Tunnel Vision

This Guy Wants to Connect Brooklyn and Manhattan with a Gondola

L Train shutdown aside, New York needs this gondola.

by John Surico
Apr 28 2017, 2:44pm

Images courtesy Dan Levy

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

When Dan Levy first proposed the "East River Skyway" in 2014, it was hard to miss a reference to Lyle Lanley, the shuckster from "The Simpsons" who bilked a pie-in-the-sky idea that Springfield didn't necessarily want, or need: a shiny, brand spankin' new (but not necessarily functional) monorail.

Here was Levy—a businessman who first made headlines with his company, CityRealty, which was a pioneer in online real estate listings—pitching an aerial gondola that could carry 5,000 New Yorkers every hour across the East River, from Brooklyn's Williamsburg to Manhattan's Lower East Side, in 5 minutes flat. Compared to most transit projects, it'd be cheap (one engineer estimated $134 million), Levy argued, and could be built in no time. But plenty of New Yorkers had heard this sort of gambit before—I mean, Donald Trump is from here—and attention quickly deflated; "why not?" is an urban design dream that often dies fast here, either due to costs, or regulatory hoops and hurdles. (And the list here is daunting.)

But then, news of the L train shutdown broke.

Now, facing a transit crisis that will fuck up hundreds of thousands of daily commutes for over a year, Levy's pitch doesn't seem as far-fetched, nor unwarranted. And, in fact, it's gaining steam: last November, a cadre of elected officials, including Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, urging him to consider the idea in light of the shutdown, while news articles that once made Levy seem overly idealistic have since changed their tune. The proposal even recently got a nod from "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, which is kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal, but for New York City development.

So VICE reached out to Levy to discuss the Skyway, where he's at in the planning process, and whether or not this is actually happening. Here's what he had to say.

VICE: So your idea actually predated the L train shutdown news. What did you see happening then in these areas that demanded a project like this?
Dan Levy: There's a very significant congestion problem in North Brooklyn, even when the L train is working perfectly fine. So obviously once the thing goes down, it's gonna go from a very bad problem to an absolutely horrendous problem. You've got this fundamental paradox in North Brooklyn, where neighborhoods that become more and more popular—Williamsburg, specifically, but also Bushwick and Greenpoint—kind of become victims of their own growth. You have this situation where you have tens of thousands of new people living in this area, the vast majority of whom work in Manhattan, since the way that the city is configured is that most of your commercial or office space remains there. But there's this thing called the East River that's in between.

In the North Brooklyn corridor, the ways you can cross it you can literally count on one hand: you've got the L train tubes, the bridge—which not only carries cars and buses, but also bikes and the J/M/Z trains—and the ferries. At the end of the day, it's a fairly simple mathematical calculation: you can only stuff so many people in the subway, or across the bridge, everyday. And even today, when the L train is operating "perfectly," you already have this very significant problem where if you try to get on at 8:30, 9am, invariably, it's just massively crowded. Once all of these developments come online over the next 5, 8, 10 years, you're gonna have tens of thousands of new people living here. So the congestion that exists today is, by all accounts, gonna get worse.

You come from a real estate background. How did someone like you end up being the guy with the gondola idea?
I happen to be a lifelong skier, and I was skiing one day about four years ago. I grew up in northern Vermont, where the ski-lift technology isn't known as being advanced, but I happened to be skiing on this mountain that had a brand new gondola system. And I literally said to myself, 'Gee, this is very fancy, very new. Almost feels like a New York City subway car, so large and with so many people.' To make a long story short, I sort of said to myself, 'Why doesn't someone put one of these between Brooklyn and Manhattan?' I did some research, and saw that, lo and behold, a lot of cities around the world were doing exactly that. Places like Rio de Janeiro, Medellín, London, Barcelona, Singapore, and Hong Kong had very recently built these types of systems, and all of them had been successful. Then I looked at the Roosevelt Island tram; we kind of have this type of technology already here in New York, and it turns out that the tram is massively successful. It's the safest part of the New York City public transportation system.

Being in real estate, of course, unbearably what you hear locally is the infrastructure is sort of lagging the development. That's a persistent problem everywhere, but certainly here in New York. Specifically with respect to transportation, I think a lot of people recognize that there's just a disconnect between what's getting built and what's needed by these new residents. In order to make these locations viable, you need a very healthy infrastructure. Everyone knows there's a problem, but there's not really any solution. So when I saw this technology and how it was being applied in other cities, I thought it was a natural solution for New York.

Tell me about this technology. How would it actually work?
The technology is incredibly safe, with a record that's better than subways, buses, taxis, certainly bikes. It's obviously totally green, with no on-site emissions, it's totally silent, and it's also very cost-effective to both build and operate. It also turns out that the technology has evolved such that, combined, the size of the cabins and the speed of the transmissions system we're looking at now allow a capacity of 5,000 people per hour, per direction. It's not as much as the L train or any other subway line can transport, but it's more than a bridge can accommodate.

Even when a bus or subway are operating at peak performance, you still have the expectation that at the station, you'll have to wait a few minutes for the next one to arrive. This technology is continuous, meaning that when you walk into the gondola station, in 30 seconds, you're on a car going across the river. The Roosevelt Island tram, you do have to wait, because it's a tram, but you wouldn't here. Each car would hold 35 people, so they're very large cars that are wheelchair-accessible, and can hold baby strollers, bikes, whatever, no problem.

Would the Skyway operate as a private entity or would it be city-regulated?
We envision something that looks a lot like the CitiBike model—so obviously a lot of interaction and interfacing with NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and other city agencies, but fundamentally privately funded, and privately operated. It'd be fairly traditional private finance, and the aggregate costs are relatively modest, given the projected ridership levels. The concept with the fare, although it's a little early, would be to offer unlimited monthly commuter passes for something like $25 to $30 per month. The real comparison is if you were to take a cab across the bridge, that's probably $12 one way.

I remember the flurry of headlines when you first proposed it in 2014, but what has the process been like since then? What obstacles do you face now?
It's a little bit of a tricky project—it's not the kind of thing that gets built every day. So we're starting to establish a process that will be followed. We've got a good sense of the regulatory pieces that will need to come together, and in our opinion, there's no red flags that suggest that this can't get done. Now, we're just going to be working through our regulatory pieces. We've got some initial financing that's gonna be finalized relatively soon, and then working through the overall approval. That's the next regulatory hurdle. But with that said, it's complicated.

It's not necessarily a complicated project from an engineering perspective, or from a financing perspective, but it's really just complicated from a regulatory perspective. But I do feel like we know what the route is, and it'd be nice if we could present a plan that would have us online for the L train shutting down, but that's beyond our control. That's really for the city to say, 'Yes, we want this in time for the L train to shut down. Or not.' We need that directive from the city.

Most criticism pegs the conflict with the city not being able to do big projects like this anymore, and as a result, it's unrealistic. What do you say to those who say it's unlikely?
It's a borderline cynicism, which I understand. Pick whatever project you want—whether it's the Second Avenue Subway, or anything else—and people just think, 'Oh, that's gonna take 30 years, cost billions of dollars, we're never gonna see it done,' so on and so forth. It's skepticism that borders on cynicism, and it's understandable. But cutting through that, and saying, 'Hey, no, this is something we can do quickly, and inexpensively.' I think people like the idea, but think it sounds too good to be true.

I think we can do it. If the city was able to build one of these things in the 70s, when it was basically on the brink of bankruptcy, we ought to be able to do one now. If they can build one in Caracas, we ought to be able to build one in New York City. And I think there's an appetite for it. The mayor wants to do big projects, and certainly the governor does, too. And when that L train comes back online, you're gonna have the same problem you have now, except you're gonna have another 10, 20, 30,000 people living in the area that need to get into Manhattan everyday. It's not like when the L train comes back online in 2020, we solved the problem—you just made it so the tunnel doesn't collapse. There's no expectation that capacity will be increased by any sort of meaningful amount.

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