This is a special edition of Signal Problems about Amazon HQ2’s impact on Long Island City’s transit landscape. Friday’s regular edition will be delivered as usual.
There was one moment during the joint Amazon/de Blasio/Cuomo victory lap masquerading as a press conference that epitomized our city’s transit woes. That moment came during the Q&A session, when a member of the press asked Cuomo about concerns among local residents and politicians that the subway cannot handle another 25,000-40,000 commuters in the area.
It’s a fair question. But as I wrote last week, there are good answers. The G, 7, E, M, F, R, N, and W are all within a reasonable walking distance from the proposed HQ site. In the short term, Amazon will occupy one million square feet of 1 Court Square, which sits directly above…Court Square on the E, M, 7, and G lines (the other aforementioned lines are not far away). While they’re all crowded during rush hour and Court Square itself will strain under the ridership (but less so than during the L shutdown) the G and M have additional peak-direction capacity. Also, they’re all well below the current crowding levels on the L and 4/5.
Further, there’s good reason to believe many Amazon workers will follow non-traditional commuting patterns. For starters, a number of them will probably live within walking or bicycling distance from HQ2 given the housing construction boom in the neighborhood. For those who don’t, many will reverse-commute from Manhattan (Hudson Yards, the other NYC neighborhood experiencing a housing construction boom, is straight down the 7). For workers looking to commute from the suburbs, LIC has two LIRR stops, although they currently don’t have very attractive service patterns. Some might even choose to live in Metro North country, given that LIC is one stop on the 7 from Grand Central. It’s also worth noting that East Side Access service, which would bring the LIRR to Grand Central, is slated to begin in December 2022, making Long Island a more attractive option.
The point is not that any one of these options will be most attractive to future Amazon employees, but all of them will attract some and the load will be dispersed. This is the beauty of a robust, healthy transit network: it can absorb even the biggest of shocks.
But neither Cuomo nor de Blasio chose to discuss any of these elements to answer the reporter’s question. They didn’t, for example, float the possibility of keeping full-length G trains after the L shutdown—running half-length trains every six-to-eight minutes during rush hour is a choice the MTA has made to save money—nor did they talk about the benefits of CBTC to the 7 line and, later, the Queens Boulevard Line (scheduled to be upgraded by July 2022). Hell, they didn’t even talk about better LIRR service to existing LIC stations, only mentioning the possibility of building a new station at Sunnyside which is further away from the HQ2 location than the two existing stations and part of yet another controversial development scheme.
No, they didn’t give any of these sensible answers. Instead, Cuomo, who appoints the head of the MTA and all of its board members, did not answer the question. He passed it off to de Blasio, who talked about ferries. And, when he finished, Cuomo assured us that he, too, is also fond of that particular transit mode.
There are two main problems with ferries in this context. First, if you think the subway can’t cope with tens of thousands of additional daily riders but boats can, it leads me to suspect you’ve never been on a subway or a boat. NYC Ferry’s own optimistic pre-HQ2 projections predicted about 24,000 daily riders by 2023. If even a fraction of Amazon employees tried to make the ferry a regular part of their commute, it would completely overrun the system. And there’s a deeper, more fundamental contradiction here. How can de Blasio boast about the unprecedented scale of HQ2’s workforce while also presenting small boats that run less frequently than a delayed subway line as a key transit solution?
Second, heavily-subsidized ferries for upper-class Amazon employees don’t exactly gel with de Blasio’s whole “fairest big city in America” theme. Each rider is charged $2.75 per ride, but the actual cost of the ride is closer to $10. The city already plans to spend $600 million subsidizing ferry rides, a deeply questionable policy even before it was slated to serve a workforce that will earn, as per the terms of the MOU, $150,000 per year on average.
De Blasio further suggested a special LIC shuttle bus could bring people to and from the ferry landing. I found this remark to be the most encouraging of all his transit musings, if only because it proved the Mayor knows buses do, in fact, exist.
So, despite the fact that Long Island City is fully capable of coping with HQ2’s transit challenges, I am deeply worried about Long Island City coping with HQ2’s transit challenges. The very reasonable—and pretty cheap!—answers are there right in front of us. Yet, our elected officials steadfastly ignore them in lieu of fantasy solutions that pose more questions than they answer.
To be fair, Cuomo did mention investing in the subway once during the press conference. But it wasn’t in terms of coping with the influx of LIC commuters. It came during one of the many points in the press conference where he repeated the patently absurd notion that the state will earn nine dollars in increased tax revenue for every one dollar it “invests” in Amazon. He said those returns would go towards “the subways, invest in the schools, whatever.”
If the state is relying on a 900 percent investment return of any kind to fund subway repairs—not to mention better schools or “whatever”—then matters are somehow so much worse than even I could have possibly imagined. But, more specifically, if you believe giving Amazon as much as $1.7 billion will yield $27.5 billion in return, as apparently the Governor in control of our transit system and our state does, then I have a heavily subsidized ferry ticket to sell you.
This has been a special edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the NYC subway. If you thought this was a good idea and would like more of them, let me know by emailing me at email@example.com.