New York Has 15 Minutes To Think About the Rockaways

In the wake of the Frankenstorm disaster, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for New York to be built smarter, given the likelihood of rising seas and more powerful storms. But that is not the way rebuilding generally occurs. What you have, rather, is a rush to get shattered lives back to normal as quickly as possible, which usually means putting back a somewhat cheaper and worse-built version of what was there before. Witness the reaction, to politicians from elsewhere, to the assertion in 2005 that that parts of New Orleans should be rebuilt elsewhere, instead of below sea level, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Or, for those with less power and fewer resources, the consequence is often no rebuilding at all. As one sees in that city’s Lower 9th Ward.

Some combination of these two is what is likely to occur on the Rockaways and in Staten Island, more likely due to a series of non-decisions than to any decisions. Any suggestion of possible change in the current emotional post-disaster political climate is likely to provide an opportunity for a cheap political shot, and be about as popular as holding the New York City Marathon as planned. And by the time feelings have cooled, any available resources are likely to have been already committed. If people come back later with demands for more resources to rebuild a second time, this time differently, other needs elsewhere will almost certainly take priority. But what if it actually were possible to come with alternatives quickly? I spent 15 minutes thinking about it, just slightly less than those who might want to make (or even allow) changes would have, and here is what I came up with.

Let’s start with something I know relatively more about – transportation. The population of the Rockaways is a combination of poorer people in low income and subsidized housing, and middle class people, including many public employees and retirees. The low income people take mass transit to the extent that they go anywhere, while the middle class people shun the available transit options – generally the A train and local buses – and drive.

The A train to the Rockaways was built as a Long Island Railroad line to bring people to the peninsula, for vacations and recreation. At the time the Marine Parkway and Cross Bay bridges had not been built, and access to the Rockaways, aside from the land connection via the Five Towns area of Nassau County, was via the train or ferries. The LIRR abandoned the service in the early 1950s, following a fire that wrecked the Broad Channel causeway the way Sandy wrecked it last Monday. The City of New York bough the line, connected it to the end of the A train, and instituted subway service in 1956.

While the subway provides a quick connection from the Rockaways to low income job deserts such as Brownsville and East New York, it is a very long ride to anywhere else – far more than an hour to Midtown. Storms, and not just superstorms such as Sandy, close the line frequently. It is no accident that the marooned train in the blizzard of two years ago was located there. The long ride and unreliable service means relatively few people use it, with most of the Rockaway stations among the lowest in ridership in the subway system. Some who can afford it use the express QM 16 and QM 17 buses instead. These buses are relatively recent additions, perhaps instituted to help attract people to the growing middle income Arverne development.

Despite low ridership the MTA still has to staff the many stations and maintain many miles of the track, so per-rider costs are high. To cover the extra cost the city charged a double fare for trip to the Rockaways from 1956 until 1975, when the extra fare was eliminated as part of an overall fare increase. The one thing the MTA can do to save money, since the Rockaways does not have enough people to fill many trains, is to reduce frequency of service, which makes travel times even longer and service even worse. And use some of the toll money collected on the Marine Parkway and Cross Bay bridges to subsidize the subway. For the past couple of decades the Rockaway Park side of the line, aside from a few rush hour trains, has been merely a shuttle, with riders forced to change trains at Broad Channel. Those traveling from that direction are riding AWAY from Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, before changing trains and THEN heading back toward their likely destination.

In these circumstances, it may be that some kind of Bus Rapid Transit network could serve the Rockaways both better and cheaper that the subway. The A train would terminate at Howard Beach/JFK. The train operators, conductors, station agents, signal operators and infrastructure maintainers required to operate Rockaway A trains today would be replaced by bus operators providing more frequent service by bus, perhaps using larger articulated buses with more capacity.

The buses would operate with limited stops, and in reserved lanes, as under the growing Select Bus service. In fact, because the Rockaway Line is at grade on both ends, it could be converted to a busway with access via existing stations, with the conversion perhaps costing less than rebuilding the Broad Channel causeway plus the possible proceeds from selling off the Rockaway Park subway yard for development. Those who currently ride the A train on the Far Rockaway branch, would have to transfer to enter the subway. But unlike in 1956, when the subway was extended, bus-to-subway transfers are now free. And the time lost transferring could be offset by time gained in more frequent service.

A Bus Rapid Transit network, moreover, could be extended to places the A Train does not go. One route, lets call it the “Rockaway 1” SBS route, could run from Far Rockway over the Cross Bay Bridge an up Cross Bay Boulevard to the Rockaway Boulevard station on the A train, replicating the current service but with the addition of a transfer. But it could also continue – with no stops or limited stops -- up Woodhaven Boulevard to a different subway station with a faster trip to Midtown. It could terminate at the Woodhaven Boulevard station on the Queens Boulevard line, or run express on the LIE to Queens Plaza, where Rockways (and perhaps Rego Park) commuters could transfer to the E, R, M, N or 7 trains depending on their Manhattan destination. The express buses could also run on the new SBS route, charging the higher fare for a trip all the way to Midtown.

A second route, which could be called “Rockway 2,” could run from the other side of the peninsula. Instead of stopping at Broad Channel, as the current Rockaway Park subway shuttle train does, it could continue on to various subway transfers as is proposed for “Rockaway 1.” And it wouldn’t have to end at 116th Street. Instead, this route could be extended on Rockaway Point Boulevard to serve Belle Harbor and Neponsit before terminating in Riis Park. Mass Transit travel from these areas currently requires not only the roundabout A train ride, but a transfer to a bus as well.

A third Select Bus route, moreover, could avoid that roundabout route by using the Marine Parkway Bridge. The bridge is currently used by the Q35 bus, which starts at Beach 116 Street in Rockaway Park and ends at the Junction at Flatbush and Nostrand, where a transfer to the crowded 2 and 5 trains is available. This local bus, however, stops every two blocks and, given the long time required to pay fares before boarding, service is slow.

Instead a new Select Bus Route, call it “Rockaway 3,” could have stops every one-third to one-half mile like the IND subway, with fares paid before boarding at “stations.” The route could start from Far Rockaway and run all the way across the peninsula before going to Brooklyn, rather than starting at Beach 116th Street. And in Brooklyn it could travel beyond its current terminus to provide transfers to more subway lines. Perhaps even going to Stillwell Avenue Coney Island via the Belt Parkway where F, Q, D and N trains are available, or going across Brooklyn on Kings Highway and Avenue P.

The quick and easy response to all of this by the typical self-serving, thoughtless, local pol is easy. “How dare the evil MTA! As a result of this insult, I demand free limo service, zero fare subways, and retirement after 20 years of work for transit workers!” But there is a way to deal with that. Don’t rush to sign contracts to rebuild the A train immediately. Instead, rush to get the Select Bus System up and running immediately – at grade on Rockaway Freeway below the A train viaduct-- as a substitute. Wait a few months. And then ask the question -- of the people not the pols. Would the Rockaways like somewhat lower tolls, if the Select Bus service is cheaper than the A train, and a more extensive bus system, including the three Select Bus Service routes? Or the pre-existing A train? And which would allow faster travel, and which would cost less? I’m not sure what the answer would be, but a rational place would ask the question.

A similar question would be asked about the concentration of high-rise public and subsidized housing in the Rockaways. It is the product of the nasty racial and class politics of 50 years ago. Back then the borough of Queens was much more affluent – and much Whiter – relative to the rest of the city and U.S. than it is today. The borough’s per capita income was 32 percent above the U.S. average in 1969, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, but it fell as low as 8 percent below average in 2000 before increasing to about the national average in 2010.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the city’s public and publicly subsidized housing was built, the poor were concentrated in Manhattan, older parts of Brooklyn (the areas now gentrifying) and the South Bronx. Some wanted to spread low income housing around to de-concentrate the poor. Middle class Queens objected. The political compromise was to concentrate most of the “Queens share” of low-income housing in the Rockaways, as far away from middle class neighborhoods as possible.

But Rockaways public housing projects were not only far from most of middle class Queens, but also far from most jobs, and the poor people who ended up living there also ended up far more isolated and unemployed than those elsewhere in the city. It didn’t help that as the poor were being moved in, the number of jobs on the peninsula itself had been going down, until a more recent revival. The housing projects, moreover, were the sort of high-rise concentrations of poverty that would later be discredited and, in much of the country, gradually abandoned, torn down, and replaced by low-rise scattered projects. Only in New York City, where affordable housing is scarce, do such buildings continue to be attractive, even to the poor. Even New York City, however, would never build them today.

If this were some other place, rebuilding elsewhere – as has been done in the wake of floods in some small Midwestern towns in river flood plains – would be a no-brainer. A few decades ago, moreover, New York City had plenty of vacant lots where replacement housing could be built. Even a few years ago, the city might have been able to buy up abandoned projects started during the housing bubble, finished them, and moved former housing project residents there. Today there may be no choice but to rebuild what was there the way it was.

Even now, however, it is worth asking a few questions. If given a choice, how many residents of those housing projects would prefer a buyout, to move to some other part of the country where the cost of living is lower? Would the federal government pay for this, in lieu of rehabilitating some of the project buildings? How many would prefer to move to a new, smaller, low-rise public or subsidized housing project somewhere else in the city, closer to jobs and outside of Zone A? Are there still vacant lots where such projects could be built, and how would the cost of new buildings compare with the cost of rehabilitating the worst off public housing projects in the Rockaways? Others would, of course, choose to return to the Rockaways. Perhaps to the buildings in the best condition, which could be rehabilitated at the lowest cost.

Poor people don’t tend to be given options, and if they were given a choice, it is an open question if the land and money would be available to accommodate them. That would, in part, be a federal decision. What can rebuilding money be used for? Given the less than idea situation a priori, however, if more than 15 minutes were available, alternatives could at least be considered, with information collected about the preferences of the residents and the relative cost of various alternatives. Because the combination of somewhat fewer poor people concentrated on the peninsula, and somewhat more jobs for poor people on the peninsula (if Sandy hasn’t halted the local revival), might be a good thing.

Finally, there is the question of what will happen to severely damaged and destroyed market-rate and owner-occupied housing in the Rockaways. On the Jersey Shore, Governor Christie has said it will be up to the private sector to decide how, and if, properties are rebuilt, but that isn’t entirely true. Given the now manifest threat of disaster, no building on these barrier islands and peninsulas is going to get a private sector mortgage without flood insurance. No one is going to get flood insurance without some level of federal or state subsidy, paid in part by those living elsewhere. And the federal flood insurance program is going to require a bailout, and its future is in question.

The spread of expensive development to barrier islands such as the Rockaways can be considered a public policy disaster from both a liberal and a conservative perspective. From a liberal perspective, environmentally conscious city planners would probably have limited development in flood plains, had not developers yelling “free market” and “property rights” defeated them in the political process. Once the development was there, however, residents demanded a host of government subsidies, from federal flood insurance to beach replenishment, to protect their investments – over the growing opposition of free market conservatives.

Prior to government involvement, development on barrier islands was limited. To the properties of wealthy people, who were left to take their own losses after storms. And to cheap, easy to replace land uses such as small, unwinterized summer cottages and amusement parks, such as those found in the Rockaways 80 years ago. “Before the bridge” no Staten Island family would live on the South Shore on the ocean side of Hylan Boulevard. Whether people moved to those places and then pulled the government in, or government policies encouraged people to move to those places, there are far more people and houses on barrier islands than there were 50 years ago. Both in the Northeast and further down the coast.

They may become a government budget-cutting target. Because for the most part, the beneficiaries of federal flood insurance, and federally-backed mortgages for properties in coastal flood planes, are the affluent. Think the Hamptons, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nag’s Head and Hilton Head in the Carolinas. That’s who people from Ohio will believe they are being forced to pay for, as additional federal funding to recapitalize the federal flood insurance program is debated. Not the middle class, working class and poor residents of the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Staten Island’s Zone A.

Moreover, even regular homeowner’s insurance that doesn’t cover floods may become difficult to get or extremely expensive. Already, property insurance companies are requiring large deductibles for hurricanes, and are refusing to issue new policies in “coastal counties,” including all of Brooklyn. Republican politicians, screaming “free market,” may like to deny global warming but the free market itself seems to believe in it.

In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the State of Florida was forced to set up its own property insurance company. One that will not have enough money to pay for a disastrous hurricane season. State taxpayers would have to pay instead. And bear in mind that if tax increases were required, the State of Florida would be starting from a below-average tax burden with no state income tax. The State of New York would be starting from the highest state and local tax burden in the U.S., if it chose to replicate the program. Should we? Will we have to? It is time to start thinking about it.

Another concern: some of the homes on the barrier islands burned down rather than being destroyed by flood, particularly in Breezy Point. Most homeowner’s insurance policies will not pay off in cash, but only to rebuild. Why? Out of fear that homeowners in troubled neighborhoods will burn down their own houses to get the cash and to buy houses elsewhere. That is clearly not the case here. I’m not sure the state can require insurance companies to give people that option. But at the very least, insurance companies ought to be willing to insure the rebuilt homes of those required to rebuild in a flood zone.

Rebuilding is a one-time decision, and it is likely that whoever wins the Presidential election the federal government will be generous. The disaster, and the suffering it has caused, is all over the media and fresh in people’s minds. So there is a good chance that those seeking to rebuild will end up getting federal mortgage guarantees and other subsidies.

But those subsidies may not exist forever. The federal government is deep in debt, and having to pay more and more for senior citizen entitlements, particularly for health care. Every other part of the federal budget has been shrinking, relative to the size to the economy, for decades. And state and local governments, particularly ours, are also in debt, with underfunded and retroactively enhanced public employee pensions and aging infrastructure.

As the competition for shrinking resources gets increasingly nasty, will subsidies last forever? When those who rebuild want to sell their homes and pay off their mortgages, ten or twenty years from now, will the buyers be able get mortgages themselves? Will the cost of federal flood insurance, or subsidies from the general budget, escalate? What sorts of limits will private insurers place on homeowner policies in these areas, and how high will premiums rise?

For forward-looking people, the time to ask these questions is before deciding whether, and what, to rebuild. Beware – when the memories of the disaster are no longer fresh, the rug might be quietly pulled out from under people who rebuild in coastal flood zones. At 4 am as one item in a 500-page bill no one reads, because politicians don’t issue press releases about decisions that make people worse off. Leaving the homeowners as underwater on their mortgages as Las Vegas homeowners who bought during the housing bubble, as a result of the possibility of being underwater.

These issues are going to be just New York City issues, but will rather play out on the Jersey Shore and on the south shore of Long Island. So whatever happens will not just happen here. But federal officials from here ought to be thinking about it. In expensive, congested metro New York, the Frankenstorm disaster has exacerbated an overheated housing market, creating a crisis, and crises are not the time that people generally think about the long term. I’m not sure what is going to happen, or what should happen. But no one should assume things will be the same, even if everything is initially built the way it was.

What is sad about all this is that people were beginning to re-discover the Rockaways. We’ve gone to the beach at Riis Park once or twice a year for years. Huge bathhouses built by Robert Moses, turned over the federal government in the 1970s by a broke city in the hopes of redevelopment, lie mostly abandoned. A massive parking lot featured a small number of cars near the beach and a huge expanse of empty asphalt, with weeds growing through. But suddenly in the past couple of years the parking lot, and the sand, filled. I was amazed at how many people were there this year – multiples of the way it had been.

Today’s young people are poorer, too poor to take an airplane to Florida if they want to go to the beach, the way more and more middle class people did in recent decades. In the new economic reality in the wake of 30 years of soaring public and private debts, the working class seashore, like the upstate lakes and mountains, may be set for a comeback. But now the Jersey Shore and Rockaways are in ruins. This other need, the growing need of ordinary people for vacation and recreation closer to home, should be thought about for 15 minutes as well.