I took a long walk from Park Slope to Red Hook and back a few weekends ago. It’s a great stroll through a diverse group of Brooklyn neighborhoods and includes a some sights and some food. Along with the obligatory stops at El Olomega for papusas, Steve’s for key lime pie and Fairway for groceries, a number of restaurants, craft distilleries and unique shops line some of the route. It is not particularly transit accessible.
Red Hook residents know full well that the nearest subways aren’t particularly near. The F/G stop at Smith/9th Sts. is back open, but it’s a trek from all but the closest parts of the neighborhood. The B61 runs through the area, but residents have a love-hate relationship with the bus. It also, I noticed, stops more frequently than every other block along certain stretches of Van Brunt Street.
For decades, Red Hook residents have argued for, well, something. A streetcar has been the goal of certain advocates, but the fight for better options has been an uphill battle. The area isn’t zoned for much more residential development, and it now clearly suffers from the fear of a future storm. It’s next to impossible to get flood insurance, and many believe it’s just a matter of when and not if the next flood will arrive. There are pockets of gentrification, but the neighborhood may be reaching something of a peak.
Still, the fight goes on. At a recent City Planning forum, Red Hook residents gathered to discuss resiliency, and, as DNA Info’s Nikhita Venugopal reported, light rail was on the agenda. She writes:
A dedicated light-rail system through Red Hook would ease the neighborhood’s transportation hassles, locals said at a community meeting Tuesday night. About 30 residents, business owners and people who work in Red Hook discussed ways to improve the neighborhood’s network and bolster its resiliency to future storms, at a community meeting organized by the Department of City Planning.
Split into groups of five, people studied large-scale maps of the neighborhood, marking suggested bus routes, potential Citi Bike terminals and spots vulnerable to flooding. A streetcar system, which advocates have been fighting for since 1989, would give locals an easier way to travel through Red Hook and avoid the B61 bus, they said.
Streetcars are “efficient,” “cleaner” and “would increase business in Red Hook,” said Bill Appel, director of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation. The light-rail line, which would run down Van Brunt Street, should accommodate the corridor’s two-lane car traffic and have a travel time of about eight minutes, locals said.
This isn’t the first time in post-Sandy New York that a potential light rail system for Red Hook has come up. Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff discussed the idea a few months ago at a city forum as a potential economic driver for the area, but such a move would have to come with a corresponding change in zoning to spur development. Various commercial entities in the area are keen to see better transportation options, and Bob Diamond, of course, hasn’t given up the fight. If anywhere is primed for an experiment in surface transit, it would be Red Hook.
Or would it? In a contested move two years ago, DOT already torpedoed a streetcar over costs. At the time, the agency estimated that building out the route, along with the infrastructure needed to support and maintain a new-to-New York transit option, would cost $176 million in capital funding and approximately $7 million a year in annual operating costs. Ridership projections anticipated under 2000 new riders per day. Outside of a few new bars and restaurants and one devastating hurricane, nothing has changed that would have a material impact on that analysis.
To realize a dream of light rail will require substantial buy-in from private developers and some changes to the condition on the ground. It’s not impossible, but in today’s transit investment climate, it isn’t — and probably shouldn’t be — a priority. That said, Red Hook needs better transit, and why not dream of a space for New York’s first experiment in light rail?