A new study could plant the seeds for rail transit across the Bayonne Bridge, though it would require cooperation between the New York region's two major transportation agencies.

An amended New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority five-year capital plan could be the starting point for a light rail line linking Staten Island with New Jersey.

The MTA proposes allocating $4 million to study the potential of constructing a 13-mile West Shore Light Rail route to carry passengers from Staten Island to New Jersey over the Bayonne Bridge, which is owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The bridge was reopened in February after the Port Authority's extensive “Raise the Roadway” project to create better clearance for cargo ships.

The Bayonne Bridge in April 2017, during the "raise the roadway" construction project.
Staten Island advocates want to study a rail line over the Bayonne Bridge. Adobe Stock

The MTA and Port Authority declined comment on discussions about the transit proposal or the role either agency would play should the project proceed. The MTA operates New York City’s transit system and is one of the nation’s largest municipal issuers with nearly $38 billion in debt. The Port Authority, which has around $20 billion in outstanding debt, runs a number of crossings that link New Jersey and New York including the 86-year old Bayonne Bridge.

“The project would have to overcome a lot of obstacles and the one that is the most challenging is planning a transportation project that bypasses another state’s bridge,” said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. “It’s a very unusual situation.”

Jim Smith, a spokesman for New Jersey Transit, said that the agency is “interested” in the MTA study, but “many details will have to be worked out.” NJTransit's Hudson-Bergen light rail line terminates in Bayonne, about a mile from the Bayonne Bridge. The agency explored expanding that service over the bridge into Staten Island in 2011, but the concept never gained traction.

“It’s challenging when you are dealing with multiple authorities,” said New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, R-Staten Island, a New York City mayoral candidate who is a staunch supporter of the rail proposal. “It certainly makes it more complicated.”

The rail line, which would start on the island’s South Shore and head west, was first proposed in 2004 by the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, which revived efforts 10 years later with a petition seeking funds for a state study. The corporation has also explored the feasibility of an aerial gondola along the Bayonne Bridge to enhance Staten Island commuting. Steve Grillo, first vice president of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, said with 7,000 to 9,000 jobs new projected on Staten Island’s South Shore in next five years, multiple public transportation options should be explored.

“You can never have too many transportation options, especially in an urban area,” said Grillo. “The MTA is going to do a good job analyzing this corridor and determining the best option.”

The Port Authority began a $1.3 billion initiative to elevate the Bayonne Bridge in 2013 designed to raise the navigational clearance for ships from 151 to 215 feet while also providing commuters with bike and pedestrian paths. The nearly century-old bridge reopened to drivers in February, but the project won't be fully completed until mid-2019, two years behind schedule. The long-stalled project took six years to get off the ground due to a six-year environmental review process.

Jonathan Peters, a finance professor at the College of Staten Island, said a transit option should have been included with the planning of the current bridge rebuild. He noted that the original bridge was built to handle heavy rail and a light rail system could have been studied while prepping for the bridge elevation.

“The cost impact if the bridge already had the load capacity would have been minimal and to some degree would have provided a bit of an offset to the costs imposed on the region for the elevation of the bridge for maritime traffic,” said Peters, a research fellow at the City University of New York’s University Transportation Research Center. “Talk about poor planning to lose potential capacity and then have to think about how we could restore that capability.”

Peters added that if light rail isn’t included on the bridge, a bus rapid transit system could boost transportation options at a far more affordable cost. He said a bus rapid transit option placed along the Martin Luther King Expressway and Richmond Avenue to the Korean War Veterans Parkway on Staten Island would provide “a tremendous service improvement” over existing public transportation in the area.

Malliotakis said the project would provide public transportation options for residents on the south shore of Staten Island while also relieving traffic congestion. Enhanced transit availability would make the west shore of Staten Island more attractive for businesses and lead to increased income tax revenue from new jobs, Malliotakis said. She added that the area’s geography, surrounded by water near the Bayonne Bridge, could create added opportunities for exporting goods.

“On Staten Island we have always experienced having a lack of transportation,” said Malliotakis. “We need to do more long-term planning.”

While West Shore light rail would provide a boost to Staten Island commuters, New Jersey residents would not see similar benefits, according to Robins, who previously held leadership positions with the Port Authority, New Jersey Department of Transportation and New Jersey Transit. Robins noted that very few residents from Bayonne and surrounding areas need public transportation to Staten Island and that other projects are more of a priority, such as expanding light rail service into Bergen County.

“The project would not capture attention in New Jersey,” said Robins. “New Jersey has other transit projects that are far more advanced.”

Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis said he is “always interested in improvements in mass transit in the region,” but questions whether the re-engineered Bayonne Bridge could handle added weight from trains even though the span was built to accommodate the possibility of future light rail. For the last 10 years the MTA's New York City Transit has operated a bus from Staten Island to Bayonne’s 34th Street light rail station. Davis said the MTA hasn’t contacted him yet about the potential project.

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