Home Brooklyn Streetcars, like the Dodgers, won’t return to Brooklyn

Streetcars, like the Dodgers, won’t return to Brooklyn

by Benjamin Kabak

DOT has determined that this streetcar route is simply too expensive for the city right now.

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.

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Aaron April 22, 2011 - 4:23 am

As a, er, duly authorized representative of Los Angeles (cough), I’d like to offer you the McCourts in trade for your streetcar plan. It’s an excellent deal, I promise.

Bolwerk April 22, 2011 - 4:33 am

$7M a year? Are they planning on running empty streetcars? I said on Streetsblog, this is a bad place to start an LRT network, but I sort of changed my mind. It makes sense to start an LRT or streetcar network there because, I presume, thanks to the current zoning and usage mix, there is ample storage space for LRVs.

Railway Age has a recent article about the return of streetcars around the U.S..

Al D April 22, 2011 - 9:14 am

We don’t want the Dodgers back anyway, those traitors!

Bottom line is that it really doesn’t seem that DOT was every really that interested in this idea. Now they have an official study to make this go away for a while. But future subway plans? C’mon, that really is stretching things some. Do they mean in 3011?

John-2 April 22, 2011 - 10:44 am

Hey, I think they can get the Second Avenue subway extended from Hanover Square to hook up with the Fourth Avenue BMT line via Red Hook and Governor’s Island about the year 2200 or so. But then, I’m an optimist…

Farro April 22, 2011 - 10:18 am

Million per million?

AlexB April 22, 2011 - 10:18 am

They could start by extending the M5, M20, or M15 to Red hook via the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. I can’t imagine it would cost that much or take more than a couple months to implement. Such a small move would do a lot more for mobility in Red Hook than a streetcar; although, they are both worthy projects.

ajedrez April 22, 2011 - 4:39 pm

There used to be a bus called the B33 that started from the Prospect Park subway station, traveled along the Prospect Avenue and Hamilton Avenue, and terminated just before the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. If it were revived and extended into Lower Manhattan, that might be a good option.

There are also some express bus routes that travel through the area after they come out of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Maybe if some of the lesser-used ones made one stop along Hamilton Avenue, that would help a little bit. The problem is that the fare is $5.50, rather than $2.25, but I’m sure somebody in a rush will decide to take the bus.

Andrew April 23, 2011 - 9:52 pm

It would actually cost quite a bit. And it would subject riders within Manhattan on the selected line to the unpredictable nature of Battery Tunnel traffic.

BBnet3000 April 22, 2011 - 10:32 am

NYC doesnt take advantage of the modes available very well. Its either a full blown heavy rail subway or a mixed-traffic bus.

Light rail and possibly trolley buses should be part of the mix, especially with gas prices only trending upward.

BrooklynBus April 22, 2011 - 10:51 am

I’ve only glanced at the study, but two questions arise. (1) They say City Planning does not have any plans to upgrade the zoning to make light rail feasible. How about integrated planning? Upgrade the zoning in conjunction with building light rail.

Also, the route could be improved. I’ve long advocated replacing the buses in the Fulton Mall with light rail. Rather than turning from Cadman Plaza East onto Adams Street which is already congested with Brooklyn Bridge traffic, why can’t the route continue south through Columbus Park and turn into Joralemon Street and Fulton Mall via the original route of Fulton Street where trolleys once ran. A combined light rail and bus terminal could be built adjacent to Atlantic Center.

Jerrold April 22, 2011 - 11:35 am

The headline says “STREETSCARS”.
Was that a typo, or did you intend it as a pun, like,
meaning that a trolley line would be a “scar” on a street?

Daniel Howard April 22, 2011 - 2:15 pm

“Red Hook will remain an isolated area with sub-par bus service and subway access.”

Has BRT been considered? That might be a good approach for an area that won’t be rezoned for increased density, but that desires improved service and perhaps a line on the map, without spending much cash.


Alon Levy April 22, 2011 - 3:44 pm

To what end? The cost estimates for the streetcar, if they hold, are remarkably affordable by New York standards. The problem is that it’s in mixed traffic, and in cost-conscious cities, physical separation of lanes is almost free.

If they want to improve service, they should start by creating a frequent network and putting the B61/62 on it.

ajedrez April 22, 2011 - 4:34 pm

I wouldn’t really say the bus service is sub-par: Now that the B61 was extended to Windsor Terrace, the residents aren’t really isolated anymore.

On one fare, they can:
Transfer to the subway at Smith/9th Streets or 4th Avenue/9th Street
Transfer to the B67/B69 at 7th Avenue, and the B68 at Prospect Park West.
Transfer to the buses in Downtown Brooklyn

When you compare Red Hook to an area like Morrisania, which has a 15 minute ride to reach the subway, it really isn’t that bad transportation-wise.

Al D April 25, 2011 - 9:40 am

That’s just it, you see. Many Red Hook residents actually want subway access and not another connecting service. Alternatively, and as discussed above (by Alon Levy, I believe), is simply to decrease the headways on the existing B61 and be done with it.

The concept is that Red Hook is slow close to Downtown Manhattan and yet it is relatively difficult to reach and whilst every other nearby neighborhood has a subway.

The trolley was more of a touristy, wish list kind of thing.

paulb April 24, 2011 - 10:02 am

I was thinking what Alon said. Under $200 million? For a potential game changer on the ground? Compared to the numbers I hear thrown around in every news story about every level of government or for every project, that sounds like a bargain. Maybe the administration is just becoming battle shy. The bike lanes, the schools chancellor, etc.

Alon Levy April 24, 2011 - 11:55 pm

Bear in mind, I do not think this is a potential game changer – not when it’s a legacy streetcar in mixed traffic.

Bolwerk April 25, 2011 - 2:14 am

This depends wholly on the nature of the mixed traffic. Is the mixed traffic so heavy that the trains will be as slow as buses, or is the traffic barely noticeable? If the former, the traffic can be segregated. If the latter, it can be unsegregated until (if) it needs to be.

paulb April 24, 2011 - 10:08 am

P.S. Al D, you were probably being facetious and know this already, but as it’s since been made plain, the Dodgers made a huge effort to remain in Brooklyn. What it came down to was, in the mid 50s Walter O’Malley couldn’t finance the new stadium he needed where the Nets Arena is going now unless the city used eminent domain to get him the property cheap, which it refused to do.


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