Jan
08

A look at the initial studies for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar

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A mixed-use streetcar isn't the way to go, but initial word from the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector is promising.

A mixed-traffic streetcar isn’t the way to go, but initial word from the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector is promising.

For a few hours, at least, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure improvement tour is on hold. Thursday’s announcement concerned the Javits Center, and I’ve learned that he’s going to announce a series of technology-related upgrades, including B Division countdown clocks, for the subways on Friday morning live from the Transit Museum. I don’t know if this announcement is in addition to ongoing MTA efforts to bring this technology to fruition or if the timeline for even a Cuomo project will still be 3-5 years as it’s been for the past five years. We’ll find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, the pause in this tour allows us a chance to examine another story regarding New York City transportation that nearly sneaked in under the radar this week. A few months after hearing about what one person called a “cool idea” to initiate a waterfront streetcar that would connect Brooklyn and Queens, word of the behind-the-scenes consultant work leaked to the Daily News, and we now have an understanding of what one routing for a $1.7 billion streetcar may be. I’ve learned that this is one proposal being examined, and it’s not yet finalized or even exclusive. It can still be revised and amended, and the final suggestion may look different. But here goes.

As Dan Rivoli reported earlier this week, consultants hired by the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector have identified a 17-mile corridor that could support a light rail line running. The group believes it would connect growing job centers such as Industry City and Dumbo with residential areas such as Red Hook that do not currently enjoy particularly efficient or robust transit options. The route would start near the Brooklyn Army Terminal, pass by Industry City, journey to DUMBO via Red Hook, swing past the Navy Yards and waterfront development in Williamsburg before crossing into Long Island City and terminating in Astoria Cove.

Connecting Sunset Park with DUMBO, Long Island City and Astoria could bridge a current transit gap.

Connecting Sunset Park with DUMBO, Long Island City and Astoria could bridge a current transit gap.

Here’s Rivoli’s report with comments from some who have been involved or watching the project:

A study commissioned for a nonprofit called the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector — whose members include transit experts, community leaders and business giants like Doug Steiner of Steiner Studios, investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Helena Durst of the Durst Organization real estate firm — envisions sleek streetcars zipping through 10 neighborhoods along the 17-mile stretch of waterfront land between Sunset Park and Astoria.

The Brooklyn Queens Connector is aimed at linking neighborhoods to new job hubs outside of the Manhattan-centric subway system as the waterfront adds new residential buildings and office space. The study estimates 15.8 million passengers a year in 2035. “Too much of the city is underserved by our transit system, and we need to be looking at ideas like this to create a 21st century network,” said Jill Eisenhard, director of the Red Hook Initiative community group and a member of the nonprofit supporting a tram.

Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said the Brooklyn waterfront is going through a “renaissance” but needs better transit options to spread the benefits. “This is a brilliant way to tie together several different areas, which offer jobs, which offer housing, which offer recreation,” said Moss, who is unaffiliated with the group.

The immediate issues I see with this proposal include the approach to service and funding. First, despite the renderings, anything we consider for the waterfront should not be a mixed-traffic streetcar. If the city, or private interests, plans to invest in light rail, it should be a light rail system with a fully dedicated right of way. It should also integrate with the MTA’s fare payment system so the city isn’t instituting a two-fare system as they’ve done with their ferry network.

Costs too are an issue. The reported initial price tag pegs this project at $1.7 billion, including build-out of infrastructure to support new rolling stock, and a $26 million a year operating budget with 16 million riders per year by 2035. The capital costs are necessarily high due to the need to build new shops and purchase rolling stock, but the operating costs aren’t outrageous. The consultants also maintain that light rail would generate “$3.7 billion of new tax revenue, ‘generating more than enough value to pay for its own construction,’ according to the study.”

Already, I’ve seen some backlash to this project. Some have argued that transit development through Sunset Park and Red Hook will increase property value and lead to gentrification which pushes out current residents. This is a slippery slope of an argument that maintains areas attract poorer residents because transit options are lacking but that we cannot invest in transit because transit will lead to value growth that pushes out these poorer residents. I don’t like this argument and believe it plays into my stance that affordable housing has to include transit development. In other words, it’s up to the city to improve transit and maintain affordable housing so people can continue to live where they live but still get around the city.

The second issue is one of need. When this project first bubbled up, I was skeptical. It seemed duplicative of the G train and targeted to wealth New Yorkers who could afford to buy up waterfront property. With an extension to Sunset Park and a routing closer to subsidized housing in Red Hook, the current proposal begins to address some of the issues I had with this plan when it was, as one proponent noted, just a “cool idea.” It connects growing job centers with residential areas in ways the current system doesn’t. Whether it’s a good use of $1.7 billion — or whether it should even cost $1.7 billion — is an open question.

So what we have here then is the start of a potentially good idea. The consultant report won’t be released publicly yet in full, and it’s not clear what the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector will do yet. Someone will have to identify a proper plan and fight for it, and that’s a tall order a time when our governor is running around announcing pet projects and the mayor can’t be bothered with the details of a much-needed transit expansion.



Categories : Brooklyn, Queens

36 Responses to “A look at the initial studies for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar”

  1. wise infrastructure says:

    From Astoria or even Queens Plaza it would be faster to take a subway through Manhattan to get to southern Brooklyn than use this light rail

    In southern brooklyn how many people how much of over the 4th Avenue subway will this be?

    Yes …. Red hook needs to be served and my idea is:

    A light rail from Red Hook street running to/through the battery tunnel with a stop south bound only for/at governors island (in the other direction one would have to go south one stop and reverse) and then up the west street to a light rail accross 34th and/or 42nd Streets.

    down the road such light rail could then serve a Staten Island/VZ Bridge / Gowanas Expressway light rail light as well.

    • barman says:

      Why not keep going to LGA and make this thing actually somewhat useful beyond a waterfront development tool?

    • gerrymander says:

      I don’t think the goal is necessarily travel from LIC to southern Brooklyn as much as it is access to major transportation/employment hubs from intermediate neighborhoods.

  2. eo says:

    I am sceptical even of the improved routing. If a streetcar is such a good idea, then why not just run buses with the same routing for the next three years and see if the ridership is there? What is the advantage of a streetcar over a bus if there is not going to be dedicated right of way? The buses will be able to do about the same speed as the street car. I am sure buses can be made to preempt traffic lights the same way a street car can be made to. What is the benefit of the $1.7B in capital cost for wires and tracks? Just so that we can say that we have a cool streetcar? Not worth it in my opinion.

    The only reasonable way to create a dedicated right of way for a streetcar is to take away the parking on all of the streets where it runs. Good luck doing that! Such attempts will be stuck in courts for decades as people have grown to feel entitled to free street parking.

    • Erik says:

      Having moved from NYC to Boston in 2011, and fighting to keep our own light rail project alive in Somerville, MA, I can tell you that the arguments for light rail over bus are mostly about the nature of politics and driver psychology.

      On the politics side, a pilot program using buses will never attract the ridership levels necessary to justify the full project, and will therefore be self-defeating. Furthermore, it will be implemented poorly, with none of the bells and whistles such as signal coordination that could make it work. In these respects it’s a practical matter of doing it whole hog or not at all.

      The driver psychology piece is that drivers respect tracks and trolley cards more than they will ever respect bus lanes. I see that up here all the time. A dedicated ROW may be preferable, but is much more difficult politically (the removal of parking, as you mention) and is more costly.

      Finally, the price tag for this is a joke. There is no way it would ever be this low. We are building 4 miles of light rail on pre-existing dedicated below-grade ROW (having to move commuter rail tracks to make room) and it will cost $2.5B when all is said and done. NYC and Boston share similar issues when it comes to the bloated cost of building infrastructure, so it’s not like NYC will do better.

      The final piece is that the real boon of this is to developers, as is mentioned. This is a project that is no doubt driven by the real estate industry at the end of the day. Ours is similar, but the politics are different because Somerville is an independent city with a jobs imbalance and we need the light rail to help drive commercial development to keep our city on its fiscal feet. So yes, it’s a party for the developers but it’s needed by the people equally as much, if not more. The same can’t be said for this project. This reads to be like a development brochure for waterfront-adjacent real estate.

      • Bolwerk says:

        $100M/mile is probably unduly high for a surface route that would, at most, have its own lane. For $2.5B, there should be helluva grade separation involved.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          It’s the same old issue. Light rail fails on a cost-benefit basis. As long as nothing is done about the cost.

          The wealth and power of those connected to the government, as retirees, contractors, or pseudo-capitalist pirates (such as on Wall Street) is such that the rest of us can’t afford them.

          And that is getting worse, not better. $15 per hour? Only in 2015, and only for those connected. Otherwise, the cost of the early bird senior specials at the local restaurant might go up.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Hell, if they’re keeping it that low, it’s not even so bad. :-O I’m not sure I necessarily believe it either, but it’s already a high starting point over what it should be.

            It’s much too ambitious for a route with no meaningful current ridership. The B61 and B62 riderships together probably don’t add up to 20k/day.

            • Larry Littlefield says:

              They need to unpack those costs. How much of it is “soft costs” — the studies, consultants, designs, etc. Interest on all the debts.

              And how much of it is hard costs, and for what?

              More importantly, how much can streetcar lines be built incrementally? They weren’t built all at once. Tracks were laid and horsecars ran on them. Electrification came later. If it wasn’t for buses and National City, “stations” with platform for level boarding might have come later still on the busiest lines, as occurred in Europe. There were no signals.

              How much would it cost to just scrape some pavement and lay tracks, and then have diesel/electric hybrid vehicles with street wheels instead of rubber purchased to replace buses that retire?

              What if batteries advance to the point where the diesel engine is no longer needed? If not how much more for overhead wires with power at the same voltage as the electric engine in the hybrid?

              Then, some years later, how much more for concrete platforms with fare media? Or will touch and go eliminate the need for pre-payment?

              Will smart traffic lights eliminate the need for railroad signals?

      • Duke says:

        It’s not just driver psychology, it’s also rider psychology. The presence of rails gives the line greater visibility and a greater sense of permanence than bus stops do. Because of this, people will be more likely to incorporate it into their travels.

        Of course, there’s also the same old class issues. The sorts of people who typically live in waterfront luxury condos think buses are beneath them but will willingly ride a light rail tram.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The Green Line Extension is in a rail ROW (and costs more than most subways in the world), so it’s impossible to parallel it with buses. On-street light rail/streetcars/whatever are a different beast – buses are good at gauging demand. In New York, the major corridors justifying surface rail are things like the major bus routes in the Bronx, Main Street with tie-ins north to College Point and south of Jamaica, Flatbush-Brooklyn Bridge-Park Row, maybe QB-Queensboro Bridge, and maybe Woodhaven. The waterfront route has limited bus ridership and parallels under-capacity subways too closely.

        In the Boston area, the high ridership on the Silver Lie suggests it should be turned into a Green Line branch, feeding into the Tremont Street Subway, and continuing south along Blue Hill Avenue, another major bus route.

    • Bolwerk says:

      As Erik says, buses aren’t as attractive as surface rail, so of course they won’t attract the same ridership. And it’s also likely harder to make buses run reliably over that distance, especially given the number of turns and narrow streets.

      But this distance is also stupid, especially to begin a project. Nobody wants to ride a mixed traffic surface route over that distance. (Maybe private ROW light rail or dedicated BRT, but even that’s iffy.) What a streetcar maybe could do in that corridor is circulate passengers to subway stations along the route.

      To see how streetcar ridership would work, pick a small corridor where there is a need for a streetcar and build a pilot streetcar. Red Hook <-> Downtown Brooklyn is a popular proposal. I think Bed Stuy might be better (circulation to the J in Williamsburg, with a ready terminal at Marcy, and Downtown Brooklyn), but there are probably several good options. Parts of LIC and Greenpoint have similar accessibility problems, though there you really are being redundant to the G.

      • mister says:

        In many cities, it is certainly true that rail attracts more ridership than the bus does. However, I just don’t see that this is the case in NYC. For starters, the density of the city encourages folks to use mass transit. What mode of transit are these people presently using if not the bus? Walking to the nearest rail station? I’d argue that’s positive. Biking? Again, positive. Driving? If someone in these areas is already plunking down the money needed to own and drive a car into work, I don’t think upgrading the local bus line to an equally slow rail line does much to increase transit usage. One only needs to look across the east river to see many people, even ones of substantial means, riding buses, even when grade separated heavy rail is an option.

        Upgrade the buses, save the $1.5 Billion, and build rail somewhere it’s really needed.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Not sure it’d be equally slow, and it’s not inherently more expensive either (though the construction costs here are, as usual, too high).

          I don’t see anything wrong with building rail where it’s wanted per se, but if we’re just experimenting it should have ridership. And if it’s a low-ridership area, it should be for some other reason like providing facilities to a broader network.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    “If a streetcar is such a good idea, then why not just run buses with the same routing for the next three years and see if the ridership is there?”

    There are buses. Due to the winding route, they move very, very, slowly.

    As for jobs, North Brooklyn waterfront census tracts had fewer in 2010 than in 1980, a surprise to me and something I plan to post next week.

  4. tacony says:

    I understand what you mean in this context when you say “mixed-use streetcar” but I think that term might confuse people who more commonly associate “mixed-use” with meaning “a mix of land uses” e.g. buildings with residential, retail, and maybe light industrial space together. Is there a clearer term for a streetcar that runs in “mixed traffic” along with everything else on the road, as opposed to running in its own dedicated right-of-way? Agree that nobody should be wasting time or money on streetcars that run in mixed traffic in NYC. That’s worse than existing MTA bus service for more upfront cost.

    I think this “improved” routing is still missing out on the concept that transit works when it runs in generally direct routings. This tries too hard to hit all the hot-button waterfront destinations, which creates an inefficient routing. Why would you want to go up to Brooklyn Bridge Park to get from Red Hook to Williamsburg? I can’t imagine the existing bus to subway option would be worse than this. If you’re going from Sunset Park to Downtown BK, again the subway is going to be faster. This thing will be extremely slow and it also still smacks of being a yuppie/hipster shuttle for people too afraid to take the bus with the hoi palloi. If there’s increasing demand to travel between these kinds of waterfront destinations in the future, ideally the MTA should alter existing bus routes to serve them, and eventually add exclusive bus lanes.

    The constant whining about transit access to Red Hook is annoying. Its suddenly a hip place for yuppies to live, and because of that it deserves special treatment? “The Back” of Red Hook (the area around Van Brunt) is a relatively low density neighborhood. It’s not choc full of high rises that warrant extensive mass transit more than other areas of the city. It’s historically been a place where a lot of people just walked to jobs on the waterfront. Now that there are young professionals moving there they realize commuting to Manhattan is a schlep and cry out for help? C’mon. You’re at the edge of the land, in an isolated little “hook” of land. It’s geographically isolated by default. That’s why you could afford the beautiful loft space there that you couldn’t quite afford in Park Slope. Let’s just increase frequencies on the B61 bus. There is very little traffic in Red Hook from my experience (I’d be surprised if actual traffic counts showed otherwise), so I’m not sure anything else is needed.

    • TimK says:

      I understand what you mean in this context when you say “mixed-use streetcar” but I think that term might confuse people who more commonly associate “mixed-use” with meaning “a mix of land uses” e.g. buildings with residential, retail, and maybe light industrial space together. Is there a clearer term for a streetcar that runs in “mixed traffic” along with everything else on the road, as opposed to running in its own dedicated right-of-way? Agree that nobody should be wasting time or money on streetcars that run in mixed traffic in NYC. That’s worse than existing MTA bus service for more upfront cost.

      This is exactly what I came here to say. “Mixed-traffic” is the correct term. And I agree that any streetcar/light rail line that NYC decides to put in, especially one this long, needs a dedicated ROW.

      • SEAN says:

        I agree that any streetcar/light rail line that NYC decides to put in, especially one this long, needs a dedicated ROW.

        We need only look across the Hudson to see successful light rail in action.

        • tacony says:

          Unfortunately, I think the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is less instructive for this than you might think it’d be at first glance. Almost everything outside of Downtown Jersey City runs on what was existing abandoned railroad ROW (mostly Lehigh Valley and Central RR of NJ to the south and old freight lines to the north). The area around Newport was a barren, industrial area full of railyards before the HBLR was included as part of master plans for redevelopment. You didn’t have NIMBYs whining about losing street space for their cars because there were no neighborhoods immediately there. Where the HBLR does go through an existing historic neighborhood along Essex Street? That’s one of the few places it does run in mixed traffic. Very little street space for cars was ever taken to build it.

          This BK-Queens routing doesn’t happen to have a ton of abandoned railroad right-of-way or vacant industrial parcels to appropriate for light rail. It’d have to take street space from cars, so it’d be a very different kind of project.

          • Douglas John Bowen says:

            Much truth and accuracy in what tacony says about HBLRT, and yet those very same Paulus Hook people made LRT implementation on Essex Street an ordeal due to — that’s right — loss of parking, “noisy” trains (except for the killer stealth ones), and impropriety within a historic district. We needed those historic parking spaces for those autos, you see.

            So it’s slightly misleading to say NIMBY was not a factor, though (again) tacony makes a case that it was not throughout the system. NIMBY also mattered for where HBLRT ended up NOT running — such as along the eastern (front) portions of Hoboken.

          • Duke says:

            An excellent point. In most places it is easy enough to build projects like this around reactivating disused rail rights of way. New York has very few of those compared to other cities. This would need to run in streets which, even if the tracks were to be given their own dedicated lanes, would still force it to be relatively slow because of all the cross streets.

            I also note that the proposed map has it running over the Pulaski Bridge, which begs the question of – is that bridge structurally strong enough to support trains (which are heavier than trucks)?

            I imagine if something like this were to get built it would probably end up crossing Newtown Creek on its own dedicated bridge.

  5. mister says:

    If we lived in a world where we were building all of the transit infrastructure to serve existing communities, I would be behind this proposal. However, since reality is that we live in a world where we are struggling to get any transit projects funded, then I can’t see how this is a good idea.

    For starters, this already parallels the G route, as Ben alludes to. If the G were bursting at the seems, then I would agree with this proposal. But it isn’t. In fact, the G could handle a 100% increase in capacity just by doubling the length of the trains, but even that is unnecessary. So there are no capacity issues here.

    Next, we should remember that the area is served by multiple bus lines already. Much like the G train, none of these buses are experiencing overcrowding. Some of them are operating at very low frequencies because the demand just is not there. Both this point, and the last one, give us the indication that current mass transit usage in the area does not suggest that the kind of money a light rail/streetcar requires is a wise investment.

    Third, this feels like another “building rail because it’s cool” project. A street running, mixed traffic streetcar will perform no better than a bus. The next step up from that is to give it its own lane and traffic signal priority. However, with ridership likely not high enough to justify the need of higher capacity vehicles, there is no reason this couldn’t be a bus, with its own lane and traffic signal priority. For the crowd that says that “rail attracts more passengers than a bus”, that may be true, but indications are that with enough of an upgrade the bus can attract more passengers too.

    I just don’t see enough reason to go ahead and build a costly streetcar system when we have other pressing transit needs. $1.7 Billion could go to the Second Ave Subway, it could go towards eastern and northern Queens, it could go towards Triboro RX, or it could go towards a new Staten Island project. I am sure that a cost-benefit analysis on this project would determine that it is not worth the price tag.

    • Rob says:

      And also now parallels R and Astoria line. Even the projected ridership, which is probably inflated, is quite low for NYC.

    • Tower18 says:

      Think farther ahead. This is a “if you build it, they will build buildings” plan. One of the most successful arguments always trotted out when a new waterfront development is proposed is the lack of nearby transit options. If they were able to point to a light rail line in place or under construction, that neutralizes that argument (whether it should or not doesn’t matter) and now developers can in turn request the ability to build higher, etc.

      • mister says:

        Two thoughts about that:

        One: they have already been building like crazy in the area.
        Two: Buses can fill the transit gap in this area.

        I don’t understand why we want to replace lightly used bus routes with a streetcar system when there are overcrowded bus routes that seem to be okay with a half-hearted BRT replacement.

        • Bolwerk says:

          It can’t be denied there is at least a logic to surface rail in that part of Brooklyn. Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn both have tight density and routes that necessitate lots of twists and turns, things that buses are not great at coping with.

          OTOH, buses work pretty well on wide, straight corridors like First and Second Avenue (M15). Things are bit ugly downtown, but overall it’s a pretty bus-friendly route.

          That said, I agree with this comment on Streetsblog about where to put LRVs in NY: start with the busiest routes, preferably in the boroughs.

  6. Frank B says:

    Seems like a good idea to me, much better than Cuomo’s crappy plan to connect LaGuardia to the Flushing Line…

  7. Seth says:

    I’d be on board with trying this if we could reallocate money to it from the similarly-routed East River Ferry.

    Could stock like that in the rendering handle the sharp turns depicted in the route?

    • Jeff says:

      Mostly likely. That looks like very typical light rail vehicle used in other parts of the world and sharp curves are common with mix-traffic vehicles.

      IMO the real benefit of a project like this is to serve as a trojan horse for light rail in the city. There are real practical benefits to having them in the outer boroughs and so having this be a start of a new light rail network would be extremely beneficial.

  8. Joe Steindam says:

    While the physical route seems to make sense by connecting many ridership anchors, I’m struggling to devise a logical service routing that incorporates the spur through Downtown Brooklyn to Atlantic Terminal. Red Hook would likely benefit the most by connecting to Downtown Brooklyn, followed by Williamsburg, but for different reasons. Red Hook needs the Downtown Brooklyn link for the transit connections first, while Williamsburg just needs better transit service to the largest CBD and government center in the borough (I’d think the neighborhoods further way in either direction are probably better served by the subway to make the trip, except maybe Astoria due to the transfer penalty). So I think that distinction can help determine more successful service routing. Although the placement of the junction in DUMBO means the route from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn and Atlantic Terminal is circuitous.

    Assuming the system capacity would permit more than a single service routing (Sunset Park-DUMBO-Atlantic Terminal-DUMBO-Astoria) that would seem on paper to be slower than most existing options and lengthen those trips that stick to the waterfront route, I’m thinking either a two service system (Sunset Park-Astoria, and Atlantic Terminal-DUMBO or Atlantic Terminal-Red Hook) or a three service system (Sunset Park-Astoria, Red Hook-Atlantic Terminal, and Atlantic Terminal-Greenpoint or Astoria). Sort of modeled along service on the HBLR, with routes that both bring people to the major terminal and bypass it to serve the linear route. I’m open to other suggestions in this far-off scenario where this thing gets built.

  9. Stephen Bauman says:

    Almost the entire line is already within 1/2 mile of an existing subway stop. That’s walking distance. The only exceptions: Hallets Cove in Astoria, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and parts of Red Hook are within 1 mile. They would best be handled by bike share to the closest subway station.

    The route’s only advantage over using nearby subway lines is a direct connection for the few people who need it. That’s an exceedingly small population. Bike share would still be quicker for distances up to 4 miles.

    • Jeff says:

      The line might be close to a subway line but a lot of the areas it serves west of the line are more than walkable distance

  10. Anonymous says:

    Would anyone opine on development in areas marked hurricane evacuation zones? Do the costs include sufficient proofing for flooding in various scenarios?

  11. Eric says:

    Land is so valuable along the East River that there is no need to promote development. Just upzone and the development will come on its own. Every cent spent on a streetcar will therefore go to waste. Even worse, it will further raise prices in the area, and make the developments unaffordable for people who otherwise would have lived there.

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