The Triboro RX plan calls for using preexisting freight rail rights-of-way with minimal freight traffic to build a circumferential subway line through the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. It was mentioned as a possible project by then-MTA head Lee Sander and more recently by Scott Stringer and on The Atlantic Cities by Eric Jaffe. Despite not having nearly as much ridership potential as Second Avenue Subway or a future Utica subway, the presumed low cost of reactivating the right-of-way makes it a promising project.
According to Capital New York, leading mayoral contender Christine Quinn has just made up a price tag of $25 billion for Triboro, while claiming that paving portions of the right-of-way for buses will cost only $25 million. This is on the heels of city council member Brad Lander’s proposal for more investment in bus service. The difference is that Lander proposed using buses for what buses do well, that is service along city streets, and his plan includes bus lanes on major street and what appears to be systemwide off-board fare collection. In contrast, Quinn is just channeling the “buses are always cheaper than rail” mantra and proposing to expand bus service at the expense of a future subway line.
There is no support offered for either of the two cost figures Quinn is using, and plenty of contradictory evidence. Paving over rail lines for bus service is expensive; a recent example from Hartford and a proposal from Staten Island both point to about $40 million per km in the US. The map in the Capital New York article suggests significant detours away from the right-of-way, including on-street turns making the bus as slow as the existing circumferential B35 route, but also several kilometers on the railroad in Queens. Conversely, reusing rail lines for rail service is not nearly as expensive as building a subway. The MTA’s own biased study says a combined on-street and existing-right-of-way North Shore service would cost 65% more if it were light rail than if it were a busway; since the Triboro right-of-way is intact, the cost of service is in the light rail range, rather than the $25 billion for 35 km Quinn says.
But the reason Quinn is unfit for office rather than just wrong is the trust factor coming from this. She isn’t just sandbagging a project she thinks is too hard; the MTA is doing that on its own already. She appears to be brazenly making up outlandish numbers in support of a mantra about bus and rail construction costs. Nor has anyone else proposed a Triboro busway – she made the logical leap herself, despite not having any background in transit advocacy. Politicians who want to succeed need to know which advocates’ ideas to channel, and Quinn is failing at that on the transit front. If I can’t trust anything she says about transit, how can I trust anything she says about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, or about housing affordability, or about the consequences of labor regulations?
Update: Stephen Smith asked Quinn’s spokesperson, who cited a $21 billion figure for a far larger RPA plan including Second Avenue Subway and commuter rail through-running with new lines through Manhattan. I am not holding my breath for a retraction of the bus paving plan from the Quinn campaign.
Update 2: Quinn admitted the mistake on the rail plan, and revised the estimate of the cost down to $1 billion, but sticks to the bus plan and its $25 million estimate.