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With HQ2 Looming, Long Island City Transportation Solutions Become Urgent

One weekday morning at the Court Square train station in Long Island City last week, a familiar subway rush hour scene was playing out. F trains appeared to be running on the E line. The M train didn’t seem to be coming.

“Why won’t they tell you what train is coming?” a commuter named Tom wondered aloud. “There are F's running on the E line also? There is no M coming at all?”

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The New York City Subway's 7 train

This subway station — which has the E, 7, G and M Lines — was swarming with people around 8 a.m. In the coming years, it will be the local stop for Amazon’s new HQ2 and likely be even busier.

“Oh, it will be a disaster. They don’t have the infrastructure for it … It’s bad now, and they are not really doing anything to improve it,” said Tom, who declined to give his last name, before moving onto another major grievance — the $3B incentive package.

“A trillion-dollar company did not need a giveaway. And [CEO Jeff Bezos] does not need a helipad either. The richest man on the planet does not need any of that,” he said, then boarded what was labeled an F train, though he wasn’t sure entirely sure which route it was taking.

Amazon’s plan to build a new headquarters — at least 4M SF for 25,000 new employees — in Long Island City has put New York’s buckling transport system under even greater scrutiny. Scoring HQ2 thrilled some politicians, planners and developers who say it is an economic boon for the region, but enraged others who bristle at the incentives the city lavished on the tech giant in order to lure it here.

But everyone agrees the impact on the city’s transit system will be profound, and preparing a strategic mix of responses now is crucial.

“Amazon chose New York because New York has a high number of employees. The talent pool is huge,” Regional Plan Association Executive Vice President Juliette Michaelson said. “The transportation system is so key to making sure that talent pool is accessible in a reliable way, is growing and that the people who come to work for Amazon are able to live in a range of communities all around the region."

Amazon’s entry into Long Island City will be staggered, reportedly starting with 700 employees next year and expanding to 25,000 by 2028, the Wall Street Journal reports. Any groundbreaking on the new site could be about two years away, and Amazon has 1M SF leased at Savanna’s One Court Square for its first office in the area.

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Weekday commuters coming down from the 7 train platform at the Court Square station

No one single transit option will be the answer, local and regional experts told Bisnow. More ferries, reliable subways, kick-starting the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar and even extending the proposed Gateway project to Queens now have renewed urgency, they said.

“That’s the first thing I thought. How will the subway be able to handle this extra capacity?" said Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Nicole Gelinas, the author of a report released this month that analyzed subway performance based on Metropolitan Transportation Authority data.

It has been 18 months since Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared the subway in a state of emergency a few days after a train careened of the tracks in Harlem and injured over 30 people. Gelinas’ report shows that although things are better for subway riders than they were in the worst days of 2017, they still aren’t as good as they should be. The number of major incidents in November actually increased year over year, she said.

The 7 line runs from Flushing through Queens, across Manhattan via Grand Central Terminal to Hudson Yards. Last month, it received new signal technology, but it has a lower on-time performance than it did in January 2015, according to the MTA’s subway performance dashboard.

Two years ago — well before Amazon had even announced it was searching for a second headquarters — Long Island City residents were worried the yearslong improvements to the 7 train were nowhere near enough to keep up with the flood of development in the neighborhood. 

“In a year and a half, you would expect more dramatic improvements,” Gelinas said.

The MTA has put forward a $40B plan to improve the subway, and some lines are already being sped up. Still, there are fears that woeful commute times are now discouraging businesses from remaining in the city.

“It’s crazy,” said another weekday commuter in Court Square.

Stephen, who declined to share his last name, takes the G from Brooklyn to Court Square every morning before switching to the 7 to go all the way across to Hudson Yards, where it is the only line directly serving the 18M SF of commercial and residential space rising on Manhattan’s Far West Side. 

On this particular morning, the trains were running smoothly, showing up every three minutes, but that is not always the case.

“The current setup there is right now is just not conducive for that amount of people," Stephen said. "It’s very congested, and if you have any issue, the train’s delayed or having problems, it’s just a mess.”

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Long Island City from Manhattan

RXR Realty Executive Vice President and former President of the New York City Economic Development Corp. Seth Pinsky said HQ2’s presence is a step forward, not backward, for the city’s transit problems.

“Over the long run, we are only going to solve our transit challenges if we have the resources. There is no way to generate the resources without growth,” he said. “The Amazon project is not only a huge growth project in itself, but Amazon’s choosing the city adds to the perception that New York is a tech center, which will spur even more growth.”

Slate Property Group principal David Schwartz said the the 15-month L train shutdown in April and HQ2 means the G train — which runs between Queens and Brooklyn — is now going to see a significant increase in ridership.

“It goes through all the coolest neighborhoods in Brooklyn … [and] it doesn’t touch Manhattan,” he said, adding the line should see improvements as it becomes more popular. “The L train used to be the worst train in the city. It was like a ghost town.”

Supporters of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a proposed streetcar that would run 11 miles from Astoria to Red Hook, say HQ2 is just more proof the plan should become a reality.

“Now is the moment to seize on this potential for equitable transit planning, to deliver the reliable option so many communities along the corridor have long lacked, and to move full steam ahead with the BQX,” Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector Executive Director Jessica Schumer said in a statement following Amazon’s announcement.

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A map of the proposed BQX and Amazon HQ2

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said this month that Amazon should help pay for the connector, which she called the “QBX”.

“QBX should also include a free transfer to MTA subways and buses, as well as reduced ‘Fair Fares’ for lower-income New Yorkers,” Katz said in a release, adding that the Long Island City and Hunterspoint Avenue LIRR stations should become full-time stations with enhanced service in order to ease pressure on the subway.

The influential RPA wants a new commuter rail station at Sunnyside Yards, not far from Long Island City, and believes HQ2 means the planned Gateway Project — which would construct a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan— should not end at Penn Station, but in Queens.

The RPA suggested the proposal in its fourth regional plan, but Michaelson said the eventual injection of 25,000 workers makes it even more pressing. That would allow people living in New Jersey to easily commute to Long Island City each day, whereas that now requires multiple rail transfers.

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Amazon's HQ2 site in Long Island City was in an opportunity zone.

“We should be thinking transport solutions in phases,” she said, noting that Gateway is the most ambitious element of the plans. She said a conversation about how employees will travel from the Court Square subway station to the Anable basin site is important, and that she would not like to see the emergence of private sector vans.

She also pointed to Goldman Sachs’ decision to provide commuter ferries between Lower Manhattan and Jersey City as an example for Amazon to follow. She said the association will be vocal about limiting parking at the new site, as the traffic will be the most “noxious” issue and there is nothing about car spaces in the memorandum of understanding, though a helipad has been included.

“Don’t get me started,” she said when asked her thoughts on the controversial helipad requested for HQ2. “We are not supportive of the helicopter pad. It does not fit in with the spirit of the city.”