Interborough Express Light Rail Project Moves Forward

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By Ben Brachfeld

The proposed Interborough Express light rail, which would connect Bay Ridge and Jackson Heights without entering Manhattan, is inching forward, Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Tuesday.

The governor’s 2024 State of the State policy book, which accompanied her big speech to a joint legislative session in Albany on January 9, noted that the MTA will “initiate formal design and engineering” on the IBX this year. The project aims to convert the underutilized Bay Ridge Branch rail spur, owned by the Long Island Rail Road and currently used by CSX freight rail, into a light rail line between Brooklyn and Queens, sharply reducing commute times between the two boroughs.

The line would stretch 14 miles between Bay Ridge and Jackson Heights, connecting to 17 existing subway lines while adding new options to nabes with few transit options – including Borough Park, Bensonhurst, Canarsie, East New York, and Brownsville. MTA officials estimate the project would cost $5.5 billion to construct, and would see 120,000 daily riders by 2045.

map showing the proposed rail line

A map of the proposed Interborough Express route in Brooklyn and Queens. Map via MTA

“The [IBX] represents one of the most impactful infrastructure projects initiated by Governor Hochul,” the policy book reads, “with the potential to substantially cut down on travel times, reduce congestion, and link nearly 900,000 residents in Brooklyn and Queens to more than 17 transit connections.”

Hochul announced she would pursue the IBX in her 2022 State of the State address, crystallizing a longtime dream by of transit and rail advocates. The proposal was based on a long-floating plan by the Regional Plan Association called the Triboro, which would have extended the line further into the Bronx, but the Boogie-Down portion was cut due to conflicts with the MTA’s Penn Access project.

In 2022, Hochul directed the MTA to commence an environmental review for the project, which she has since described as her “baby,” and in the following year’s State of the State, she said the project would move forward as light rail. A traditional subway had been considered, but rejected as it would add a $3 billion premium to the project without many additional riders, the MTA contended. Funding for construction is expected to be included in the MTA’s 2025-2029 capital plan.

view of sunken tracks

The tracks of the Bay Ridge Branch near 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Marc A. Hermann/MTA

Designers must also contend with some key pinch points on the Bay Ridge Branch, which constrict the project. One of the primary issues that tanked the possibility of a subway was a short tunnel under All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, which is too narrow for subways to pass through and would require costly work to widen.

Unlike a subway, a light rail can travel at the street level, and the MTA plans to briefly divert the IBX onto Metropolitan Avenue and 69th Street in Middle Village before returning to the pre-existing tracks. How the MTA would actually go about doing that is one of the key engineering problems they must get to the bottom of, even before worrying about potential lawsuits from local residents.

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally ran in Brooklyn Paper. Click here to see the original story.

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