New Yorkers are freaking out that Amazon's HQ2 could cripple the subway system, but the reality is more complicated

Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesPassengers wait for a train to leave the station in New York City.

Amazon has decided on two locations for its second headquarters:Long Island City, Queens, and the National Landing area of Arlington, Virginia.

Initially, Amazon made it seem like it would crown only one winner in the HQ2 competition. That would have brought 50,000 new jobs and add $US50 billion to a city’s economy. Instead, these jobs and funds will now be divided between two locations.

A $US25 billion economic stimulus and 25,000 more workers could do wonders for Long Island City – an area that has only recently begun to attract a growing population.

But New Yorkers are far from ecstatic about the decision.Locals in Long Island City worry about overcrowding in schools and sewage lines that are backing up. Across the city, residents fear that additional commuters could put pressure on an already fragile subway system.

Before word surfaced about Amazon’s choice, New York City had created a plan for its deteriorating subway.

In May, the Metropolitan Transit Authority revealed a $US37 billion strategy to install a new signal system across multiple lines, add thousands of new subway cars, and renovate old cars. The plan also included an updated fare method and hundreds of new elevators at subway stations.

There was just one question: Who would fund it?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed it was the state’s responsibility. A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the New York Times the plan was “dead on arrival” without the city’s investment.

Now residents are asking: Could Amazon be the one to pay?

New Yorkers are freaking out

After The New York Times broke the news that Amazon was likely moving to Queens, New Yorkers took to Twitter to share their fears about the subway’s future. People are especially concerned about the 7 line, which is the most direct route from Long Island City to Midtown Manhattan. Commuters say the line is already crowded and delayed, with riders experiencing long waits on the platform.

According to Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, these delays may be the result of “growing pains” related to a new system.

While other subway lines have been around for decades, the 7 line’s mile-long extension is less than four years old. It’s also undergoing a signal renovation, which Pearlstein said was on the verge of being finished. New signals would allow trains to run closer together, cutting back on delays.

But the addition of 25,000 new Amazon employees might challenge the subway’s reliability.

“The overarching question is whether the city can absorb a large influx of jobs when its transit system is falling apart,” Pearlstein said. “There may be capacity, but if there’s no reliability because the signals don’t work and the cars are too old, then it doesn’t matter what the capacity is.”

If the subway does end up dealing with the apocalyptic conditions that residents have predicted, it will be because of the government’s failure to fund the renovations – not Amazon’s.

“The sweet spot of this [HQ2] proposal is that, if folks are coming to Long Island City from Manhattan, they’re going against rush hour traffic on the subway,” said Pearlstein. He also noted that many Amazon employees might choose to live in Brooklyn and commute on the G train, which has significant capacity. Given how many people are now choosing to live in Long Island City, some may even be able to walk to work.

Don’t count on Amazon

Even if HQ2 does lead to more overcrowding and delays on the subway, it’s unlikely that Amazon will help finance the MTA’s multi-billion-dollar overhaul strategy.

“Traditionally, individual New York firms have not made direct investments in the transit system,” Pearlstein said.

While many subway lines were originally built by private companies, the city took over these lines in 1940, before ceding control to the state in 1968. Since then, transit improvements in New York City have been funded by state taxes, riders’ fares, tolls on bridges and tunnels, and debt accrued by the MTA.

It’s unlikely that Amazon would suddenly step in and revitalize a broken system – especially when the city and state have gone to such great lengths to woo the company in the first place. Two weeks ago, the city released a spending plan that raises the possibility of building a new rail station in Sunnyside Yard, two miles outside of Long Island City. The new station could benefit Amazon employees, but would tack on even more to the city’s transit expenditures.

To its credit, Amazon hasn’t shied away from transit investments in the past.

As the company expanded its workforce in Seattle (where the first HQ is located) to more than 45,000 employees, commute times for locals have grown longer. Last year, The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein reported that Seattle was adding 60 people daily to its population – the most rapid increase the city has seen since the Gold Rush. Seattle now has around 61,000 “super commuters,” or people who spend at least 90 minutes travelling to work each day.

To address these issues, Amazon purchased a $US5.5 million streetcar that would serve its Seattle campus and made a $US1.5 million contribution to add more trips to the city’s transit system. In 2016, the company also gave $US110,000 to a ballot measure that will add more stations and light rail options by 2041.

In its solicitation for HQ2 proposals, the company said it contributed $US43 million to Seattle’s transportation industry from 2010 to 2017 in the form of employee benefits.

Read more: Here’s what New York promised Amazon to win it over

But these types of investments fall far short of the $US37 billion required to ease pressure in New York City. With the city expected to become more congested, that number could climb even higher.

While Amazon may not destroy the subway in the way that some New Yorkers anticipate, it’s not poised to save the system, either.

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