Transit Issues Drive Economic Breakfast

Diane J. Savino

January 29, 2009

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The borough's economic outlook for 2009 constituted the menu, but the conversation at yesterday's breakfast meeting was dominated by Staten Island's transportation needs.

Agita was guaranteed by the traffic congestion and woefully inadequate roads and transit infrastructure that discourage new businesses here.

In his keynote address during the Staten Island Economic Outlook Breakfast, Port Authority executive director Christopher Ward highlighted the authority's plans to address some of the problems by replacing the obsolete Goethals Bridge sometime in the next decade and working on a plan for the Bayonne Bridge, which is too low for some container ships to pass beneath.

Ward was asked what traffic impact the new Goethals will have on the already-jammed Staten Island Expressway when the new three-lane bridge starts funneling more vehicles into the borough than the current two-lane bridge. He gave a seemingly flip response -- suggesting the standstill, which typically forms because of the incline in the road, can be easily remedied if Staten Islanders simply tromp on the accelerator.

"Coming through the toll plaza, you wonder if people can just press the pedal a little harder," he said.

Quickly realizing that such a suggestion wasn't going to cut it in a room of Islanders for whom traffic jams are a way of life, he offered some other ideas, including leveling some of the steepest stretches of the roadway, or running limited-stop bus service along the expressway to lure drivers out of their cars.

But the future of the expressway is in the hands of the state Department of Transportation, which runs the borough's highways, and it is exactly that disconnect that state Sen. Diane Savino would like to see changed. She called for better coordination among transportation agencies like the Port Authority, the MTA and the DOT, to make better, more cohesive choices and bring about the most effective improvements for the region during this time when projects must compete for limited resources.

In the interim, plans for the new Goethals include improving roadway connections that will allow truck traffic from the New York Container Terminal to access the bridge directly, which will help unclog local roads.

Dr. Jonathan Peters, a transportation expert at the College of Staten Island, urged Ward to consider planning now to run transit service over the new Goethals when it is built. Plans for the bridge call for space to be set aside to run buses or light rail, but the authority currently has no intention of offering such service in that space.

Peters also asked Ward why there are no plans to replace the Outerbridge Crossing, which is the borough's most heavily used span. He suggested the authority at least get a jump on the arduous environmental analysis process, which can take a decade or more to complete.

"We are not in the world of unlimited resources," Ward said. But acknowledging the hurdles and government inertia, Ward said he hopes to accelerate the environmental process required before much-needed projects can begin.

Ward also discussed the authority's commitment to revitalizing the Teleport property in Bloomfield, plans to expand the New York Container Terminal in Mariners Harbor by adding a fourth berth, and the possible expansion of wetlands at the former GATX site near the Goethals, using processed material left over from dredging local shipping channels.

Peters moderated a panel discussion including Dr. Cameron Gordon, a research fellow at CSI's University Transportation Research Center; Advance Editor Brian Laline, and Peter Meloro, manager of account executives for Consolidated Edison.

The event, held at the Vanderbilt in South Beach, was sponsored by the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and SI Bank & Trust, and included the results of a new survey of Islanders that identified unemployment, the cost of the financial bailout and declining home values and foreclosures as among the greatest threats to the country's economy.

And Borough President James Molinaro cautioned that even more Islanders will be financially strapped in June, when their mortgages adjust.