NYC Department of Parks and Recreation is exploring plans to improve transportation access to Hart Island in the Bronx – the largest public burial ground in the United States.
The parks department held a virtual meeting on March 30 where it unveiled the Hart Island Transportation Study, which included short-term and long-term options to improve access to the Long Island Sound, located in the northeast Bronx. The goal of the study was to find ways to increase the quantity and quality of transportation alternatives, reduce travel times for transit riders, improve the travel experience for Hart Island visitors and minimize the impact on traffic and on-street parking conditions.
On Nov. 14, 2019, the New York City Council passed legislation to create a public park where citizens can freely visit graves. Parks and Recreation assumed jurisdiction on Dec 4, 2019, from the city Department of Corrections, ending 150 years of penal control over city burials. Parks took over fully managing Hart Island on July 1, 2021.
The Island was first used as a public cemetery by the city in 1869.
Hart Island served as a burial site for victims during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, whose bodies went unclaimed. But the 131-acre island, which is the final resting place for what is estimated to be more than 1 million indigent or unclaimed bodies, has a storied past in the city’s history that reaches far beyond the AIDS epidemic.
During the Civil War, it served as an internment camp, then as a psychiatric institution, and a Nike Missile launch site, according to the mayor’s office. More recently, Hart Island was used as a mass grave for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic whose bodies were not claimed by family.
To currently access the 1-mile-long Hart Island, visitors must take a ferry from a dock in City Island located at the east end of Fordham Street in the east Bronx. However, there is no parking at the dock and any nearby parking is extremely limited. The only local public transportation, the Bx29 bus stops at the intersection of City Island Avenue and Fordham Street, but it’s a 10-minute walk to the dock.
A recent parks department survey on access to the island showed that the majority of gravesite visitors drive to the Fordham Street Pier, and only 3% of visitors utilized transit. The survey also found that City Island residents have concerns with existing traffic and parking issues.
To address some of these issues in the short-term, the parks department has proposed a shuttle bus service to serve Hart Island visitors. Potential longer term solutions consist of new passenger ferry services.
Here are the four proposals:
Short-term alternative 1
This would implement a shuttle bus service from the Orchard Beach parking lot to the Fordham Street Pier coordinated with existing Hart Island ferry service for visitors arriving by car.
The alternative would also offer a dedicated location for visitors to park and reduce the parking demand for the ferry at Fordham Street and traffic activity on City Island. However, it would create longer travel times for visitors driving and there would be no improvements to incentivize visitors to take transit.
Short-term alternative 2
This proposal features a shuttle bus service from the Pelham Bay Park 6 Train Station to the Orchard Beach Parking Lot, to the Fordham Street Pier. This would provide a dedicated location for visitors to park and reduce the parking demand at the Fordham Street Pier, traffic activity on City Island and transit travel time. However, there would be longer travel times for visitors driving by car.
Long-term alternative 1
This option involves a new stand-alone ferry service from Ferry Point Park to Hart Island. Ferry Point Park is the closest NYC Ferry terminal to Hart Island. It would require a new NYC Ferry compatible terminal located at Hart Island and would be coordinated with the NYC Ferry Soundview schedule.
This would increase transit alternatives, reduce travel time to Hart Island, parking and traffic demand for the ferry on City Island. But, it would require a transfer at Ferry Point Park and cause longer travel times for visitors traveling by automobile.
Long-term alternative 2
The NYC Ferry Soundview route would be extended to Hart Island. This would require a new NYC Ferry compatible terminal located at Hart Island, but would not preclude service from City Island with the existing city Department of Transportation vessel.
This would increase transit alternatives, reduce travel time to Hart Island for transit, reduce parking and traffic demand on City Island — no transfer would be required at Ferry Point Park to reach Hart Island. However, the NYC Ferry Soundview weekend schedule varies and there would be longer travel times for drivers.
Some residents also stressed the importance of finding additional ways for seniors and the disabled to access the island. Elsie Soto, whose father Norberto died of AIDS complications in 1993 when she was just 8, said getting to Hart Island is difficult due to a lack of public transportation. She hopes now that the island is under the jurisdiction of NYC Parks things will change.
She said not everyone that has a family member buried on the Hart Island drives and people should not have to transfer multiple times just to visit the gravesite of a deceased loved one.
According to Soto, the parks department proposals seem to be catering to the small percentage of New Yorkers who drive, not the millions who take public transportation.
“This is a cemetery where mothers, fathers, children and vets are buried, and they all deserve dignity and respect, and their family members deserve direct access,” Soto said.
Melinda Hunt, president and founding director of The Hart Island Project, shared Soto’s concerns about the proposals only benefitting drivers. The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit founded in 1994, assists families and individuals with limited resources in accessing public burial records and information concerning burial procedures on Hart Island.
Hunt told the Bronx Times the option that makes the most sense is to extend the Soundview Ferry route to Hart Island. She said if there is parking at Ferry Point Park and a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the ferry landing, then it is feasible to add ferry service to Hart Island and bypass City Island altogether.
“In terms of going to Orchard Beach for parking, it seems good for people who aren’t elderly, but we have a lot of people who are elderly who visit Hart Island,” Hunt said. “I think the short-term proposal of adding a shuttle bus from the 6 Train Station at Pelham Bay Park to Orchard Beach is unnecessary because there is an MTA bus that connects the end of the 6 line to City Island. It is a short distance to walk east on Fordham Street to catch the ferry to Hart Island.”
Hunt said people commuting to Hart Island from outside of the Bronx is a challenge. It is only open to visitors on weekends when there tends to be service interruptions on the subway making the trip even longer. Hunt recounted a conversations with Staten Islanders who visited Hart Island, and had to leave home at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday to get to City Island by 11:30 a.m. to catch a noon ferry.
This marked the second and final public meeting for this study. A final report will provide technical details on each of the proposed alternatives so city agencies can assess possible solutions in the future. The parks department will decide if any of the proposals are adopted, but it is not required to move forward with any of the options, and there is no timeline for a decision.
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes