If some City Council hopefuls have their way, the east Bronx will have more bike lanes, ferry stops and mass transit service — even free subways and buses for all.
In the race to succeed Councilmember Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr., candidates have made transit access a top campaign theme, including the kind of car-curbing projects that have met resistance elsewhere across the city.
Three of the seven candidates — state committeewoman Amanda Farías, Bronx Community Education Council 8 member Michael Beltzer and Darlene Jackson, a social worker and local neighborhood advocate — have oriented their campaigns around transit access and equity.
Platforms include municipal control of the subways and eliminating fares on the city’s mass transit system to help fight climate change.
The three, who are vying to represent the area that includes Parkchester, Castle Hill and Soundview, argue that better transit options would boost the health and economy of The Bronx. The challenge is particularly acute in the transit-starved 18th District, where it takes many commuters more than an hour to get to Midtown.
Farías uses her own mother, a health care worker at NYU Langone, as an example: She usually takes a crowded No. 6 train for an hour and 25 minutes to get to work. Some days, she asks Farías for a car ride to the Soundview ferry dock — a 30-minute trip to Midtown East.
“My mom’s story is the story of the district,” Farías told THE CITY. “When you’re looking at Council District 18, we don’t have efficient buses that go east to west in the Bronx, and those are the only ways we can move through the community.
“We don’t have efficient subway access,” she added. “We have one major train route that is not ADA compliant, and that is hyperlocal for most of its full ride, and that stops people from going to and from the city on the East Side to work — so we need to find efficient ways to support our community.”
Metro-North on Track
Hopes for better east Bronx transit got a boost last week with news that New York has received federal approval for a $1.6 billion plan to bring four new Metro-North Railroad stations to the northeast Bronx by 2025.
The project, more than a decade in the making, would create local east Bronx service by carving out stations along the New Haven line and sending those trains via the Hell Gate Bridge to Penn Station, which currently has no connections to Metro-North rail.
Unlike all but two Bronx stations along the elevated No. 6 train, the new commuter rail stations would be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
One of the proposed stations could pop up in Parkchester, in the Council district where Farías, Jackson and Beltzer are running. Co-op City, Hunts Point and Morris Park all also stand to gain speedy Metro-North service.
The rail stations would be transformative for the northeast Bronx, slashing commute times to Manhattan’s West Side from nearby Co-op City from 75 minutes to just 20 minutes, according to estimates by the MTA.
Transit advocates celebrated the approval. Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Renae Reynolds heralded the project as “a game-changer for east Bronx accessibility.”
Ferry Makes Waves
Whoever is ultimately elected to represent the district in the City Council in November would have little direct power over rail given that the MTA is a state-controlled agency. But the new Council member could hold more sway over bus and bike lanes and potential future expansion of the NYC Ferry service.
NYC Ferry arrived in The Bronx in 2018, starting with a stop at Soundview. A planned expansion is supposed to reach Ferry Point Park sometime this year, according to the system’s operator.
Farías told THE CITY that she would like to add more ferry stops to the borough and bring in either a shuttle bus or a free transfer between the Bx39 bus and the Soundview ferry, which is in the district. She noted the health benefits of expanding ferry options, again referring to her mother.
“That’s completely changing the dynamic of her morning — of the time she gets to spend with her family, with my younger brother, of whether or not she gets to eat breakfast at home,” she said. “That changes the entire dynamic of someone’s day by just giving them an efficient transit option.”
Jackson, a member of the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, wants more protected bike lanes in the district and crosstown bus service in The Bronx.
“It’s not just moving around — it’s the health benefits,” she said. “The Bronx is ranked last when it comes to health, so it makes sense to decrease pollution by making more space for bikes and buses. And I ride a bike myself for my mental health, it’s therapeutic for me.”
Beltzer, like Farías and Jackson, wants to add more bike lanes to the district. Roughly 15% of local streets have bike lanes as of 2018, which is higher than both the borough and city averages of 12% and 10%, respectively.
The other four Democratic candidates on the ballot for the 18th District primary that ends on June 22 did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.
The three candidates interviewed by THE CITY also have made affordability a top issue.
Farías is campaigning against ending “two-fare zones” — where commuters have to pay for a transfer to get to their destination. Currently, NYC Ferry does not accept transfers from buses or subways, necessitating an additional $2.75 fare each way.
She applies the same principle of affordability to the future commuter rail service.
“Intra-city service on the MTA’s existing commuter rail lines is, frankly, expensive,” she told THE CITY in an email. “Even a reduced-fare LIRR trip taken entirely inside the city typically costs $7. On Metro-North, a rush hour ride between Riverdale and Grand Central costs $9.75 (off-peak is $7.25). It is impossible for residents in my communities, or communities that look like mine, to have these prices.”
Jackson raises similar proposals, as well as an expansion of the Fair Fares program, which provides half-price subway rides for the city’s poorest residents.
Beltzer, meanwhile, is campaigning on free mass transit for all.
He told THE CITY that he believes that the “first step” to achieving free public transit in New York City is getting municipal control of the city’s transit system — something he, Farías and Jackson support.
“Over half of the people in the community do not own a car, so they rely on mass transit and safe ways to get around: we’re going to work, we’re going to doctor’s appointments, we’re going to drop off our kids,” he said. “Public transit in New York City should be free, especially if we want to meet our climate goals.”
Transit advocates said that while they’re optimistic about the ideas candidates are floating, they see any fight for municipal control of the city’s transit system as a major challenge.
“I don’t think the city needs full control — I think the city needs consent rights, like over the capital budget and over key hires,” said Shabazz Stuart, a transit advocate and member of the Transportation Alternatives advisory council.
“New York is in a very strong negotiating position,” he added. “The city directly funds the capital budget to the tune of $2.66 billion, and the city should say, ‘We need to have a seat at the table so our voters, who overwhelmingly use the system more so than any other voters, can make sure that their interests are respected.’”
Dont forget the increased service and fare rationalization. Otherwise riders are those stations will be waiting for expensive trains that never arrive.— Shabazz Stuart (@ShabazzStuart) May 13, 2021
Then, like riders along the LIRR Atlantic Branch, they’ll just go elsewhere... https://t.co/x2apCrLxet
Still, Stuart said he’s thrilled to see such passionate mass transit advocacy energize a Council race.
“It’s a really exciting group of candidates, and there’s some conversation points that we just haven’t seen at that depth in the vernacular, citywide,” said Stuart.
Census and other data compiled by NYU’s Furman Center shows nearly 68% of district residents in 2018 had “car-free commutes,” slightly below the citywide average of 70%. The typical travel time to work was 46 minutes, about the same as the citywide and borough average.
Jackson, who describes herself as a commuter and single mom, told THE CITY that the benefits of increased transit options outweigh the costs.
“Transit equity is really about investing in the people, and reimagining our present system in a way that works for everybody.”