Why Roosevelt Island Fared Best

File Under "Lucky to Live Here": Friday When the Subway Went Down

Peter McCarthy
Friday, May 21st, 10:00 a.m. at the Tram.
Friday, May 21st, 10:00 a.m. at the Tram.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily
At 7:30 a.m., April 21st, a ConEd equipment failure at 53rd Street and 7th Avenue kicked off a cascading series of stoppages throughout the New York City Subway system. We were hit too, but we fared much better than most.

Around 8:00 a.m. a Queens bound F Train stalled under the East River, only a few hundred feet from the Roosevelt Island station. It sat there for about two hours.

Waves of disruption rippled into Brooklyn as the MTA scrambled, once again, to deal with problems inevitable in electrical/mechanical systems left to age without the updates a competitive operation would be forced to handle, just to survive.

MTA officials also scrambled to place blame on funding shortages that will certainly become a feature of the next round of budget negotiations. But reading between the lines, you could see the situation was likely made worse when it caught system managers unprepared with a workforce sluggishly changing shifts on a vacation week Friday.

By the time most lines were running again, with the inevitable delays, tens of thousands were late and some missed work for the day altogether.

For Roosevelt Islanders, the advantages of living here softened the blow.

Lucky to Live Here

Probably the least appreciated advantage we have is RIOC, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. It might not occur to you right away, but it's probable that there wasn't another community in all of New York that got a warning, via email blast, that the subways were down.

True, RIOC can be slow out of the gate. A first notice reached subscribers nearly two hours after the shutdown began. And they aren't so hot with closure. For example, we're still waiting for the promised notice that the drawbridge, shut down in late September and cutting off road access to Roosevelt Island, is back in service.

But late as it was, the notice helped many, and RIOC was quick to let us know when the F started running again.

The Tram, especially in times of special need, like this one, is best appreciated by the fact that it's still here to a large extent because we demanded it. Built as temporary transport until the subway could be extended to Roosevelt Island, residents fought passionately to preserve it as its longer than expected lifespan began to show in wear, tear and passengers stuck in mid-transit above the East River.

A plaque dedicated to Al Weinstien, the Tram's most determined defender, near Visitor Center kiosk commemorates a battle he led to save the Tram that, in 1992, was draining RIOC's budget to the tune of a million dollars a year.

Scrappy citizen action, supported by City Council Members from Charles Millard through Gifford Miller and Jessica Lappin, convinced City and State to add it to the MetroCard system and, finally, to rebuild the original, aging system to modern and permanent standards.

And there it was on Friday, continuously carrying Roosevelt Islanders along with stranded travelers across to Manhattan and waiting jobs.

As lines curled all the way back toward Sportspark, uncontrolled demand for rides was kept from swirling out of control by another taken for granted benefit, our wisely trained, community oriented Public Safety Department.

PSD, residents reported, calmed crowds by keeping lines moving efficiently toward for the next Tram, taking time to answer questions -- "Can I use my MetroCard or...?" -- from folks making their first, unplanned visit to Roosevelt Island.

"They're doing a great job, keeping everything moving. They're not letting anyone cut into the lines."

Showing the same consideration and thoughtful decision-making they showed when the Roosevelt Island Bridge shut down for four hours in September, PSD officers maneuvered would-be passengers so that both entrances to the Tram were fully utilized.

"Pretty good. I was only fifteen minutes late," a text message read.

On another less observed front, when I walked back from the Tram Station, clusters of passengers recently escaped from the finally unstuck F Train, joined singles trying to locate Ubers or Lyfts with cellphones at curbside. Standing in the middle, keeping things calm, answering questions, was another familiar face, not a city cop or a transit officer, but one from our own PSD.

Conclusion

You hear it so much, you're tempted to think that complaining about public services and frustrating urban situations is born in human nature. It's as if farmers don't suffer droughts and beach resorts aren't ripped by storms.

Whatever the truth is, the defect gets less chance to fester here on Roosevelt Island. Our unique circumstances have evolved to fit our needs, including the unpredictability inherent in crowded city life compounded by living on an island.

We've got a manager with expanding roots in our community, a Public Safety Department that shows itself able to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances and our utterly unique alternative transportation system.

On Friday, our advantages quietly helped us in a way no other neighborhood experienced, many stuck with much worse.

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