Islanders taking the Tram in recent weeks land on the south side in Manhattan with a birds eye view of a big hole in the ground where our new elevator is supposed to go – that project’s delay is an added frustration at a time of Tram maintenance necessitating a closed center platform, a soon to be out-of-commission existing elevator (when they switch work to the north cabin), and awkward boarding protocol on both sides. Residents want to hear that this pain will be worth it one day soon.
The stalled construction site at Tramway Plaza looking east
According to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the elevator project should start up again within the month. At last week’s Operations Advisory Committee meeting, the manager for the project, RIOC’s Prince Shah, explained that they are waiting on approvals from the MTA and the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) to continue their work. Next, they will need to secure a permit from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks) to keep one of the Department’s cranes on site.
The reason for this latest delay occurred when the site was dug up in conjunction with the initial foundation design. Shah says that after doing soil analysis, they realized that the soil was actually backfill from the original Tram elevator built in 1976 rather than structural soil, a load-bearing soil under pavement.
They now have to dig down to rock, 42 feet below ground. Therefore, they will need to do piles, a type of deep foundation, where vertical columns of concrete, steel or wood, or a combination, are driven deep into the ground to give extra support to what sits on top. According to Shah this development, while inconvenient, is no cause for alarm. “It’s very standard, but it does add another layer to the project and design.” Because there is an MTA tunnel that runs under there, they need approval from the MTA to dig that deep.
He predicts that a revision to the design will be complete within a week or so and that “Once that happens, we are back on board.” Once they receive the approval from the MTA, they will approach DOB.
Simultaneously, he says, “We are doing all of the paperwork.” The way the project had originally been scheduled however, they were going to have to wait for the actual elevator to be ready. Now, though, the elevator is 90% complete. “Typically you wait for long-lead items, but this time the long-lead item is waiting for us,” Shah said at the meeting.
Replacement of the elevators was initially part of RIOC’s 2014-15 budget. Unfortunately, there were no responses to the Request for Proposals (RFP) by the July 21 due date that year. At a subsequent RIOC Operations Advisory Committee meeting the following February, RIOC President Charlene Indelicato reported that the Tram elevator replacement project would be delayed at least another year because a larger footprint was required at the Manhattan Tram Plaza, which in turn required approvals from various City agencies.
This latest hiccup is the most recent of many that have plagued the project. The most egregious one occured in the very beginning. In an attempt to get the project expedited, RIOC separated the architectural design work from the construction work after failing to receive a single response to the RFP (hiccup number 1) that combined these functions. The architectural firm they chose, WASA Studios – founded in 1889 and designers of Grand Central Station – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after being awarded the contract by RIOC.
At the end of her tenure as RIOC President, Charlene Indelicato said, “One of the failures that I absolutely own up to is the [Tramway] elevators.”
She explained, “Now WASA is one of the biggest engineering companies in the world, they’re internationally known, it’s not only price, it’s responsibility. We’ve been guilty, like a lot of municipalities, of going with the lowest bid, versus the lowest responsible bid. So now we’re looking toward the lowest responsible bid. So with WASA, this renowned company which does elevators, they’re 90% done [with the Tramway elevator plan], so when we’re waiting for the last percentage, to open up the paper and read that WASA went under, It’s like, I can’t believe this. Can’t believe it.” This occurred in 2015.
Between then and now, RIOC says they solicited public input, met with New York City Department of Parks and Recreation officials and community members to shape and finalize the project design, which required custom manufacturing.
Rendering of the new elevator at night, serving to light the dimly lit park
The Tram Station elevator plan was first presented to a packed house in an April 2016 Community Board 8 meeting at the Manhattan Park Theatre Club by engineering firm GC Eng & Associates. Two ADA-compliant glass elevators will replace the existing elevator and wheelchair lift. Each elevator will be able to hold 2,500 pounds (or 7-8 people) and they will run simultaneously. The team’s goals for the two new glass elevators are increased user capacity, ADA compliant elevators, enhanced destination visibility, greater reliability and maintainability, increased lighting and security, and improved circulation. (So hopefully that urine smell will be gone forever.)
According to GC Eng & Associates’ Shigehiro Shishido, the glass doesn’t only look cool, but it serves as a safety measure. “This Second Avenue Tram station is a rather dark area. We can give a little lightbox to improve the safety, and it’s a small enough park.”
For easier boarding and greater safety, the waiting area for the elevators will be 15 feet wider, requiring the removal of four trees from Tramway Plaza park. Shishido explained, “In the existing elevator, it’s very difficult to get in, especially with a wheelchair, getting off the Tram, [it’s] too narrow.”
The new elevators will be much easier to board and wait for, with wind protection and more space.
Upstairs there will be more space which is intended to ease the bottleneck [that is caused by] waiting for the elevator. The platform level will have a snow melting device. Additionally, “In case of a blackout we will still run at least one of [the elevators].”
Ultimately, the construction contract was awarded in December 2017 to Sea Crest Construction Corporation, a subsidiary of Scalamandre Construction, Inc., both based on Long Island, New York.
One of the reasons we have so much trouble with the current elevator is its age, early 40’s, and the fact that, it was never built to last that long.
Pre-Tram, Roosevelt Island was accessed by a trolley line that crossed over the Queensboro Bridge. Trolleys traveling to and from Queens would stop in the middle of the bridge to meet an elevator that would take passengers down to the Island. Trolley service ended in 1957, after achieving the status of being the longest-running trolley line in the City, kept in operation because it was the only way to get to the Island from the City. The Roosevelt Island Bridge was completed in 1955.
In the early 1970s, under the direction of urban planner and visionary Edward J. Logue, the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) created a model for a high-density, mixed-income urban community for the development of Roosevelt Island, necessitating a more efficient mode of transportation. In 1971, with the trolley tracks beyond repair, and the 63rd Street subway far from completion, the UDC hired Lev Zetlin Associates (LZA) to identify and design the future connection to the Island. Award-winning structural engineer James O’Kon led the LZA team through a feasibility and design study, examining three alternate modes of transit including a ferry, elevator from the bridge, and an air tram.
The Tram was selected. Its projected service life was 17 years.
The Tramway was meant as a temporary solution to the-then lack of subway service to the Island. But when the subway finally connected to Roosevelt Island in 1989, the Tram was too popular to discontinue.