More Than a Short Ride, The Tram Is a Community Win

Updated 4 years ago David Stone
The Original Tram Lifts Off Toward Manhattan
The Original Tram Lifts Off Toward Manhattan
© Deborah Julian

As the Roosevelt Island Tram completes it’s fortieth year of service — if you excuse hiatuses in 2006 and 2010 that combined took up almost a year — there’s more to celebrate than you might think. In an era marked by intense skepticism about government, the Tram stands tall as an example of outstanding public sector achievement, showing us that a community and its government really can succeed in partnership.

In distrust of government, Roosevelt Island is no exception nor is it a new development. Back in the mid-90s, when I served as a RIRA Vice President under David Kraut, my most important role was in advocating for the Tram’s survival with then RIOC President Jean Lehman.

The state agency was more transparent, at the time. Lehman opened the corporation’s books for me to look through, hoping I’d understand the dilemma the Tram created in the way it bled funds, roughly a million dollars in the red at the time. As my friend the late Patrick Stewart told me in reference to Lehman, “She was a straight arrow.”

Even so, Lehman was so unpopular with Roosevelt Islanders that, on the eve of a community meeting, she called me to suggest that it would be nice if at least one resident stood up to speak in RIOC’s favor.

The Tram survived that crisis with a combination of cuts and revenue increases. But worse was to come because, increasingly short on money, RIOC relied on dulling the pain without getting to the illness itself. The illness was the one suffered by all mechanical devices — time and the wearing down it always brings with it. 

When Government Fails

After Lehman’s departure, certain RIOC Presidents that followed were enough to make Island residents wistful about having seen her go. Among them, Jerome Blue, a neuroscientist mysteriously appointed to the post by Governor George Pataki, instigated an era of hostility so extreme residents staged a modern day Tea Party on the East River. Another Pataki appointee served while seeming frequently under the influence of something more debilitating than tea.

Still another Pataki selection, Herbert Berman, allowed Tram maintenance to deteriorate to a point where the entire system failed, twice. The second time, it left 69 passengers hanging in the air, awaiting rescue, for seven hours, on April 16, 2006.

The last passenger was carried off the Manhattan bound Tram at 4:07 a.m. The system then went out of service for four months, until it could be certified as safe and was outfitted with supplies to help any group stranded in the future.

Fortunately, those supplies were not needed. In 2007, New York’s new Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed Steve Shane to replace Berman, and before Shane was ousted, in what was described as “a back-room coup” by the RIOC Board in 2010, Shane oversaw a deal to fund what became a complete overhaul of the Tram, including its basic infrastructure.

Ironically, this left Leslie Torres, Shane’s successor, whose term was sullied by scandals and abrupt, unexplained departures, including her own, to welcome the new cabins into service. 

The Tram, rescued by funding from the State, had far outlasted its planned 20 year lifespan. Roosevelt Islanders had fended off efforts to shut it down since the subway opened in 1989, but it was limping. The system could not survive for long as it was. 

Relentless community pressure played a major role in the state’s investing $25 million toward renewing the system when it could have been taken down permanently for much less.

Out of Failure, Success

New York City has a reputation for lifting itself out of hard times to move beyond simple survival. Rising from the smoldering, graffiti-marred mess of the mid-70s to become the nation’s best big city in twenty years is a recent example. On a smaller scale, so is the Tram’s rebirth.

One reason the Tram’s struggles so galled Roosevelt Islanders was because the community itself was, throughout, a resonant example of what an urban neighborhood ought to be. To have this vital resource on life support so often was intensely irritating and out of locals' control.

But the passions of local activists weighed heavily on RIOC and the State, and the State came through. Steve Shane’s appointment and the rebirth of the Tram were strong steps in maturing the dream Roosevelt Island’s pioneers kept alive.

The list of heroes is considerable, but a short version must include:

  • The Roosevelt Island Residents Association, which for twenty-five years led fights to save the Tram.
  • Al Weinstein, the fiercely eloquent Tram advocate who died in 1998. As a member of RIRA, Weinstein worked tirelessly in fighting the likes of Jerome Blue to save the Tram.
  • Steve Shane, who as RIOC President oversaw the deal that brought in enough State funds to rebuild a badly deteriorated system.
  • Jessica Lappin/Matthew Katz - As RIRA president, Katz mastered the lobbying of elected officials about Island issues. His most valuable contribution may be successfully working  with Lappin, then our City Council Member, to bring the Metrocard to the Tram, allowing free transfers and ease of use. Less apparent, but of great importance is that this brought a new flow of revenue to the system as transfers are rewarded by the MTA.
  • The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which as a matter of good governance has committed to not simply running a pair of cabins but to the system’s excellence. Stand the Tram and its associated Red Bus system up against its nearby competitor, the MTA, and the differences in cleanliness and predictability alone are giant credits for RIOC.

Many others have played a part, not the least of which are the team of operators who ferry passengers alongside the Queensboro Bridge and the less visible crew that keeps the mechanics running behind the scenes.

As we celebrate its fortieth anniversary, the Tram stands out as an example of a community working successfully with its government. As struggles complicated by deficits and bureaucratic incompetence taught us, it may take a fight, but if the battle is worth winning, the best can come out on top. Success is Roosevelt Island's reward for refusing to give up.

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