NYC MTA sees light rail easiest option in Brooklyn to Queens link

To build a new transit connection between Brooklyn and Queens, a streetcar may be what the MTA desires.

Transit officials have identified light rail train cars as the easiest way to realize Gov. Hochul’s proposed Interborough Express, which aims to bring passenger service to a 14-mile set of freight tracks from Bay Ridge to Jackson Heights.

Officials since January have also examined using the line for conventional commuter trains like those on the LIRR or Metro-North. The construction of a dedicated roadway for buses is also on the table.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hasn’t decided which idea would work best — but a few constraints laid out by transit officials Thursday night during a town hall could prompt the agency to chug ahead with light rail.

Trains like those used on New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which runs on the west side of the Hudson River from Bayonne to North Bergen, could fit next to freight trains that run along the planned path. A new dedicated roadway specially built for buses only could also fit.

But heavier trains like those on the subway or suburban rail lines may be too large. Unlike light rail trains that run on overhead electrical wires, the heavier trains would require the MTA to build new elevated platforms above street level.

A century-old tunnel along the line in East New York poses another challenge. Trains like those on the LIRR or Metro-North cannot fit through the tube, and a heavy rail option akin to the subway would require the MTA to purchase nimble specialized cars like those that run on the PATH.

“Standard light rail vehicles can fit in that tunnel without modification because people would exit closer to the ground, and there’s sufficient room for people to exit into an adjacent tunnel in the case of an emergency,” said Michael Shiffer, a top MTA planner.

“Bus rapid transit would require specialized buses with specialized guideways to enable the bus to safely operate in the narrow confines of the tunnel,” Shiffer said.

Concept images showing light rail streetcar trains and a station.

The biggest engineering challenge the light rail option circumvents is a crossing at Metropolitan Ave. in Ridgewood, Queens.

CSX, a rail freight company, operates trains in a tunnel beneath the avenue — but it has no room for any of the MTA’s passenger trains, Shiffer said.

That means a heavy rail option would require the MTA to construct its own tunnel that runs beneath the agency’s Fresh Pond Yard and under All Faiths Cemetery, an endeavor Shiffer said would come with “significant cost and risk.”

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MTA officials said buses could run on streets above ground. The same is true for light rail cars, which can run on battery power on short stretches where overhead wires can not be built.

The Toronto Transit Commission runs light rail trains on streets without tracks in some sections of the city. “That requires a significant amount of traffic engineering,” Shiffer said. But such a system would be easier to build than a tunnel beneath a train yard and cemetery.

Light rail could also foster a new transit link to LaGuardia Airport.

After Gov. Hochul scrapped former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s planned AirTrain to LaGuardia last year, Port Authority officials went back to the drawing board. One option on the table is a light rail link from the airport to the Interborough Express’s northern terminus in Jackson Heights.

MTA honchos plan to pick their preferred option for the line later over the next six weeks as they move forward with a federally-required environmental review, Shiffer said.

Transit officials plan to run trains or buses along the line every five to 15 minutes, with an end-to-end run time of roughly 45 minutes. MTA planners haven’t yet identified how many stops would be on the line, but the route would provide transfers to subway lines at 10 different locations.

Shiffer said the project would cost “several billion dollars.” It’s unclear how much the agency would save by going with a light rail option, but the smaller trains would be cheaper and avert a costly tunnel project beneath Metropolitan Ave.

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