Roosevelt Island and Public Transportation, It's Complicated

*this is reprinted from, Subway Service Here Reaches the Quarter-Century Mark on Wednesday

The New York Times announced the opening of our subway line close to 30 years ago, on October 29, 1989, with the headline The Subway to Nowhere Now Goes Somewhere. It took 19 years and 11 months, and cost $868 million. In the beginning, the Q-line served the stop on weekdays, and B trains ran on evenings and weekends. Construction had started 20 years prior, in 1969, as part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) Program For Action, in which $600 million of federal funding was made available for 40 miles of subway expansion. The 63rd Street Tunnel was part of Phase One of that project.

The Subway map circa October 1989 when service came to Roosevelt Island

Residents of the Island's new community started moving here in 1975. In the 1969 lease of the Island from the City to the State’s Urban Development Corporation, the City promised to build a subway - by 1984 at the latest. But earlier predictions had been 1980, and 1979, and before that, even 1975. The subway was considered so important for Roosevelt Island that failure to extend service to Roosevelt Island was contractual cause for the State to return the Island to the City – together with its accumulated debt.

When The New York Times reported in 1982 that New York State was going forward with the plan for Manhattan Park, Islanders became very concerned about there being no subway. Then Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) President David Lustig told The Times, “If there’s no subway, you can’t put any more people on the Island. It’s as simple as that.” The Tram was already filled to capacity during rush hours. Sound familiar?

Previous delays and the City’s fiscal situation at the time only increased Islanders’ skepticism that the subway would ever come. On that point, Lustig said, “The City is looking for an excuse not to open it. They know it will lose money, like any other subway line.”

But it didn’t start out that way.

Long Island Press, 1970

In fact, the Long Island Press headlined an August 1970 article, 63rd St. Tube Digging is Off to Fast Start. The article explained, “When the tunnel and its connecting links are completed in six to seven years, the tunnel will provide commuter-links between Long Island and midtown for subway and railroad riders.” The commuter-links part, now called East Side Access, is currently under construction. An article from later that year quotes Federal Urban Mass Transportation Authority’s (TA) engineer-in-charge, Eugene F. Casey, explaining that “everything is going perfectly because the TA and the contractors ‘left nothing to chance.’”

What Happened?

What didn’t happen is a better question.

• In April 1984, the tunnel is weakened by structural changes during construction. Federal agents conduct a midnight raid to ascertain whether modifications in the tunnel were made to cover up design defects, and might threaten the tunnel’s structural integrity. An investigation is pending, and opening date is pushed back to spring 1985.

• The MTA announces that the investigation revealed no construction defects, but they postpone once again, to early 1986. (Hey, investigations take time.)

• In mid-1985, a WIRE headline reads, Secret Changes Delay Subway. Water damage to a support beam in a tunnel under the East River is one rumor. Newsday reports that a horizontal tunnel support beam was installed too low to allow trains to pass under it, and that the TA’s construction engineer ordered the contractor to secretly cut out a portion of the beam. The TA hires a civil engineer to make an inspection, and the tunnel is deemed adequate – saying that the placement of the beam was nothing more than human error. (But, you know, these things take time.)

Main Street WIRE editorial cartoon

• By July 1985, the government suspends funds. At that point, the tunnel has already cost $828 million. The TA has spent over $500 million since 1970. They declare that they will withhold the final monies allocated pending completion of an independent investigation. Then TA spokesperson Donna Evans tells The WIRE that the deteriorated three-mile tunnel running from Manhattan to Queens has filled with mud and water that is six feet deep in some places. Leakage has caused corrosion of line equipment, switches, and pumps. (Ugh.)

• The New Year (1986) brings promise. TA President David Gunn assures Islanders that the tunnel will be completed and the subway will operate. But he is concerned with the lack of local connections with Queens. As the line stood then, 200-400 riders were predicted during rush hour. Operating costs of $15-$20 million would be matched by only $1.5 million in revenue. Gunn wants to find a way to connect our line with the E or F line in Queens, and alleviate crowding on the 53rd Street Tunnel. He believes that will increase ridership to 16,500 during rush hour, and validate the $15-$20 million annual operating cost as well as the $868 final capital cost of the tunnel.

• In February 1987, the MTA agrees to allocate another $21 million. Opposition groups

speak of the tunnel to nowhere, and question the intelligence of spending the money to complete it because, as designed, it won’t ease crowding during rush hour. Gunn proposes a variety of solutions to the problem, the only one worth mentioning here is the one that actually happened, ultimately connecting the tunnel with express lines on Queens Boulevard.

• In April 1987, The WIRE reports a fire hazard in the tunnel, and the federal government’s consequent refusal to release $75 million in funds earmarked for tunnel work.

• That July, following a favorable report by consultants on the safety of the tunnel, the federal government releases the remaining money allocated to complete the relatively minor work that remains to be done in the tunnel and on the stations. Money is allocated in the MTA’s next budget for design recommendations to connect the new subway with the E and F lines at Queens Plaza. No connections are planned until the early 2000’s.

• On a summer day in 1988, 500 Islanders crowd Good Shepherd Center to hear updates about the subway. Representatives from the TA are there. The announcement is made that the final opening date will be October 1989.

Main Street WIRE shows Manhattan Park buildings in October 1989

• The subway starts running on Sunday, October 29, 1989.

East Side Access

Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas believes that the reason East Side Access is only now being constructed is because, “Built underneath the East River in the 1970s, the 63rd Street Tunnel is an artifact of the age of misguided optimism in New York City transportation history. At the time, the City administrations, finally crawling out from under the oppressive shadow cast by the master builder Robert Moses, wanted to get all of the public works in order that would actually help City residents instead of the suburban drivers.” The City being broke didn’t help either. The New York Times described it as “a testament to high aspirations and low finances.”

Queens Boulevard Connection

The 63rd Street-Queens Boulevard Connection project had a simple mission: to connect the 63rd Street tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line 1,500 feet away, and increase the number of rush-hour trains into Manhattan by 50 percent, from 30 to 45, easing overcrowding on the E and F lines. (Should be simple.)

Although only about one third of a mile was needed to connect the two subway lines, the project was situated in a complex subterranean infrastructure posing significant engineering challenges.

The construction site was Northern Boulevard, Queens – heavily traveled and seven lanes wide, leading to the Queensboro Bridge, and within a commercial area surrounded by five-story buildings. In addition, lying about eight feet directly below the road was an old five-track subway tunnel that had been part of the Independent line. Directly to the east were the Sunnyside Yards, which accommodate Amtrak and Long Island Railroad train operations. Concerns about the settling of the old tunnel and the adjoining buildings required implementation of support measures. Many utilities within the project site had to be relocated to make way for construction. Construction was started in September 1994, and completed in 2001.

The Tram Started out as a Joke

The Roosevelt Island Tram opened 13 years before the subway, on May 17, 1976. It wasn’t part of the original design for the Island when plans were made in the late 1960’s. “The Tram was really an afterthought, because we built Roosevelt Island with the understanding there would be a subway,” said former Urban Development Corporation President Ed Logue. “Finally, we realized we were not going to have a subway by the time the Island was ready for people.”

“The whole idea of a Tram really started as a joke,” said Civil Engineer David Ozerkis. “I had just read about Palisades Amusement Park closing and that their cable car was for sale, and I jokingly said, Why don’t we buy it and hang it next to the Queensboro Bridge?” He said the Tram was planned to stay in service three or four years, after which the subway was supposed to open.

“The opening of the Tram caused a dramatic increase in the number of people looking to move to the Island,” said Robert Litke, who served under Logue. “It absolutely allowed the Island to be marketed. It really made the place. It showed how farsighted and creative the City of New York could be.”

Subway Opposition

There were those who believed the subway would be bad for the Island. People were afraid that the subway would bring crime. In a strange twist, those fears were validated when, two hours after the subway started running in October 1989, an Island couple who left the train were followed by two armed young Brooklyn men. In early November, 25 Queensbridge kids wielding bats came to the Island via the subway.

Editorial cartoons in The WIRE conveyed what Islanders were feeling

The other big fear was about the survival of the Tram. At the time, there was a franchise agreement stipulating that the Tram always had to cost a quarter more than the subway. Islanders were worried that the extra cost, coupled with the easy connections via the subway, would cause extinction of the Tram.

To combat that, RIOC started a promotion to publicize the Tram, selling t-shirts and other Tram- centric souvenirs, and pledged to donate all proceeds to the Tram. Ultimately, linking the Tram to the MetroCard in 2006, plus the Tram’s extensive, expensive, and much-debated renovation in 2010, made it official – the Tram and the subway are both here to stay.

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