our previous mayor. But unlike Mayor Mike, a multi-billionaire whose fortune increased by some $10 billion during his time in ofice, de Blasio certainly doesn't feel the need for maintaining a propaganda front by actually rubbing shoulders with "everyday New Yorkers" via an occasional subway ride. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio is just as tight-lipped about the longstanding 42nd Street LRT proposal. Worse, he signed off, in spring 2015, on a rezoning around Grand Central Terminal which will allow for shoehorning in a series of supersize skyscrapers that will dramatically worsen an already desperately crowded streetscape and subway system.
The news about the 42nd St. LRT proposal as it went through the gauntlet of approvals during the 1990's was essentially censored out of the city's paper of record, the NY Times, when such coverage could have had a positive effect. Fortunately, this dramatic LRT proposal was the chief news item for the four years that the New York Streetcar News, dedicated to modern surface transit investment, was in publication, from Jan. 1994 through Dec. 1997 [a project to make available online pdfs of this publication are now in the works]. Unfortunately, the LRT plan, formalized during and officialy recognized by the Dinkins Administration, has been dormant since 1998. But none of the basic facts about this famous crossroads, like for instance, the amount of roadbed reconstruction needed before tracks can be installed, have changed. Therefore, to help you get an inside view of this world-famous street and also of the dysfunctional political process in NYC that can derail worthy projects, we provide here, unedited and in chronological order, starting with the earliest, every news item, analysis and letter written about 42nd Street LRT that appeared in the Streetcar News. We would especially call your attention to the brilliant essay, "Hello New York", written by George Haikalis and Carter Craft, that appeared in Sept/Oct 1996.
The New York Streetcar News was an eight-page newsletter published by the Committee for Better Transit six issues per year during 1994, 1995 and 1996, and quarterly in 1997. It has been in suspension since then. Most back issues are still available -- email George Haikalis [or speak to him at an AFNY monthly meeting] for details.
Trolleys on 42nd Street:
1994-1997 Archive of News Articles
about the 42nd St. Light Rail Proposal
Jan/Feb 1994: Will Streetcars Return to 42nd Street?
"BACK To The Future," declares the promotional pamphlet distributed by the 42nd Street
Development Corporation, to describe their proposal to build and operate a 2.2 mile long light
rail transit (LRT) line on 42nd St. in the very heart of Manhattan. This street bid farewell to its
last streetcar in November, 1946. Costing about $75 million, the new line would reach from the
Jacob Javits Convention Center and the Port Imperial ferry dock on the Hudson River at 38th St.
to the United Nations on First Ave. It could be the first link in an extensive streetcar network that
would connect other boroughs, the New Jersey waterfront and regional airports.
First proposed in 1979, the LRT plan has been revised 13 times and undergone $2 million of
studies (with some funding from the development corporation itself). The companies who are
willing to invest in the project are convinced the line will turn a profit.
The Macy's Day Parade
Two tracks, embedded in the pavement, would run along the south side of the street, separated
from other traffic, which would consist of three lanes west-bound (but no bike lanes). The plan
includes special events crossovers and provides for overhead wire removal so that parades on
Broadway and Fifth Avenue can pass by unimpeded (the streetcars can either coast past the wire gap or turn back).
The modern vehicles would have low floors, allowing easy access for the wheelchair-bound and
elderly. Fares would be the same as the MTA's buses and will accept and offer free transfers.
The result would be dramatically faster and more convenient crosstown travel. Air would be
cleaner since streetcars have no tailpipe emissions (the generating plants that power them are
much cleaner per passenger mile than even natural gas-powered buses). And since modern
trolleys are far quieter than buses, walking, shopping and sightseeing on this street would be
more pleasant, attracting tourists and theatregoers.
Beyond Legitimate Concern
But with all these proven features and an exhaustive 700-page Environmental Impact Statement,
the LRT plan continues to draw hostility from some members of local community boards. On
Dec. 16, the Permanent Citizens' Advisory Committee to the MTA voted against the proposal,
citing fears of reduction of bus service.
Beyond such legitimate concerns as traffic routing, sidewalk narrowing, local deliveries and
frequency of service, critics remain suspicious of private sector involvement in transit and other
public services. The fraud and mismanagement that accompanied the $23.7 million 14th St.
rebuild and the dismaying record of New York's real estate speculators only reinforce these fears.
However inaccurate with regards to the current proposal, the spectre of corruption and
incompetence among private contractors still embitters some New Yorkers.
Lightning Rod On 42nd Street
"We have long been advocates for modern electric surface transit," says Committee for Better Transit President Dr. Stephen Dobrow. "We welcome private investment but we believe that these resources and entrepreneurial energy should be brought in as part of a proper transportation planning process. This way we can get LRT built while satisfying legitimate community concerns."
Since the 42nd Street LRT plan will feature the first streetcars to run in Manhattan in 50 years,
the plan is serving as the lightning rod for those New Yorkers fearful of any change or, for that
matter, anything at all involving public space or large amounts of money. At the same time, however, transit advocates are gradually becoming more visible in the public debates. While they would like to see the line planned and built as part of a much larger overall
system, extended to Penn Station, and all of 42nd Street made permanently auto-free, they
recognize that the LRT plan is at least a substantial step in the right direction.
Jan/Feb 1994: LRT Plan Advances
by Jim Moore
IT WASN'T until early 1991, when the Dinkins Administration agreed to pursue the light rail
transit (LRT) proposal for 42nd St., that any progress was made in actually implementing the
LRT. In November, 1991, the not-for-profit 42nd Street Development Corporation formed a
public/private partnership with the City Department of Transportation (DOT). A year later, the
City Council passed an Authorizing Resolution, mandated by the new City Charter, setting out
parameters for a franchise and permitting the DOT to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP). But
first two important review processes have to be completed -- the CEQR and the ULURP.
The City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) should be completed by March 1994, and the
Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) should be done by April or May. These two
reviews involve extensive public hearings, community board meetings, approvals from numerous
city agencies and the Borough President's office, and a draft and final version of the
Environmental Impact Statement, a massive 700-page tome.
Meanwhile, a Request for Qualifications was issued in May 1993 to hundreds of companies involved in the transportation business. From among these, four "teams," selected through a strict process, have been chosen to receive an RFP. When the CEQR and ULURP are finished this spring, the four teams will present their final detailed proposals. If approved, construction would begin in 1995 and streetcars would be running by the end of 1996.
[Jim Moore is the Project Director of the 42nd St. Development Corporation.]
Jan/Feb 1994: LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Forget About Manhattan!
"People have been trying to get light rail on 42nd St. since the late 70's. It is my feeling that if
[this] line is not built, no light rail will ever come to Manhattan, and perhaps never to the other
boroughs (except for very short, off the street museum type of operations).
"It is ironic that a private firm is willing to build and operate the line (with private funds) with
modern vehicles and the public is so against it. You should propose streetcar lines first in the
outer boroughs. Manhattan was always anti-trolley. Major lines started to be replaced by motor
buses in the early 30's, and by 1947, the conversion was complete. No major city except Paris
had its central business district rid of streetcars so early. In Los Angeles, where the car is king,
streetcars and trackless trolleys were kept until the early 60's. Even Washington, DC kept them
until and during the Kennedy Administration. In short, let's get a streetcar line working in the
other boroughs (especially Brooklyn) and let the Manhattanites be jealous as they choke over
diesel exhaust fumes!"
Good luck with your magazine.
Steven R. Berger
March/April 1994: Ruth Messinger Approves 42nd St. Trolley
EFFORTS to build a new crosstown streetcar line on 42nd St. received an important boost on
Feb. 9th when Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger gave her conditional backing to the
$75 million public/private project. The plan, put forth by the non-profit 42nd St. Development
Corporation, headed by Fred Papert, and the NYC Dept. of Transportation, calls for low-floor
cars running on two tracks in a separate right-of-way on the south side of a one-way westbound
"While too many questions remain open to earn my unqualified support," said Messinger in a
prepared statement, "at the heart of the project lies an idea that will bring numerous
environmental and economic benefits to our entire city. Real and exciting progress depends on
our ability to solve the remaining problems."
The Borough President has received commitments from the 42nd St. Development Corp. not to
narrow sidewalks, to increase LRT service frequency to bus levels, to examine reversing 43rd St.
as an eastbound traffic reliever and to pursue options for the M104 bus, which connects upper
Broadway with 42nd St. Project Director Jim Moore suggested that the M104 be combined with
the M16 to offer a single-seat ride from the Upper West Side to Penn Station, Herald Square and
the NYU Medical Center.
Messinger also wants a formal procedure by which her office and affected City Councilmembers,
Community Boards and business groups will be able to offer their input on final design, line and
station siting, and franchisee selection. The issues raised by local residents that most be resolved
are traffic, curb-side deliveries, better access to the Jacob Javits Center on 11th Ave. and the
line's impact on the proposed Hudson River Park. She is also insisting that the line be
Committee for Better Transit Vice President Brendan Read commented, "I am glad that the
Borough President sees there is the potential that LRT could be an answer to Manhattan's
transportation woes. None of us are in any position to judge whether this is a good or bad plan
until we see the final proposal and examine what the franchisees have to offer."
March/April 1994: EDITORIAL: Let's Get the 42nd St. Trolley on Track!
IT only takes one slow, lurching ride aboard the M42 bus from the bus terminal to Grand Central
Station, to be convinced that there must be a better way to cross Manhattan. By walking, one can
bypass the cars, taxis and trucks clogging the "exclusive" bus lanes. The Committee for Better Transit backs the 42nd St. LRT Project. We are asking you, the readers of New York Streetcar News, to join us in urging your Community Boards, City Councilmembers and Mayor Giuliani to climb aboard.
No, the 42nd St. LRT plan is not perfect. Borough President Messinger is quite right to insist on
addressing legitimate concerns before she gives her unqualified support. We would have
preferred a completely auto-free 42nd St., perhaps with a taxi lane in front of Grand Central
Station and with lanes for commercial vehicles available only where and when they were really
needed. We would have also preferred that the MTA carry out the project under its mandate to
coordinate transit in the City and its suburbs. Nevertheless, the plan as now offered is the best available and with private financing lined up, seems doable.
It seems that some of the trolley's most bitter critics know little or nothing about light rail and
would like to leave it at that. We were particularly appalled by critics at a recent public forum,
who assailed a Garment Industry representative for supporting the 42nd St. project. It was
obvious the industry had studied the proposal and concluded the LRT would be a boon, while the
critics simply had not done their homework.
We wish the NYC Dept. of Transportation and the 42nd St. Development Corp. well. Both have
been open and willing to work with the public to make LRT acceptable. If they can succeed, they
will have achieved a feat few thought possible -- initiating the return of sustainable surface
transportation, as well as making crosstown travel in the very heart of the nation's most dynamic
city fast and enjoyable again.
May/June 1994: 42nd St. Trolley Plan Voted on Track
THE 42nd St. light rail transit (LRT) proposal sailed by another hurdle on April 6 when New
York's City Planning Commission approved with a resounding 11-1 vote the privately financed
project. Streetcars could be running again on 42nd St. as early as 1997. To accommodate local concerns, the commission did create an advisory panel with community representatives to speak on the LRT plan as it proceeds. Nevertheless, it appears opponents will try to block the project at its next approval stage, the City Council (see box on page 2). Commission chairman Joseph P. Rose told New York Newsday that he hoped the decision would prompt the development of LRT citywide and would "integrate light rail as a transit option in addition to subways and autos."
Power Authority Approves
The state-owned New York Power Authority (NYPA), interested in promoting electricity as a relatively clean energy source, has come out in support of the project. NYPA is willing to invest up front roughly $8 million for overhead wire, poles and related equipment. This funding may provide the local match required to obtain additional federal funds if they are needed.
Final EIS Emerges
The long-awaited analysis of the 42nd St. project, an exhaustively researched 700-page tome, was finally released on March 23. The Final Environmental Impact Statement(FEIS) found that the project would cost $6 million less than originally thought and would be cheaper than natural gas-fueled buses. It also found that annual operating costs would be substantially lower than various other bus alternatives. Copies of the final EIS are available for public inspection at NYC Dept. of Transportation, 40 Worth St., Manhattan and at the 42nd St. Development Corporation, 330 W. 42nd St.
May/June 1994: EDITORIAL: Where Will All the Cars Go?
THE proposal to build a crosstown street car line on 42nd St. has once again caught the planning
community with its plans down. Although this project has been percolating since the 1970s, it
continues to suffer from the absence of a comprehensive plan to reduce the chronic traffic
congestion that has plagued Manhattan's central business district for decades. Without an overall traffic reduction plan, the proposal has been a tough sell for community boards and even some transit advocates, who fear that congestion will be caused by displaced eastbound car traffic. To critics, the idea of a completely auto-free 42nd St. with streetcar tracks down the middle apparently seems even more terrifying. Where, they ask, will all the cars go?
In a recent article in the American Planning Association's newsletter, George Haikalis, Senior
Editor of the Streetcar News, pointed out that "most transportation planning is based on the
notion of a fixed trip table of origins and destinations. Yet travel is malleable -- people choose
logically among the options offered to them. When it rains in Manhattan, cabs become scarce
and many taxi riders choose the subway or bus. Travel on 42nd St. is even more discretionary
because of the sizeable percentage of travelers who are tourists." Streets and highway lanes are
closed every day in NYC, often without prior notice, for repairs or emergencies. Yet the
displaced traffic disappears within hours or days.
Trolley critics are mistaken in assuming that eastbound traffic displaced from 42nd St. will clog
"already overburdened" West 40th St. This street won't get more crowded than it already is.
Instead, motorists will choose other routes or evolve into transit riders.
Some residents of Tudor City, a quiet and well-to-do East Side enclave, have suddenly become worried about
East 40th Street. But east of Third Avenue, it's little more than a car alley, with five parking garages
(total capacity 1,550 cars) and two parking lots (hundreds more cars). Tudor City, with entrances
on its own semi-private street, presents 40th Street with an enormous brick wall and garage
Haikalis also noted that "the city's environmental analysis is based on what is thought to be the
worst case scenario: that travel patterns will remain fixed and any new trips generated by new
developments will simply be added to existing travel streams. So-called 'mitigation' measures are
then devised to prevent travel conditions from worsening." The city's analysis also ignores any
diversion of commuters into transit when New Jersey's waterfront light rail line begins operation
later this decade.
Residents and community groups should be clamoring for the city to calculate a best case
scenario -- traffic planning that allows the city to manage overall travel demand that will improve
our economic climate and quality of life. With modern traffic planning in effect, a completely
auto-free 42nd St., with an identifiable, easy to use light rail transit line down the center, would
become the central feature of a dramatically more civilized and civic-minded New York.
May/June 1994: LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
Trolley Routes are Too Short
"Three-mile, two-mile and half-mile trolley lines are not really "restored trolley service as an integral
part of our transportation system" -- unless they are part of a larger trolley network. What
survives in New Orleans and what was just started in Memphis, Tennessee, are more tourist
spectacles than anything else. And 42nd St. is too short to be even a first line in a multi-line plan;
for too often with transit a portion of the first line becomes the last and only line (as in Buffalo
"If a trolley route appeared from the UN to the Javits Center, that would be fine. However, the
trolley route to push for first is one that would be longer and provide an alternate to cars and
vans, such as the NJ Waterfront through Bayonne and a Third Avenue line through the Brooklyn
Battery Tunnel to replace the Gowanus Expressway, which should be torn down rather than
(EDITOR"S REPLY: Ms. Wolfberg is correct: streetcars should be more than a tourist attraction. The St. Charles Streetcar in New Orleans, at 9.5 miles long, is the busiest transit line in the city, with a heavy local resident ridership. Like New York's subways, it runs 24 hours a day. New York's 42nd St. line will most definitely be a viable route, serving major traffic generators like the Port Imperial Ferry Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Grand Central Terminal. The line will attract mostly commuters, shoppers and those out to sample our nightlife.
Mt. Kisco, NY
Jul/Aug 1994: City Council Approves 42nd St. Trolley
IN A DRAMATIC MOVE that could mark the rebirth of streetcars in New York City, the City
Council approved on June 9 the plan to build a 2.2 mile long light rail line on 42nd St. from one
side of Manhattan to the other. The vote was 45-2, the two no votes being Kenneth Fisher (Park
Slope) and Andrew Eristoff (Upper East Side). Brooklyn Councilman Steve DiBrienza was the
sole abstaining vote.
"[The vote will] mean that New York will have the tourism attraction that the cable car has in
San Francisco," said Fred Papert, President of the 42nd St. Development Corporation, in the New
York Times the next day. The Development Corporation is a private non-profit group which has
long campaigned for the new line. "It means there will be cleaner air in midtown Manhattan. It
means new life for 42nd St."
The approval of the City Council marks the final step in the approval process. Later this year
four separately assembled teams of companies that would lay the track, provide the cars and
operate the system on a franchise basis will be formally approached to submit bids. Assuming a
bidder is selected, construction could begin in 1995, with the line to open in 1997.
The light rail project is expected to cost $75 million, funded entirely by private investment. An
additional $60 million will be paid for by federal, state and city funds for street refurbishing and
replacement of water and sewer lines. The Council also endorsed spending $766,000 on
preliminary engineering and to survey what is under the street now, which should be completed
by November. This is a very important part of the plan , according to James Moore, project
director and consulting engineer at the Development Corp., because it "will let everyone know
how much will it cost to make any utility relocations, and who should pay for them, the city or
the private light rail franchisee."
The 42nd St. light rail project has attracted some large and well-respected transportation firms to
the four prospective franchisee groups. Examples include Bombardier, builders of many of New
York's commuter rail and subway cars; Siemens Transportation Systems, currently filling an
order of 39 low-floor light rail cars for Portland, Oregon; Carey Transportation Systems and
Liberty Lines Transit, Inc. The four groups are:
--The New York Light Rail Transit Group
--Forty Two Transit Associates
--42nd St. Trolley Team
Sept/Oct 1994: 42nd St. Light Rail Update
An important engineering study, the next step in building Manhattan's proposed 42nd St.
crosstown light rail line, has survived Mayor Giuliani's budget cuts intact. Paid for entirely by
city funds, the $750,000 study, set to begin in September, will chart the maze of utilities under
42nd St. to make reconstruction and any future work easier and to prepare for the trolley tracks.
The city has never completed a understreet survey for 42nd Street. Fred Papert, project sponsor, said that "Con Ed will lead a 'SWAT' team of some dozen agencies that have plumbing under the pavement, ranging from cable TV wiring to sewage drains." Also in September, four separate, pre-selected teams of suppliers will be asked to submit proposals to design, build and operate the 2.2 mile long light rail line, which will run from one side of Manhattan to the other. A final selection could be made in early 1995.
Nov/Dec 1994: 42nd Street: Under-Street Survey Begins
THE first phase of the 42nd St. light rail line has begun. Since mid- October, engineers have
been mapping the street to reveal the myriad utility lines that now lie uncharted under the
pavement. The work is expected to be finished by next spring. City officials have pointed out
that contrary to claims of light rail opponents, 42nd St. and its sewer and water lines will have to
be dug up and replaced within the next few years, trolley or no trolley. The City has lined up $60
million of local, state and federal funds for this infrastructure project.
Jan/Feb 1995: LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
"The 42nd St. plan calls for diverting traffic to nearby streets. These side streets have only one
lane of moving traffic, with the lanes abutting the sidewalks filled with vehicles making
deliveries. If we prohibit parking we make deliveries impossible, if we allow parking we have
only one moving lane. With this plan we are going to close the doors of business.
"If the project engineers say there is no problem then why not try out the proposed traffic pattern
now, using buses. If businesses can proceed without revenue loss and if traffic does not make our
streets an impenetrable mess then we can go forward with the trolley."
(EDITOR: The concern of traffic diversion has been hashed out in countless meetings and hearings. The
42nd St. trolley will divert thousands of car and taxi users to transit in the midtown area. The
only way to "demonstrate" a trolley is to install it. A bus remains a bus. Deliveries are vital, and
they can still occur on 42nd St., and on the side streets, in the trolley plan.)
New York, NY
Jan/Feb 1995: 42nd Street: Light Rail Ahead
THE engineering survey to examine the plumbing beneath 42nd St. should be completed by March. But some area residents, apparently unaware of light rail developments in the rest of the country, have filed a lawsuit to try to block the project.
March/April 1995: 42nd Street Light Rail: Survey Completed
A RECENTLY completed understreet survey for 42nd St. unearthed no big surprises that might
have delayed the 42nd St. Trolley or led to costly overruns for the 2.2 mile $75 million project.
"The NYC Dept. of Transportation and ourselves are waiting final approval from City Hall to go
ahead," says 42nd St. Development Corp. President Fred Papert. Officials hope for a green light
The city must decide whether to combine construction of the transitway with the rebuilding of
42nd St., as recommended by Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. The city would
reallocate $35 million in federal highway funds for street rebuilding, needed in the next five to
seven years whether or not the light rail line goes ahead. Transitway construction costs will be
borne by the franchisee. Experts predict substantial savings in time and money if the two projects
go forward together.
May/June 1995: 42nd Street Update
THE Regional Plan Association (RPA) has signaled its approval of streetcars for Manhattan's
Central Business Dis-trict. At the planning group's April 18 annual assembly, RPA transport
expert Jeff Zupan stated his organization's full support for the 42nd St. light rail plan. He outlined
RPA's "pretzel" plan to extend the light rail line south to 34th St. near the Javits Convention
Center, east along 34th St. and northwest on a pedestrianized Broadway, through Times Square
to Lincoln Center.
Also at the Assembly was Fred Papert, President of the 42nd St. Development Corp., who
predicted that contruction of the two-mile long crosstown line will begin before the end of this
year. The LRT plan has been endorsed by many civic and good government groups. NYC
Transportation Commissioner Elliott Sander will advance the final details of the plan to the
Mayor in the very near future. Four private ventures have been pre-qualified to make proposals
for a farebox-based franchise to build and operate the line.
Some community opposition remains. The New York Observer reported that commercial landlord Peter L. Malkin is worried that the LRT will diminish the value of his properties, which include the Lincoln Building across from Grand Central Terminal. This 60-story office tower owes its
existence to the public transit investments it is surrounded by, including in the past the original 42nd Street streetcar line, which first began operation over a century ago. Finally, in an effort to stop the trolley line, some residents of Tudor City, an enclave near First Ave., have hired an attorney
to challenge the project's environmental studies.
July/August 1995: Lawsuit Against 42nd St. Trolley Dismissed
MANHATTAN East Side residents have lost their lawsuit seeking to stop the 42nd St. light rail
line, clearing the way for the city to invite bids on the "super turnkey" project. The recently
completed engineering survey of underground utilities will enable bidders to more accurately
estimate construction costs of this two mile trolley line. A Citizens' Advisory Committee,
mandated by the City Council when it approved the trolley franchise last year, is now being
The next step for the 42nd St. project is a $300,000 federal grant that would be used to solicit
proposals from prospective bidders. However, City Hall has not acted to take advantage of this
grant. Please call or write now urging Mayor Giuliani to press on with the 42nd St. trolley: City
Hall, New York NY 10007; phone (212) 788-1400 or (212) 788-3000; FAX (212) 788-2782.
Sept/Oct 1995: NEWS ANALYSIS:
Two More Studies Slow 42nd St. LRT
TWO new studies of the 42nd St. LRT plan have cast new light on longstanding debates about
street repair, funding for transit projects and ultimately, the best use of our city's urban spaces.
The first study --$657,000 worth -- asks why estimates to get the utilities under 42nd St. ready
for the trolley vary so much. The low estimate, from engineers for the project, is $3 million. The
high estimate, at a whopping $193 million, comes from the city Department of Transportation's
so-called "programmatic approach." What these numbers reveal is a long simmering bureaucratic
clash on how to repair city streets.
The debate on rebuilding the tangled maze of utility pipes and wires -- especially complex in
midtown Manhattan -- rages between two schools of thought. One school ("if it ain't broke don't
fix it;") patches over patches. The other ("a stitch in time saves nine") completely redoes
everything. Both sides have advantages. For example, a water main break can come at any time
and be costly and disruptive. On the other hand, complete street rebuilds, like the recent
Columbus Ave., 8th Ave. and 14th St. projects, have been equally onerous. Recently the city has
tried to stretch its repaving dollars with a new high tech milling machine, which scrapes off the
asphalt surface and layers a new, smooth surface in its place.
But the real question is this: what kind of city should emerge from these massive street projects?
After much blood, sweat and tears, the Columbus Ave., 8th Ave. and 14th St. rebuilds have
produced zero improvements for pedestrians, bicyclists or any other "quality of life" features
common in modern cities. No widened sidewalks, no neckdowns, no grassy median strips and of
course, no trolley tracks. The automobile, with all its ills, utterly rules.
The city DoT's costly "programmatic approach" to 42nd St. is the same. Interestingly, this
approach has raised the pricetag for rebuilding nearby Westway to $390 million, for five miles of
existing roadway! Now that 42nd St.'s theaters are being rebuilt, and other people-oriented
complexes are planned for the area, the city must rethink the relationship between motor
vehicles, surface light rail transit, pedestrians and bicyclists. A visit to Disneyland's Main St. will
reveal the marketability of nostalgia and a genuinely auto-free environment.
In fact, the Giuliani Administration may have recognized this already. It has applied to the
Federal Transit Administration for $300,000 to study ways to fund the 42nd St. Trolley. Light
rail transit in such a setting would be an enormously powerful economic development tool that
would far outweigh squabbles over whether it could or should pay for itself through the farebox.
by George Haikalis
Nov/Dec 1995: 42nd Street TROLLEY
A new study of water mains is underway to determine the feasibility of continuing the project. The study will delay the decades-old proposal for another four to six months.
Jan/Feb 1996: 42nd ST. TROLLEY
There is unfortunately no solid news to report about the 42nd St. crosstown trolley project. The
proposal apparently has Mayor Giuliani's full backing, but your messages of support are still very
important. Write to him at Office of the Mayor, City Hall, New York NY 10007.
Some residents of midtown's east side have produced leaflets attacking the 42nd St. light rail
project. If these people were truly concerned about traffic, they would join with LRT advocates
in calling for the city to create a long overdue comprehensive midtown traffic reduction plan,
rather than trying to scare and misinform people about the trolley project.
March/April 1996: Update on 42nd St. Trolley Project
AS the seasons slip by, NYC seems unable to overcome its stage fright concerning the 42nd Street trolley project, now decades in planning. Interest in "theater row" between 7th and 8th avenues increased back in December, when the newly renovated Victory Theater reopened to much acclaim. Elsewhere on 42nd Street, mega-developers like the Milstein brothers, Disney, Douglas Durst, Tishman, Forest City Ratner and giant investment groups from places like Singapore battle it out backstage with the city and state over sites, low-interest public loans and tax subsidies for their new hotels and entertainment complexes.
Having agreed to spend $33 million to renovate the New Amsterdam Theater, the Disney Company has requested that groundwork for the trolley tracks between 7th and 8th avenues be completed by spring of 1997 so as not to interfere with their construction schedules. "That's completely understandable," said Fred Papert, President of the not-for- profit 42nd St. Development Corp. Papert noted that in order to meet this deadline, requests for proposals would have to go out by this April or May, or else it will be curtains for the trolley project.
Meanwhile, a spending agreement for long-bottled up federal funds earmarked for the trolley project has been reached between the 42nd St. Development Corp. and the City Dept. of Transportation. The money will pay for Transportation Research Associates (TRA) of Philadelphia to finish under-street utility studies and to shepherd the project through to the selection of the franchise operator. Even though the federal funds are apparently not enough to
pay for these tasks, TRA is eager to do the job because of the project's very high visibility. The street needs rebuilding even if the trolley project is not built.
"More than anyone," says one insider, "Mayor Giuliani has the most leverage to get this project up off the ground." The Mayor himself seemed to confirm that notion at the Jan. 25 Bronx Town Meeting, when he pointed out how he had prodded the DoT into finishing the rebuild of
Columbus Ave. in just 18 months, rather than the projected four years. If Mayor Giuliani can do
that, suggest trolley advocates, then surely he can get Disney and the City DoT to work together
on this high-profile project. Finally, local opponents of the trolley project are appealing the dismissal last May of their
lawsuit trying to derail the project. A decision on the appeal is expected in early April.
May/June 1996: 42nd St. Trolley Still in Limbo
MONTHS and months continue slipping by with no definitive action taken by the city on the 42nd St. trolley project. Mayor Giuliani is still awaiting completion of under-street utility studies to get a "firm" idea on costs before pressing ahead on the trolley plan. Meanwhile, development
interests continue jockeying for choice sites along the street, encouraged by the city's offers of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies and ultra-low interest public loans designed to encourage construction of new luxury hotels and highly profitable entertainment complexes. Most recently, a Virgin "Megastore," hailed as the largest music store in the world, opened in Times Square. The increasing presence of such big bucks retailers can only strengthen the case for a new trolley line on 42nd Street.
As of press time, no news has been available about the lawsuit filed by some local residents attempting to derail the trolley.
July/August 1996: Big Apple Gridlocked Over 42nd St. Trolley
WITH each passing season, NYC sets new records for a big city that does nothing to solve its
traffic ills. One solution to congestion, the proposed 42nd St. trolley project, appears to be
trapped in gridlock, even after decades of planning and numerous approvals. One area where the City is moving quickly is tax breaks for Times Square developers. The latest to receive this municipal largesse is the Durst Organization, which will get $4 million a year in annual tax writeoffs for building a new 48-story office tower on Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Sts. Conde Nast, the magazine publishers, received a $10.75 million tax break as lead office tenant for Durst's new building, after threatening to move to New Jersey. The new office
tower will also require smacking down another part of NYC history, the old, neglected but still
elegant building now standing on the northeast corner of Broadway and 42nd St.
Sept/Oct 1996: LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Against 42nd St. Light Rail
"Despite my love of streetcars, I take exception to your continuing efforts to push the misguided 42nd St. project. Despite all the arguments against it, you fail to give credence to the impact a 42nd St. light rail will have on the people who live full-time in Manhattan. Instead of pushing a plan that benefits only the bridge-and-tunnel crowd (and owners of the light rail system), why not work for continuation of the 42nd St. subway to the Hudson and for completion of the 2nd Ave. Subway and toward cutting down on truck traffic by using the subways for local freight deliveries.
"Discussion of light rail systems in midtown Manhattan makes sense only after vehicular traffic is cut back. Manhattan is not Dallas, Baltimore, or any city using light rail. The geography, density of population and vehicular usage are different than in any other place. Easing that congestion
deserves an approach that considers the area's residents."
New York, NY
[EDITOR"S REPLY: Civic activist and Community Board 6 member Perry Luntz is on the right track when he calls for a drastic cutback in car traffic in the core of Manhattan to make the area more livable for residents and visitors. Such a cutback must be part of a comprehensive "carrot and stick" approach to wean motorists back to transit. But restricting car traffic first, as Perry suggests, just can't be done without some prospect of better transit. And waiting for subway extensions to be built, as important as they are, is not a quick or affordable strategy. Light rail offers a whole new
approach to surface mobility that will make life a lot better for Manhattan's households, 80 percent of which do not own cars in any event.
Those of the "I-Love-Trolleys-Just-Not-In-My-City" school should focus their considerable energies on demanding that taxpayer-supported city and state planning agencies produce a comprehensive congestion mitigation and clean air plan for the core of the city, and that the Mayor then enforces it. The present process -- a project here and another project there -- is a "mockery of ad hockery." -- Geo Haikalis]
Sept/Oct 1996: HELLO NEW YORK:
The 20-Year Saga of a 2-Mile Light Rail Proposal -- Showdown on 42nd Street: Will the Trolleys Roll?
By George Haikalis and Carter Craft
IF NEW YORK CAN be characterized by a single thoroughfare, it has to be 42nd Street. Romanticized in a lively Broadway musical of the same name, 42nd St. anchors Times Square, whose theaters are now undergoing a renaissance. The New Victory theater just opened, and
across the street, Disney is renovating the New Amsterdam. Plans for a dozen more theaters are
in the works. Forty-second Street is home not only to the United Nations, a real tourist draw,
and the New York Public Library, arguably New York's most handsome building, but also Grand
Central Terminal, one of the world's great railway stations, as well as a key access point for
Westchester County and Connecticut. Further west are the Port Authority Bus Terminal and
landings for the Port Imperial Ferry and the Circle Line.
This street is a primary connecting artery used not only by tourists and residents but also by
office workers. Businesses abound, from the corporate headquarters of tobacco giant Philip
Morris to single-room offices in the many smaller buildings along the way. The recent upswing
in the market and a generous $10.75 million municipal tax break, is bringing publisher Conde
Nast into a new $500 million tower planned by the Durst Organization for 42nd St. and
Broadway. And between 11th and 12th Aves., twin 40-story residential towers planned by
Silverstein Properties could soon go up.
But 42nd St.'s assets are compromised by the infamous traffic problems and poor air quality that
plague midtown. Perhaps because it passes through three business improvement districts and
three community boards, all with their own agendas, the street lacks a central organizing feature
that could make it a world class corridor. Not that anyone hasn't tried. Back in 1969, the
Regional Plan Association identified the corridor as an important urban design opportunity in its
Second Regional Plan. Shortly after the Ford Foundation moved into its new headquarters at
42nd St. near 2nd Ave. in 1972, it funded a planning study to create a new image for the street,
focusing on the tawdry block between 7th and 8th Avenues.
From the Drawing Board
But it was Fred Papert, a former ad-man and past President of the Municipal Art Society, who
championed the idea that a trolley could help revitalize 42nd St. Papert led a campaign to rescue
the west end of 42nd St. from fifty years of neglect and piecemeal development through the
organization he chairs, the 42nd Street Development Corporation. Papert credits the trolley idea
to his wife, who recalls how much her grandmother praised the "Broadway" trolley in her
The first official trolley proposal came from the late Robert F. Wagner, Jr., then head of the NYC
Planning Commission, and Ross Sandler of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in their
1978 report, the so-called "Silver Bullet," that launched the rescue of MTA's neglected transit
empire. The region's transit system had been left to fall apart as the city and the state struggled to
recover from the economic downturn of the early 1970s, the worst since the Depression. But
with so much catching up to do on the existing system, the City was in no mood to launch a new
rail line, although it did initiate a planning study for the trolley.
One of the early findings of that study was that because an electric trolley would be more
efficient than a diesel bus, and because ridership would be so concentrated due to the very busy
nature of the 42nd St. route, a modern light rail system on 42nd St. would make a profit, something few other transit systems were capable of. By recovering its operating cost, and producing
some rate of return on its investment, the 42nd St. trolley would not cost taxpayers a penny.
Scarce public funds needed to repair the existing subway and commuter rail system would not be
So the 42nd St. LRT was launched as a private franchise, hosted by the NYC Dept. Of
Transportation, the agency responsible for managing street use. But this process has been
anything but smooth sailing.
Mired in the Smog of Clean Air Politics
The key to success of the LRT project was to carve out a separate, car-free right of way out of
42nd St., allowing the trolley to bypass traffic backups. To gain formal City approval for this, the
project had to prepare an environmental analysis. But in an ironic twist, just as detailed planning
for the trolley began in earnest in 1980, what should have been a positive factor in advancing the
trolley became a major source of delay.
NYC was at the beginning of an economic revival, led by the service industries. The demand for
office space grew rapidly, and existing empty offices were quickly grabbed up. To make way for
new and bigger buildings, zoning laws had to be changed. But because NYC had a serious air
pollution problem, stringent environmental procedures had to be followed. One of the key
pollution problems was the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) concentrations that badly
exceeded Federal standards. CO was produced mostly by cars and trucks stuck in traffic, the
poison gas pooling in the canyon-like streets of midtown Manhattan.
It would seem like converting car and truck lanes to LRT tracks on 42nd St. would be an obvious
gain for the environment. But clean air politics got in the way. The rules prescribe an analysis
based on a "worst case" scenario. For each new office building added in midtown, a small, but
quantifiable, addition of car, track and taxi traffic was projected. This traffic was added to the
existing flow, resulting in new "hot spots" -- locations where CO concentrations would violate
Federal standards. Offsetting measures then had to be proposed -- modest changes in signal
timing, or the addition of traffic control agents to prevent spillback into problem intersections. Of
course, traffic doesn't behave this way. As traffic flow worsens some motorists and cab riders
will switch to transit or make entirely different trips. To this day, the city lacks a comprehensive
traffic analysis system that can deal with the shift in road space from car traffic to dedicated
transit lanes or more pedestrian space.
Ironically, these traffic assumptions put the LRT into direct competition with new office
tower development. The rules insisted that traffic displaced from the LRT lanes be relocated onto nearby
streets, not converted into LRT riders or avoiding midtown altogether. But new office
construction in the vicinity of the 42nd St. LRT was predicted to generate new vehicle trips
competing for street space that was to be reserved for the trolley! Against the prospect of seductive new office buildings that would generate new construction jobs and economic benefits, the LRT project, with less direct
benefits, dragged along.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock was the massive Times Square urban renewal project, launched in
1980. This city-state venture called for the acquisition of all property lining 42nd St. just west of
Times Square. Unsavory businesses would be closed and the great, but decaying, theaters
restored. By 1984, plans, developed behind closed doors, were revealed and rushed through city
approval procedures. To pay for the renewal, four giant office towers, designed for upscale
businesses, were to be constructed at 42nd St. and 7th Ave. But these towers were so out of scale
and so pompous that the civic community united as one against them. Twenty lawsuits
were filed, many challenging the validity of the environmental analysis. But then-Mayor Koch
and then-Governor Cuomo refused to back down. Meanwhile, the LRT project was put on the
back burner. By the time the legal challenges were beaten back, the economy had wilted. By
1990, office building construction had come to a halt. To save the project, Cuomo and Koch gave
developers more time to meet financial obligations, and had public agencies advance money to
begin renovating the theaters.
Another important development occurred in the early 1990s. Perhaps because of increased use of
oxygenated gasoline and newer, less polluting cars, the city's carbon monoxide levels fell below
federal standards defining them as a "problem," thereby lifting development restrictions. While
the standards for ground-level ozone remain in federal violation, ozone is a widespread regional
problem, not just a Manhattan problem.
Now that the air was "clean", the 42nd St. LRT could again be considered. A new City DOT environmental analysis unfortunately trotted out the same old worst-case scenario predicting traffic chaos on adjacent streets. Frightened,
the community boards objected, but the plan was accepted by both the City Planning Commission and
the City Council. Local residents' attempts to derail the trolley with a lawsuit were dismissed.
The Mayor was now free to begin the procurement process.
But doubts remained at the City DOT. Badly tarred by recent mismanaged street rebuilding
projects, cautious DOT engineers challenged the credibility of utility relocation costs of the LRT
project. Because 42nd St. was in need of repair anyway, the city was expected to pay for fixing
up half of the street, while the winning LRT company would do the other half. Wanting another
opinion, the City hired the engineering giant Raytheon, the same company chosen to build NJ
Transit's 20.5 mile Hudson-Bergen LRT project, just across the river. Early reports indicate that
Raytheon has found the cost to be greater than expected. And so the Mayor continues to brood.
Learning Never Ends
The 42nd St. trolley is an important transportation investment that will produce significant
benefits to travelers in midtown Manhattan. But it is also an important civic investment that will
bring new vitality to Manhattan's Central Business district, helping all New Yorkers by
preserving and attracting jobs and encouraging tourists to spend their dollars here, rather than in
competing cities. Unfortunately, the project continues to be seen by some neighborhood groups
as an eccentric business venture that will inconvenience motorists. Until the Committee for
Better Transit began publishing the New York Streetcar News in 1994, there was no formal
mechanism to represent the public interest in advocating for the trolley. Some traditional transit
supporters have been hesitant, fearing that the project will divert funds from the basic transit
But perhaps the biggest problem stems from a lack of vision by our city leaders. Major
improvements to our public transit system, even in difficult fiscal times, should be seen as a key
to the City's progress. That was the working strategy employed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia,
one of Mayor Giuliani's heroes, back in the throes of the Depression. And the resources are there
to pay for them. The revenue stream can come, for instance, from NYC motorists, whose driving
is now heavily subsidized, directly and indirectly, by transit-riding residents.
Public agencies have yet to face up to the challenge of producing a comprehensive transportation
plan, in cooperation with civic and community groups, that will show how to drastically improve
public transit, reduce motor vehicle use and allow for the creation of new pedestrian space in the
city. Until elected officials are willing to stand up and call for a halt to the further motorization of
NYC, the city will continue to bury itself alive in cars and smog. The challenge is there.
Nov/Dec 1996: Mayor Giuliani OKs 42nd St. Study
WITH renewed support from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the 42nd St. Trolley project may be on track at last. According to observers at a City Hall meeting on Sept. 6th, the Mayor decided to accept a Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) grant to assemble a committee consisting of experts from other cities which have built light rail systems, the four prospective bidders on the 42nd St. line, local utility companies and others affected by the project. The FTA feasibility study, expected to take four to six months, will finally determine the fate of New York's first light rail project since the City's once extensive trolley system was closed down and uprooted some fifty years ago.
Delayed by lawsuits and other obstacles raised by transit foes, the 42nd St. project has been on
hold since June 1994. Fortunately, the consortia -- groups of companies -- seeking to design, build, operate and maintain the system all remain eager to bid on the contract once the FTA study is concluded. Several major midtown development plans, particularly on the far west side, are contingent upon better transit. The Mayor sees the 42nd St. trolley as the key to any development in the area, according to informed sources.
Opponents had argued that the trolley should not be built while other major midtown projects
were under construction. Transit advocates maintain that the trolley is needed to provide access
to exactly such projects without clogging 42nd St. and other midtown arteries for decades to
While the Mayor may be on board, his new Traffic Commissioner, Christopher R. Lynn, still
argues publicly that (1) no one has shown a "compelling transit need" for light rail in midtown,
(2) the cost of displacing utilities under 42nd St. will be prohibitive and (3) the city will be left
"holding the bag." Yet the Mayor, like most objective observers, apparently does see a
compelling transit need which can be met, in the foreseeable future, only by light rail.
Conflicting claims regarding utilities head the list of issues to be addressed by the forthcoming
FTA study. And the city will not be left "holding the bag" since the successful bidder must post
an adequate bond before construction can begin.
-- William K. Guild
Jan/Feb/Mar 1997: 42nd St. LRT Update: New Study Begins
FRED PAPERT, President of the 42nd St. Development Corporation, announced last month that his agency will fund a $300,000 study, approved by Mayor Giuliani in September, that would allow the four prospective bidders on the project and local utility firms to finally resolve how much utility relocation will be needed to construct the 42nd St. trolley. The City's road building establishment has insisted that it would cost the city a lot more to rebuild the part of 42nd St. that would not be affected by the trolley. Development at the western end of 42nd St., as well as
planned expansion of the Javits Convention Center, are contingent on the improved access that
will result from the trolley.
In a report prepared for the Times Sq. Business Improvement District (BID), John Shapiro, a principal in the Manhattan-based planning firm of Abeles Phillips Preiss & Shapiro, recommended that the BID support the 42nd St. Light Rail Transit Line. The report concluded that the trolley would improve the ambiance of the Times Sq. area, attract many new visitors, have little negative impact on service delivery, security or sanitation and would inconvenience few businesses.
The little-publicized report, produced in 1994, counters many of the claims made by trolley
opponents. But in a recent conversation, Shapiro said that it is difficult to overcome the
"conventional wisdom" -- which his report showed was flawed -- that taking away traffic lanes
for the trolley will result in unacceptable traffic congestion on adjacent streets. Shapiro felt that
these concerns, however unjustified, could be overcome by linking the trolley to a more
substantial project like Queens West via a new East River Bridge (see New York Streetcar News,
April/May/June 1997: 42nd St. Trolley Update:
After a series of delays, the final feasibility study for the 42nd St. light rail line will be launched shortly, according to sources close to the project. As previously reported here, the federally funded study, focusing on utility relocation, will bring prospective bidders, the affected utility
firms, and relevant government officials together with representatives from cities which have actually built successful light rail systems.
Transit foes, who have managed to delay the light rail initiative for nearly three years through lawsuits and other obstacles, now seek to derail the project altogether by asserting that the cost of relocating utilities has been vastly understated. If the five-month study concludes that related
utility costs are not prohibitive, Mayor Giuliani is expected to give the light rail project his full support.
--William K. Guild
Jul/Aug/Sept 1997: Media Watch: The 42nd Street LRT
Although there have been dozens of recent articles in The NY Times about 42nd St., the 42nd St. trolley proposal, and its enormous economic and civic potential, has been 'disappeared' by the paper since Jan. 21, 1996, when it was briefly mentioned in a report about deal-making for area heliports. The Times' headquarters are on 43rd St., just off Times Square. Meanwhile, Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who frequently writes about the 42nd St. theaters, observed on May 11 that with Disney moving in, the street runs the risk of becoming "a bright but chuckleheaded exercise in consumerism," where "the only culture is corporate culture." He could also have pointed out that Times Square, arguably the most famous public space in the world, does not have a single public bench for sitting, nor does it have any public service billboards. The vast majority of street space is given over to its eight highway lanes.
Jul/Aug/Sept 1997: 42nd St. Trolley Update:
The word on 42nd Street is that the trolley proposal is chugging along quietly. Last fall, a Raytheon Corp. report specially commissioned for the NYC Dept. of Transportation came up with a very high cost estimate for utility relocation necessary for track installation. Now, two industry experts with considerable experience in light rail lines -- Jim Zebarth and Bill Allen -- have been called in to take another look.
Jim Zebarth, working for Booz, Allen & Hamilton, a well-regarded consulting firm, just did the
engineering work for a new LRT line now being built for Sydney, Australia. This is the same company which carefully shepherded the Hudson-Bergen LRT in New Jersey through the difficult EIS process. Bill Allen is head of the Eastern Region of the U.S. for Sverdrup Corporation, which built St. Louis' highly successful Metrolink light rail system. Zebarth commented:
"We've learned quite a few things in Sydney and many other places which really impact the 42nd Street scenario." As City Hall reportedly remains interested in alternative forms of transportation, it seems something may develop in the fall. Stay tuned!
-- Carter Craft
Oct/Nov/Dec 1997: 42nd St. Trolley Update:
Not even this year's mayoral election can speed up the City's snail-like pace of pondering
whether to go ahead with the 42nd St. trolley proposal. Sources say the latest study, called for by
Mayor Giuliani over a year ago and being conducted by the Sverdrup Civil Engineering, is
expected to be completed in mid-November. Besides reexamining the disputed cost of relocating
utilities under 42nd St., the Sverdrup study also includes meeting with candidate firms to assess
their continued interest in participating in the bidding process.
The Mayor has transferred project management from the City Dept. of Transportation, which
critics have faulted for its emphasis on automobiles over transit, to the Dept. of City Planning.
The planning agency is seen as better equipped to deal with the conflicting development plans
for West Midtown, which the trolley project would play a substantial role in.
Hopefully, city and state officials will recognize that modern light rail transit is an attractive and
economical way to serve large scale projects that are remote from the subways.
-- Geo Haikalis
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