Three local elected officials are urging the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to consider a proposal to create a new, elevated tram network to help mitigate the shock from the 18-month shutdown of the L train slated to begin in 2019. U.S. Congress member Carolyn Maloney, City Councilman Stephen Levin, and State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol have all co-signed a letter to Mr. de Blasio, pushing him to conduct an in-depth review of the proposal. In a separate (but related) development, supporters of the project have launched an online petition at Change.org to raise awareness and garner support for the project. (For more information, please click here.)
The East River Skyway is the brainchild of Daniel Levy, president of the CityRealty website, who wants to build a cablecar network with large gondolas that would connect the South Street Seaport and the Lower East Side to sections of Brooklyn and Queens, along with the new Cornell University campus on Roosevelt Island. This proposal comes against the backdrop of Downtown’s exploding residential population, which has civic planners taxing their imaginations to the limit in trying to reverse-engineer the infrastructure of what was once an office district into facilities that can support use 24 hours a day. This struggle has brought us new schools and health care facilities, a burgeoning retail sector, and a slew of cultural institutions.
But the toughest piece of this puzzle may be transportation. The recently announced expansion of East River ferry service is a step in the right direction. We also have two beautiful new train stations, but they serve largely as better organized shelters for transit lines that have existed for decades. The Second Avenue subway will eventually reach Hanover Square, but perhaps not for decades. The Port Authority’s plan to create a “single-seat” ride from the World Trade Center to Newark Airport will likely be realized sooner, but not before the early 2020s. Each of these plans speaks (in a different way) to the same, fundamental challenge: It is fiendishly expensive, dauntingly time consuming, and logistically near impossible to create new transportation facilities in an urban environment that is already densely overbuilt. Even parks are easier, because they can be created almost anywhere space is available. All of which raises the forlorn question: What can we do right now?
Mr. Levy’s plan would begin with a link between the booming Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and Delancey Street, on the Lower East Side. This could largely offset the disruption that will be caused by the upcoming closure of the L Train, which is anticipated to strand 300,000 riders each day. The planned capacity for this first phase of the East River Skyway would be 100,000 riders per day, with gondolas carrying 40 people arriving every 30 seconds during rush hour. Additionally, the East River Skyway’s projected commute time between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side is five minutes, which compares favorably to the subway.
The aspect of the plan mostly likely to make urban planners salivate, however, is its estimated cost: less than $150 million, or about 15 percent of the $1 billion anticipated cost of merely repairing the L train tunnel under the East River, and less than one percent of the estimated $17 billion budget for creating the Second Avenue subway. And politicians will like the planned source of the funding: private investors. But the price that the public are most likely to care about is the cost of a ride: Mr. Levy says that the project can turn a profit charging $25 for an unlimited ride monthly pass, which is less than one-fourth of a similar MetroCard.
Another plus is that gondolas (which require only a few towers, linked by cables) can be built relatively quickly, meaning that the first phase (serving Williamsburg) could be ready for riders before the L train is taken out of service, in 2019. Subsequent phases of the East River Skyway would link the South Street Seaport to Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, and run north along the East River to Fort Greene, Greenpoint, Long Island City, and Roosevelt Island, where New York’s lone existing tram has operated for decades.
Although the scheme is clearly ambitious, it is not without precedent. London and Singapore have built similar trams in recent years, along with cities in Germany, Portugal, and Brazil. It also echoes an idea floated in 2006 by architect Santiago Calatrava for an elevated gondola that would bring visitors to Governors Island from both Brooklyn and Manhattan. (This widely praised idea never gained traction.)
“Cities around the globe are recognizing the viability and efficiency of urban gondolas to overcome serious transportation challenges,” says Mr. Levy. “An aerial transportation system would be a relatively inexpensive and quickly deployable solution here in New York.”