The so-called "X line" subway route could carry some 76,000 riders a day through the outer boroughs.

If there's ever a time to raise the idea of some big public works project, it's during the run-up to an election. Right on cue the mayoral candidates of New York City have proposed some whoppers in recent weeks. Joe Lhota resurrected the idea of a subway line to Staten Island, Christine Quinn proposed bringing the MTA under greater city control, and Anthony Weiner reportedly intends to tear up some of the bike lanes the current administration worked so hard to put into place.

All the while there's a subway expansion project capable of carrying some 76,000 riders a day through three outer boroughs that no one's discussing at all. It's called the Triboro Rx — or the "X line," for short.

"I think there's an awful lot of transportation projects that are unimportant that people are talking about," says Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association, a research group that focuses on metropolitan New York. "On the other side of the coin, here's one that has all the makings of being a real winner."

Zupan and colleagues proposed the Triboro Rx as part of RPA's third regional plan back in 1996. Arcing through the outer boroughs, the X line would connect with at least 20 different subway lines — providing "countless new intra- and inter-borough options," in the words of the '96 report. Riders could travel from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Mott Haven in the Bronx via Jackson Heights and Astoria in Queens without ever hitting Manhattan in the process.

Brooklyn section of the X line (in black) via the "Future NYC Subway" map by Andrew Lynch.

Best of all, almost the entire right-of-way necessary for the route is already available. That means the Triboro Rx would end up costing much, much less than a completely new line project like the Second Avenue line. (To bring the X line to Yankee Stadium, as described in the 1996 plan, would require some new terrain, but Zupan now says a more viable option could be to avoid that hassle and end the line near Hunt's Point instead.)

The sheer extent of the line, Census commute patterns for the outer boroughs, the general high rate of transit use among immigrants — all these elements point to Triboro Rx becoming a big hit. Several years ago, an RPA intern named Michael Frumin worked with Zupan to develop a preliminary ridership estimate of 76,000 commuters a day. That figure would give the X line more weekday riders than Miami's entire Metrorail system has [PDF].

"There's a number of things that suggest that the Triboro Rx's time is closer to coming than it was in 1996," says Zupan.

Despite all its promise, the Triboro Rx still has a number of obstacles in its path. The project could conflict with the proposed cross-harbor rail tunnel beloved by  U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York. The Federal Railroad Administration has requirements [PDF] for tracks shared by freight and passenger rail that initial plans might not meet. The MTA recently told Dana Rubinstein of Capital NY that it "never formally backed" the X line concept.

Zupan, for one, is confident those barriers can be overcome. Of course there's still the fact that none of the mayoral candidates are discussing the Triboro Rx. But city officials have brought it up before — most recently last year, when Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer praised the idea — so they know it's out there. Additionally, RPA is finishing up a new study of the outer boroughs that Zupan says could easily bring more attention to the X line in the near future.

"If we continue to push on this project, it's very possible that some politician will take the cudgels up and say, look, yes, we have to deal with the needs of the people of the city of New York," he says. "It isn't just a Manhattan orientation."

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