Modern Light Rail Defined

Modern light rail is the updated version of streetcar technology, re-designed with low floors to meet contemporary needs for accessibility by seniors, parents with strollers, and persons in wheelchairs, while permitting reduced boarding times and higher capacity. Its longer vehicles allow greater driver productivity than buses, cutting operating costs.

Why light rail, rather than bus rapid transit or select bus service for vision42? Because rail vehicles are externally and reliably guided by their tracks, they require a minimum width of right-of-way. This makes surface light rail especially appropriate and safe for pedestrian streets. The rails also provide a smoother, more appealing ride, and a more obviously dedicated path that discourages motorists from entering and delaying the transit vehicles. The result is a strong record of attracting all income levels. Light Rail could extend the reach of the subways, in this and many other applications in New York; yet, as an intermediate mode, its costs are only about one-tenth as much per mile as subways.

Located at-grade, its easy boarding and inexpensive station platforms will allow frequent access points at every major avenue along 42nd Street, making it an ideal distributor for the subways and north/south buses. Light rail will be able to serve the ferries, something that the subways cannot do – lending credence to the City’s interest in a citywide ferry network – and can serve massive new developments planned along the East and Hudson Rivers, as well as important tourist generators on the waterfronts, such as the UN Headquarters and the Javits Convention Center.

Costs, Benefits, and Funding

Posted on this website is a detailed cost estimate of the vision42 plan, including utility issues and landscaping elements, which has been prepared by the global engineering firm Halcrow, Inc., with New York engineering subcontractors studying local issues. The capital costs are estimated at between $411.25 million and $582.31 million in 2007 dollars, depending upon the extent of utility relocations (which will depend upon political decisions), and whether the vehicles will be self-powered or use an overhead catenary wire. Generally speaking, surface light rail costs one-tenth as much per mile to build as subway construction. Also posted on this site are studies of the anticipated economic impacts of the project, performed by the well-regarded NYC firm Urbanomics, Inc. The economic analyses indicate that the economic and fiscal benefits would amount to some$880.3 million annually. Assuming these extraordinary gains can be attained, the project would pay for itself within about eight months! The substantial fiscal and economic gains resulting from vision42 can be captured by a variey of financial mechanisms. Since these gains would not occur without the project, a case could be made for funding the project through the MTA capital program. Or a separate tax assessment district could be created by the City and the State to target the gains more specifially. The 42nd Street light rail line would be an integral part of the City’s transportation system, every bit as vital as the Second Avenue subway and the LIRR access to Grand Central, and in fact, complementary to these two projects. Given its far lower cost and substantial user base, the project should compete well for federal and local transportation funds. To cover the cost of pedestrian amenities, a package of funds is possible—some from the MTA, some from tax increment financing (a mechanism proposed for funding the #7 subway extension), and some from highway resources. For a high quality of design and maintenance, amenities may need to be underwritten with supplemental private funds to achieve an appropriate level of excellence.

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