On Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio released his much-anticipated OneNYC plan, which establishes a plethora of social, economic, and civic initiatives and goals so chosen to responsibly guide a growing New York City into the future. OneNYC is intended to be a blueprint for the modern metropolis, and is replete with buzzword-cum-principles that purport to determine that growth in a time of economic inequality, potential environmental calamity, and social unrest; abstract words like “just,” “equitable,” “resilient,” “sustainable,” and “inclusion” are all over this thing, and in the speech de Blasio gave announcing the plan. It’s the kind of ambitious, progressive platform de Blasio was elected on.
But one small part of the plan—a part that almost assuredly won’t come to fruition—has garnered an outsized portion of the press coverage of OneNYC. That part? The revival of a century-old study about constructing a subway extension along Utica Avenue.
Like so, so, so many subway expansion ideas, the idea of running a subway line down Utica Avenue, to provide train service to East Flatbush, the Flatlands, and Marine Park, has existed for a very long time. It first appeared in the New York Times in a 1910 article, headlined “Transit Outlook Bright in Brooklyn,” that noted a “strong movement” was underway to build a Utica Ave line. The idea reappeared in expansion proposals in the 1920s, 30s, and 60s, as the transit-watch blog Second Avenue Sagas noted. These plans all called for a southward extension the old IRT-Eastern Parkway line, where the 4 train currently terminates at Utica; the most recent of these, the 1968 “Program for Action,” would’ve put stations at Winthrop Street, Church Avenue, Kings Highway, Flatlands Avenue, ending at Avenue U and Flatbush Avenue. That one failed after a City Council member groused that the area’s population was insufficient to support the expansion.
That is, to put it lightly, not a problem Brooklyn will face in the early 21st century. The B46 bus, which runs along Utica, is the third-busiest bus route in the city. Here’s de Blasio in his press conference:
The Utica Avenue proposal is one we think needed to be studied, because it’s a part of our city that is very underserved by mass transit. And one of the things I talked about a lot in 2013 was trying to rationalize our mass transit system to actually go where the people are. We’re obviously an outer-borough city, and yet there are huge swaths of the outer boroughs that don’t get enough service, and this is an example of a line that might make a lot of sense to expand. We want to study that.
Sound reasoning. But in the next breath, the Mayor pivots to discussing the problem that will nuke the Utica Ave extension this time around, too:
But I’ve said many times, there is a reckoning that has to happen in terms of where we’re going with the MTA, and that’s going to involve the state, that’s going to involve us, that’s going to involve a lot of other partners in the region to make sense of it. In this plan, we do not provide all those answers, because we don’t have them all yet, but it’s something we’re going to be working on. As I said, you get this plan, you get the capital budget, but then there’s going to be a lot happening after the capital budget, including on the question of the MTA. Really, we need to get the stakeholders in the region to come together and agree on a longer-term vision, and everything should be on the table in that discussion.
That’s a reference to the $15 billion gap between the MTA’s five-year capital plan and its current revenue. As I wrote in a recent post about subway overcrowding, “the city’s contribution to the MTA capital plan has hovered around $100 million per year since 1982; if it had kept up with inflation, the city would’ve given $360 million to the MTA last year, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis conducted for the Straphangers Campaign.” A popular solution amongst transit advocates has been to call for increased funding from state and federal coffers, as well as from the city, under the philosophical auspice of regionalism. Judging by his comments Wednesday, it’s safe to say de Blasio belongs with that group.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to read that many transit watchdogs were surprised that the Mayor revived what would be an incredibly expensive project. “No one expected this,” Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU, told the Times. “The issue is: Where’s the check?” Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, added. “It’s only credible if the city is willing to help finance it.”
About that: OneNYC doesn’t actually outline a financing plan for the extension. The MTA has its own wish list for improvements, as well as a rolling 20-year needs assessment plan, neither of which make mention of the Utica Ave extension. And an extension (rather than an additional line, which would require a new East River tunnel) would consequently burden the already overcrowded 4 train.
So given the logistical complexity of the proposed construction, the budgetary shortfall at the MTA, and the lack of a funding plan, this has no realistic chance of happening anytime soon. Major public works projects like this are more often deployed by politicians as a symbol for a bundle of complex social problems. Call it a synecdoche solution. It’s easy to imagine how a Utica Ave subway line would make New York City more equitable, sustainable, and inclusive. But—as with housing, food justice, and environmental change—it’s much harder to actually get there.
The real question is not whether New York can build the subway extension, but what it can do to address the problems an extension would theoretically solve. Whether this is the start of a conversation, or the dismissal of one. That remains to be seen. As City Council member Jumaane Williams, whose district includes East Flatbush and the Flatlands, said: “I’m happy the mayor is talking about transportation issues in South Brooklyn, because too often it’s left out of the discussion.”
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.