As the borough grows in popularity and population, Queens still faces significant transportation challenges, from a decrepit subway system to airports that lack the necessary infrastructure to accommodate a growing ridership.
Last Thursday at the chamber’s expo at Citi Field, transit leaders from all modes of transportation discussed some of these challenges facing residents, small businesses and visitors.
From a trains perspective, New York City Transit president Andy Byford delved into “Fast Forward,” a strategic vision to modernize the operation of the city’s subway and bus systems.
A 29-year transit veteran of subway systems in London, Sydney and Toronto, Byford said the challenges facing New York City’s century-old system is a “triple whammy” of ever-rising ridership, aging infrastructure and limited funding.
Fast Forward proposes a top-to-bottom, all-out modernization of “every single aspect of our operations,” Byford said, including an overhaul of the MTA’s culture.
“I think it has to be done, we must bite the bullet,” he said. “If we put off the substantial investment that’s needed for this plan, it will only get harder and more expensive.”
Put together in less than 100 days, the plan focuses on four priorities: transforming the subway, reimagining the bus network, expanding accessibility and making customers feel more valued.
Those goals are built on three foundations, Byford said, including agility and accountability, safety and security, and customer service and communication.
Fast Forward will speed up the resignaling of the subway system, which at its current pace, would take up to five decades to complete. Under the new plan, in 10 years the MTA plans to modernize the signals for 11 subway lines.
To do that, the agency plans to work on more than one line at once, embrace new technologies and take a fresh look at closures. Byford warned that there must be extensive weekend closures, but there is “no gain without pain.”
“Bear with us, this will all be worth it,” he said. “At the end of that 10 years, you will have way greater reliability and way more service.”
On the accessibility aspect, Byford said the MTA will double the rate of installation of elevators at train stations. Within five years, their goal is to have a system where customers with disabilities are no more than two stops from an accessible station.
Then there’s the question of funding. Byford said the MTA already gets a lot of money annually, including $18 billion under their five-year capital plan. What the agency will work on is making better use of those funds.
“What we can do is shuffle the money around to get on with the accessibility and signal upgrades we’re pursuing,” he said. “Some things don’t need more funding, they just need better management focus.”
But modernization overhaul needs sustainable funding. To have new tracks, tunnels, trains, power systems, signals, stations and elevators, the MTA must have a dedicated source of money.
Byford said the MTA is holding off on announcing a figure until they’re certain it’s right, but expect to announce the number over the summer. Where they will get the money is still to be determined, but they will look at ideas like congestion pricing, an influx of private capital and public-private partnerships.
The panel also focused on the two airports in Queens, and their respective ongoing transformation plans. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, Seth Pinsky’s RXR Realty is managing the expansion of JetBlue’s terminal expansion.
Pinsky, executive vice president at RXR and a former president of the Economic Development Corporation in the Bloomberg administration, said in many ways, airports today are facing the same challenges as subways. There is ever-rising usage but relatively fixed infrastructure.
“We haven’t really increased flights by the same percentages that the number of passengers have increased,” he said. “We only have so many landing slots, so many runway slots, so many gates.’
Another challenge facing the airport is its configuration, which Pinsky said comes “from a different age.” There are a large number of old and crowded terminals, connected by the AirTrain, that makes transferring inconvenient.
RXR’s project at JFK is to expand JetBlue’s Terminal 5 by building and connecting to a new terminal. The $3 billion private investment allows for integration of these previously unconnected terminals.
“It will help us accommodate the growth we desperately need,” Pinsky said. “If we want to stay competitive on a global stage, we have to make sure people can reach New York and go to other cities, do business and bring their tourism dollars.”
Though RXR isn’t behind this next project, developers are also building the first hotel at JFK, at the site of the historic TWA terminal.
“It’s about creating amenities at the airport that 21st century passengers expect,” he said. “High-quality hotels on the site of the airport, so it’s easy if you have an early flight or you need to have business meetings. That doesn’t exist today at JFK.”
LaGuardia Airport is also undergoing a multi-billion dollar change. Lysa Scully, the general manager of the airport, detailed the “unprecedented investment” for new facilities.
Two years ago, the Port Authority signed an agreement with LaGuardia Gateway Partners, a $4 billion deal, to work on the first phase of the rebuild. Last year, they signed another $4 billion agreement with Delta.
Scully said the projects are delivering $4 million a day in construction, and they have hired more than 1,200 construction workers to execute the rebuild, all while commiting to not reducing flight operations.
In the last six months, LaGuardia has opened up a 3,100-space parking garage and put in place roadway changes that will allow for a new entrance into the Grand Central Parkway westbound from the Delta complex.
Eventually, they will create a new bridge network that will allow customers to go directly into the Delta part of the airport without entering Terminal B at all. In the fall, LaGuardia will open its new Concourse B, with another concourse expected to debut next year.
“Each month, each quarter, there is very visible progress being made,” Scully said. “We know that this borough, this state, requires to be the front door to the rest of the world. We really need to invest in it.”
The final part of the panel focused on the future of automobiles. Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Auto Dealers Association, said the most pressing issue for cars is emerging technology, and how future generations will be trained to handle it.
Some of the new technologies that are being integrated today are autonomous technology, electric cars and self-driving cars.
Despite growing investment in public transit, Schienberg said people “by far” still like owning a vehicle. The tristate area remains the largest market for car sales, including $41 billion in sales last year.
“People want the freedom of mobility, but they want to buy the right products and safe products,” he said. “It’s an exciting time in the auto industry for sure.”