Thursday, October 25, 2012

Islanders to Brooklyn: Net(s) plus for rail

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Studies suggest that new sports arenas, or relocation of professional sports teams, don't really benefit or bolster a local economy. Perhaps, instead, they reflect the locale's existing health. So it seems for Brooklyn (Brooklyn is back!), in three years to be home to the National Hockey League's New York Islanders. But an underlying reason—in this case, literally under—is the superior rail access.

Barclays Center, which opened for business Sept. 28, 2012, offers a new home for the Islanders, as well as the newly renamed Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association, about to begin its first NBA season in New York's most populous borough. The value of Barclays Center as an urban amenity is still being hotly disputed. But the value of it as an entertainment draw (including concerts) appears pretty certain.

Barclays CenterBarclays Center (aerial view at left) is served by 11 subway lines. And it sits on top of one of the Long Island Rail Road's three western-end termini, Atlantic Terminal, making a train trip to and from the arena possible for huge swaths of Long Island—during a day game, even for the island's eastern fringes. Spokespeople for both the arena and the NBA Nets (and for the borough of Brooklyn) have been hammering this message home, with the addendum: Don't even think of driving.

The current home of the Islanders, the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, located in Uniondale, Nassau County, has no good rail access at all, sitting squarely in car-happy, car-addicted Long Island as it does. In August 2011, county residents, beleaguered by Long Island's continuing economic distress, probably didn't weigh rail as a factor at all when they voted down a proposal to build a new arena for the NHL Islanders. No serious discussion arose about adding rail access to a new (or even current) arena—after all, the LIRR is a "commuter" railroad, right?

But they shouldn't be shocked that the Islanders are moving to a location that has stellar rail access, for in fact the Islanders were the only major league sports team in New York metro land that lacked rail access of any real value.

In recent years, the New Jersey Devils abandoned the Meadowlands traffic nightmare to relocate to Newark—a sweetheart deal that carries all kinds of questionable fiscal and political baggage, but a winner at the customer turnstiles. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, powerful interests directed New Jersey Transit to build a fishhook-shaped rail spur to the Meadowland's MetLife Stadium to hold on to two National Football League teams. Enough Jets and Giants fans have begun utilizing the rail link, and talk continues of adding a spur of Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit (HBLRT) to also serve the stadium.

Meanwhile, the NHL Rangers, NBA Knicks, and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) New York Liberty play atop the nation's busiest passenger rail station (New York-Penn), while over in baseball land the Mets are served by both subway (No. 7) and the LIRR, and the Yankees rely on three subway lines and dazzlingly creative Metro-North service to deliver customers to and from their games.

Seen from that perspective, the Islanders are simply catching up, not just to other New York sports teams but also to professional teams nationwide—continent-wide, if we throw in the Toronto Blue Jays and other Canadian-based teams. On Oct. 24 Anaheim, Calif., approved plans for a 3.2-mile streetcar line, and not so coincidentally the line aims to serve MLB's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Angels Stadium, as well as Disneyland.

As I've previously noted, compared with air/rail links in Atlanta or Chicago, New York's own airport/rail options are sadly deficient, even by U.S. standards. But if you succeed in getting to my office, and want to take in a local pro game somewhere, we've got a rail line to help you do that, whatever the team.

Or at least we will, come the 2015-2016 NHL season. The Islanders are honoring their existing contract with the Nassau Coliseum, which has three years to go.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.