Once upon a time, the New York City Department of Transportation viewed streetcars as the next great thing for Brooklyn. “We’re looking back to the future,” Janette Sadik-Khan said a few months ago. “Streetcars remain part of the transportation mix in cities from Toronto to Melbourne, and we need to consider all options to improve transit access in underserved neighborhoods like Red Hook.”
Now, though, DOT is singing a different tune. With advocates howling, the Department of Transportation has wrapped up a six-month study by determining that streetcars are too expensive and won’t deliver benefits to Red Hook without major changes in the city’s development policies.
The topline determinations are clear: The ideal route would cost $176 million to build and would set back the city $7 million a year to operate. Even worse, the line would increase transit use from Red Hook by only 12 percent — or 1822 daily riders — over the current bus routing as DOT determined that most denizens of the area do not own cars and already rely on the bus for subway access. More problematic though are DOT’s determinations that the area simply isn’t planned properly for streetcar transportation. As Red Hook isn’t zoned of high-density, mixed-use areas, streetcars do not make fiscal sense right now.
The feasibility report – a 73-page PDF available here — drills down in depth on the city’s study. And yet, over and over again, DOT comes back to the issue of cost. “The estimated cost based on the conceptual design of the preferred alignment amounts to approximately $176 million in 2011 dollars,” the report says. “Given the current economic environment, it is questionable whether the City could raise the funds for this substantial capital investment. Moreover, in light of the unfavorable feasibility considerations related to the actual operation of such a system, it is uncertain that a streetcar, while technically feasible, is the most efficient option for meeting Red Hook’s transit goals today.”
Opponents have risen a stink about this study. In numerous emails to me, Bob Diamond of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association claims DOT’s figures are misleading. He claims DOT’s capital cost estimates at $26 million per mile are far too high and cites a 2001 effort by Portland which cost the Oregon city just $13 million per mile. DOT too cites to that effort and claims that construction costs in Portland have risen to $22 million per mile today. It also claims, not incorrectly, that construction costs in New York City are significantly higher than they are on the West Coast.
Meanwhile, as Streetsblog noted, other concerns dominated the report as well. Despite low car ownership rates in Red Hook, DOT did not feel comfortable with removing parking spots, and many alignments seemed to require significant curb cuts and some use of eminent domain in order to ensure adequate turning radii for the streetcars. The most damning critique though, as Noah Kazis writes, concerns cooperation amongst city agencies. He says:
A final objection, though, seems to reveal either a lack of coordination between city agencies or a study designed to reject the streetcar in advance. Having looked at streetcar projects in other cities, DOT found that installing the transit line would only promote economic development if it was paired with changes to the area’s land use planning. Noting that the Department of City Planning doesn’t have any plans to upzone Red Hook’s residential areas or otherwise plan for growth, the DOT study concludes that the “current City development/land use policy is not complementary to streetcar as an economic development driver.”
So while Diamond says that he’ll continue to fight for streetcars in Brooklyn, DOT has other ideas in mind. They want to instead improve sidewalks, bike lanes and bus service into and out of Red Hook and will attempt to better integrate the neighborhood into subway access plans. Yet until they actually follow through with these plans, Red Hook will remain an isolated area with sub-par bus service and subway access. Streetcars could have been a panacea for the area, but like the bankrupt Dodgers, they won’t be making a return to Brooklyn any time soon.