Mayor set to endorse $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens waterfront light rail plan

This rendering shows the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar passing Industry City. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

This rendering shows the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar passing Industry City. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his State of the City speech, is set to announce support for a $2.5 billion plan to build a light rail that would connect the rapidly developing Brooklyn and Queens waterfront areas. The proposal, developed over the past six months by a group of real estate developers, transportation advocates and urban planners calling itself the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, aims to provide better transit options for job centers in Industry City, Red Hook and the Brooklyn Navy Yards while easing the north-south connections between Astoria, Long Island City and parts south throughout Brooklyn. It is not a slam-dunk proposal from a transit perspective, and the city will have to make the case that it is a sound investment considering the city’s competing needs.

We learned about the plan, in fairly specific detail, a few weeks ago when initial studies were leaked to the press, and on Wednesday, Michael Grynbaum of The Times broke news the streetcar would be a headliner during de Blasio’s speech. He wrote:

The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic — a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys…The streetcar system, which would realize a long-held fantasy of the city’s urban planners, is expected to cost about $2.5 billion, significantly less than a new underground subway line, city officials said on Wednesday.

Its operation, however, remains far-off. Under the plan, construction would start in 2019, after studies and community review; service would begin several years after that, perhaps not until 2024, officials said. Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, acknowledged “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.”

But Ms. Glen said the city’s existing transit network no longer met the needs of a metropolis whose commuting patterns have shifted significantly in the last two decades. A streetcar route, she said in an interview, offered a novel and practical fix at a time when federal money for infrastructure is scarce. “The old transportation system was a hub-and-spoke approach, where people went into Manhattan for work and came back out,” Ms. Glen said. “This is about mapping transit to the future of New York.”

A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

The routing is as reported a few weeks back. The system would terminate in Sunset Park near Industry City, travel through Red Hook and then along the waterfront through Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO to the Navy Yards before passing the Two Trees’ Domino development in Williamsburg and journeying through Greenpoint en route to Long Island City and the western edge of Astoria. While early reports aren’t definite on this number, I’ve been told that, despite renderings, the city would like more than 70 percent of the streetcar route to run on a dedicated right of way. Any mixed-traffic plan should be discarded immediately, but those details have yet to be fully made public.

Some of the city’s transit and development experts are excited by the deal. There is a desperate need for north-south transportation between Brooklyn and Queens,” NYU’s Mitchell Moss said to The Times in an earlier version of Grynbaum’s article. “This is going to do more to encourage more housing than any other transit improvement currently underway.”

Others though are less convinced, and in an explosion of analysis early on Wednesday, various folks who contribute to what has been termed Transit Twitter expressed a healthy degree of skepticism directed toward this project. It isn’t, they contended, on a route that isn’t already served by somewhat nearby subway lines or, in some places, very nearby subway lines, including the G train, and buses that run through the areas don’t have ridership that would lend itself to a successful fixed rail system. Plus, for $2.5 billion, the city could effectively ensure enough money for the MTA to bond out the dollars required to build more phases of the Second Ave. Subway and the Utica Ave. subway, two projects that would be more impactful that a new light rail system not prohibitively far from an existing subway route.

A map of the proposed streetcar route. Click the image to enlarge.

A map of the proposed streetcar route. Click the image to enlarge.

There is the question too of the drivers behind this route. Considering the city’s other needs and potential funding opportunities, why a streetcar and why here? Two Trees seems to be a major player in this effort and in waterfront development up and down this Brooklyn Queens Connector corridor, and they stand to benefit the most from more waterfront access. Plus, as The Times notes, this light rail project wouldn’t require state approval or oversight. Thus, de Blasio can push through a major infrastructure project without running into interference from Andrew Cuomo, his gubernatorial nemesis up the road.

Despite the initial objections and the ins and outs of the politics behind this plan, as I said a few weeks ago, I don’t hate this idea so long as it’s implemented properly. The city has been pushing to bring jobs to both Industry City and the Navy Yards, and while few people would take the 27 minute north-to-side ride from Sunset Park to Astoria, a lot of people would ride from one end to the middle or from the middle to an end. (Anyway, who rides the A regularly from Inwood to the Rockaways? That’s not quite the point of a lengthy transit route.) Plus, with a northern terminus planned for Astoria, it’s not a stretch to see a future connection to Laguardia Airport via the BMT’s Ditmars Boulevard terminal. That’s a far more appealing option than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s misguided Willets Point AirTrain.

To be a success, this light rail line must run in its own dedicated lane and, for better or worse, be integrated into the MTA’s fare structure. The city should consider upzoning where possible along its route, but already, many including former NYC DOT planning director Jon Orcutt, don’t believe the funding scheme is realistic. That’s part of the case the mayor will have to make.

Ultimately, it’s a big idea and it’s a new idea with shiny technology that we don’t have here in New York City. That angle is going to drive part of the dialogue around this plan, but in reality, we need to see a rigorous defense that justifies $2.4 billion in light of competing needs. Building because some developers are willing to foot the bill simply supports the idea that there are two New Yorks — one where access to money and power gets things done and another stuck depending change but unable to realize it. Transportation investments that will reverberate through the decades deserve a bit more consideration than that.

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens

131 Responses to “Mayor set to endorse $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens waterfront light rail plan”

  1. JJJ says:

    As long as they look at Paris Tram system as the model, rather than any of the American streetcar systems.

  2. John-2 says:

    I’ve been told that, despite renderings, the city would like more than 70 percent of the streetcar route to run on a dedicated right of way. Any mixed-traffic plan should be discarded immediately, but those details have yet to be fully made public.

    Dallas basically took what was little more than an east-west alley and turned it into its main DART light rail corridor through the downtown area. Without the converted alley option in Brooklyn and Queens, this could be a little more problematic given the width of some of the Brooklyn streets running close to the East River and how those living or working along those streets might react (i.e. — If the city designates one street for a dedicated light rail ROW through the various neighborhoods, how to the local businesses and residents react if not only can’t cars park there, but trucks can’t make deliveries or taxis/Uber drivers can’t drop off customers?)

    • Dexter says:

      Those sections could be mixed traffic. You wouldn’t have to take away parking spots at any location but the stations and you’d have to aggressively enforce a no double parking rule. It’s not like NYC has the smallest streets in the world. I’ve seen trams (and buses for that matter) run on smaller streets with no issues.

      I mean, this city has had trams before, so what’s the issue with it returning?

      • John-2 says:

        You could do it. It’s just a question of what Ben was talking about above concerning a ‘dedicated’ ROW, which would mean that the light rail and vehicles would only mingle at cross streets. That’s a way to assure you’re not going to have problems with double-parked, backed-up or stalled vehicles blocking the trains, but again, how would the people living and working on those streets react, especially if the light rail stop isn’t right near their location?

      • Henry says:

        There was a bus route running this exact route that was broken up into pieces because it simply became too unreliable. So there’s that.

  3. Eric says:

    This means $2.5 billion of graft to private developers with negative benefit to the city. In other cities streetcars are valued for encouraging development. But the East River bank is such valuable real estate that there is no need to encourage development. Just upzone and development will come. Making the area nice and pretty with a streetcar will only raise the prices even further. This means more profit for the developers, and less affordable apartments for New Yorkers, and means that more units will be bought by rich foreigners rather than New Yorkers. So basically the city is paying $2.5 billion to shoot itself in the foot.

    • AlexB says:

      Right, so why should the city ever build parks or transportation if only developers will benefit? This is the same false logic used by people who say why build the 2nd Ave subway when the area is already developed. We build things to make people’s lives better first, and that raises the value of land and increases development second.

      • Bolwerk says:

        NYC needs LRT desperately, but this really does seem to be a giveaway to developers. Why here? Why this corridor? There are so many more imaginative places to put light rail. From Lorimer across the Williamsburg Bridge might be a good start, given the looming L shutdown. (But we can’t build that fast anyway.)

        OK, the bottom third of the idea might make some sense. Some.

        • SEAN says:

          Once you have a starter line, you just branch off it like the HBLR. But of course in this case the branches would be longer & more numerous.

          • Bolwerk says:

            I wish we could just branch off from HBLR and share the operation. NJ is a pretty good place to store trains, and a lot of NJ people want to get to Manhattan.

            • SEAN says:

              If you are talking about serving Staten Island – I’m with you, but I am thinking on a much grander scale that goes way beyond that. That is why I’m not raising the objections that others are yodling about.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              Trolley cars don’t have the capacity for the demand.

              • SEAN says:

                They can have several articulated sections increasing capacity, but they can never be a substitute for subway line growth.

              • Bolwerk says:

                HBLR isn’t trolley cars anyway. They’re modern articulated LRVs.

                • adirondacker12800 says:

                  Which are trolley cars with plastic sheeting on the sides instead of steel.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    Each with close to 4x the capacity of the vehicles used in the busiest Hudson crossing. What’s the problem exactly?

                    • adirondacker12800 says:

                      Trolley cars can be mu’d. Not enough to carry 4,000 people. The usual number that is tosssed around for the number of people on a standing room only on a train of 12 multilevel cars is 2,000.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      I’m guessing there is some relation between “4000 people” (a train? an hour?) and anything anyone said?

                      What service goal are you talking about and what is there not enough of?

                    • Bdawe says:

                      “Trolleycars” can’t be MU’d?

                      Where do you get this nonsense? They’ve been MUing “trolleycars” since the 1890s

                    • adirondacker12800 says:

                      You were the one who brought up vehicles under the Hudson. PATH trains can easily hold over a 1,000 when they are are SRO and the multilevel cars with lots of seat can seat 130, less in the cars with cabs or ADA bathroooms. 12 cars at 167 people per car is 2004.

                    • BDawe says:

                      misread a can as a can’t

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      Under the Hudson, over Staten Island, maybe to Brooklyn, w’evs?

                      A train of two HBLR vehicles has a capacity of about at least ~400, I believe. 30 TPH of that across the river somehow is a pretty big addition to the capacity that’s already now in PATH, commuter rail, and buses.

                    • adirondacker12800 says:

                      so you can run two 12 car multilevels through the new tunnel or trolley cars as often as possible to move the same amount of people?

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      What people? Tens of thousands of potential transit users live near HBLR, and are not in NJT commuter rail Manhattan-bound catchment (unless they go to Hoboken and reverse to Secaucus).

                      I presume NJT commuter rail gets that kind of capacity boost in the form of Gateway, but it does little to help anyone living along HBLR. For the purposes of getting to Manhattan, their options are PATH, ferries, or buses.

                    • adirondacker12800 says:

                      Why would anyone in their right mind go from Bayonne, Jersey City or Hoboken to Secaucus to get to Manhattan when they can get on PATH?

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      No transfer penalty?

                    • adirondacker12800 says:

                      They would have to be in Secausus.

      • Eric says:

        Building the 2nd Ave subway allowed the city to upzone the Upper East Side, because the Lexington subway was already over capacity. In contrast, Brooklyn already has the infrastructure to support massive upzoning, so more building is an unnecessary waste.

        Expenditures for parks are sometimes funded by private donors (like the Central Park Conservancy), and when the city pays, the price is in the low millions of dollars, not the billions like this plan.

        • AlexB says:

          I actually think the streetcar line is idiotic, I just dispute the logic that it shouldn’t be built because only developers will benefit. There are much better reasons not to build it. All public investment raises the value of land and the whole point of privately developing something is to capture that value for personal gain. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in the public realm, which is the core of NIMBY logic.

          It’s also not clear this is a giveaway to developers. If no one uses a streetcar, very little value will be created, and there won’t be anything for developers to capture. Developers will only benefit if the line is useful, and if it’s useful then the reasons to not build it decrease. As the proposed route connects to very few subway lines and operates in mixed traffic, then it’s not going to create any value. It’s a fallacy that streetcars create development. They don’t. Good ones do, or people assume that because development happened after the streetcar, then the streetcar caused the development. Much of the Brooklyn waterfront is already developed or at maximum FAR so there’s not of places where development could occur.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Who else is it a giveaway for? The community never asked for it. Nobody moved to Williamsburg or Astoria based on the promise of a streetcar in the future.

            OK, well, the Red Hook community did ask for the Red Hook portion or at least something ballpark similar. That part coincidentally makes sense. Using it as a development vehicle for the Navy Yard at least seems appropriate to me. The rest? Meh.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    For those of you keeping track at home: the Queens and Brooklyn waterfront get $2.5 billion, East Harlem can fuck right off.

    • smotri says:

      Exactly. The $2.5 billion should go to the Second Avenue Subway up to 125 Street.

    • eo says:

      In my opinion it depends. If the city can get the $2.5B from the developers around the right of way or through upzoning and special tax districts with higher taxes which can be used for paying back any bonds used for this I really see no problem with the project at all. It is not as if there is no precedent with the 7 subway extension and the special taxing arrangements for the Hudson Yards area.

      The proposed length of this thing is such that its passenger “catchment” area is huge. That should make any additional tax assessments needed for this palpable (I have not done any calculations though). To avoid popular backslash it can be structured so that any “old” buildings get no incremental tax. Any new developments in that area started during the next 30 years pay, let’s say 1% more on top of their regular taxes. And all the supporters of this line commit to the +1% tax on all their existing and planned developments in the said “catchment” area (so that they cannot get out of the extra tax by starting the development before this is put in place).

      Now if the city is planning to pay for this itself then we clearly have a problem and I am with you on it.

      • tacony says:

        Just as I don’t understand why dedicated bus lanes are politically too hard but a dedicated trolley lane isn’t, I don’t understand how you further upzone areas that have already been through contentious zoning battles. The Brooklyn waterfront is full of well-connected NIMBYs ready to pounce on any proposal to add a square foot of new development. They’re not going to allow some bonanza of new development beyond what is already proposed for the area. Most major development in these areas already only happens with significant tax breaks from the city, not extra taxes.

        • Tower18 says:

          I had mentioned this in a previous waterfront LRT post and I really think it’s the plan. This will be built *precisely because* of neighborhood objection to zoning changes. The thing always trotted out in opposition to upzoning waterfront areas (up to and including the LICH site) is that we shouldn’t increase density there because transit links are already distant and overloaded. It’s, frankly, one of the only legitimate areas of pushback (that and schools and other services).

          Building this, of questionable utility as it may be, removes that line of complaint, and now zoning changes can be rammed through.

      • Robert LaMarca says:

        Actually, a look at the 7 train extension may be useful. The cost was to be paid by taxes on properties that were developed off it. But then the city cut the taxes for some developers by 40%.

        Granted that this may have been partly due to the property values increasing tremendously.. But the question is do they actually GET the money from the developers.

        Look at the track record of developers not providing the low cost apartments they were supposed to in exchange for tax credits over the years as an indicator.

      • Henry says:

        They could not fundraise that amount of money using a brand-new district of office towers alone. What makes you think they can do it in an area where developments are already underway and the horse has left the barn when it comes to recapturing value?

    • al says:

      $2.5 billion should be enough to R&D electrified multiple unit rubber wheeled trains on virtual tracks AND deploy it citywide on the heavily patronized corridors.

      • Tower18 says:

        I do wish we had electric trolleybuses. It’s so nice to walk the streets in San Francisco without the ever present smell of diesel exhaust.

        • Tim says:

          This. Certain routes are especially primed for it, such as the Manhattan Avenue routes that are straight for almost their whole run N-S.

          • SEAN says:

            Both San Francisco & Boston have placed new orders for trollely busses from New Flyer within the past year & Philadelphia will be soon. If those transit systems can, so can we… Oh wait – this is NYC.

      • Eric says:

        By “multiple unit rubber wheeled trains on virtual tracks”, you mean buses that are extra long and thus less frequent.

        Let’s stick with regular buses for now.

    • mister says:

      I don’t always agree with you Alon, but I agree with this. There are much more pressing transit needs than this silly streetcar project.

    • anon_coward says:

      perfectly OK considering manhattan has been getting billions of $$$ in subways the last 10 years and queens/brooklyn almost nothing

      • Alon Levy says:

        If East Harlem is somehow undeserving of a subway because of equity issues (lol), then build a subway under Utica. Way more useful than setting $2.5 billion on fire.

        • Eric F says:

          I wouldn’t worry, this is never getting built.

          He may as well have had as the two terminals the Queens convention Center in the east and the Jets stadium on the west side.

          There is no way a street car line is getting through NIMBYs in Brooklyn Heights.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Kind of a pity because Red Hook-Brooklyn Heights-Navy Yard-Marcy Ave. actually is the part that makes sense.

            The rest of it is fappery.

            • SEAN says:

              No it isn’t. As a starter line you could in fact creat branches that serve other parts of Brooklyn & Queens. But this isn’t a substitute for new subway lines.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I’d rather they start with a small, less ambitious project that makes sense and has been vetted for community approval for decades. Extending the Red Hook trolley plan to the JMZ is already an ambitious extension of the original idea that has been discussed, and asked for, for over 20 years. From that, you can build it out as you see how the initial segment works. North of Broadway there isn’t really a major transportation need not filled by existing services right now.

                Or, do Lorimer to Manhattan in an emergency race to get it done before the L shutdown? You still seed a good long-term LRT route, but it’s the closest thing to solving a looming crisis.

                • Alon Levy says:

                  The problem is that this parallels the G too closely.

                  Someday, after more important lines have been built (SAS-125th, Utica, Nostrand, Northern, a bunch of outer extensions in the Bronx and Queens), it will make sense to rebuild the Park Row el terminal, send trains over the Brooklyn Bridge, and then branch into a couple of at-grade lines, on the model of the Boston Green Line and Muni Metro. Good branches include Flatbush, some corridor going to Red Hook, and Flushing Avenue serving the Navy Yard.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    I don’t see why that’s inherently a problem, depending what your goals are. The G has long distances between stops, while I suspect surface rail would stop more frequently. But not asked for, not filling any obvious travel demand, etc.? Makes it an incredibly low priority even if it ends up working out.

                    The segments south of Broadway at least close some service gaps.

              • Henry says:

                We have already established the fact for decades that, close to the waterfront, Brooklyn-Queens travel is not a huge market. It’s not big enough to justify having the G on Queens Blvd over the M, the buses and ferry that already run these routes are nowhere near capacity, and the truly underserved parts of the outer boroughs are in the farther reaches, not in the inner-ring neighborhoods.

                • testtestte says:

                  We have absolutely not established that. Further, there are literally tens of thousands of new residents already booked for those corridors within five-ten years. That is without transit improvements.

                  The low ridership on, say, the B62 bus going between LIC and N. Brooklyn is because it’s terrible, unreliable as all hell, and slow. Even with that in mind, during the morning commute that bus is full every weekday.

                  The best part of this project is sewing Queens and Brooklyn together. There have been enormous changes in the Astoria/LIC/Greenpoint/Williamsburg areas and they are badly connected. Further, the 11th/21st corridor in Astoria is ripe for development that it will never see without improved transit access. Go to that area sometime and you’ll see the obvious benefit. I bet intelligent development/zoning changes in that area alone could pay for most of this project.

                  NYC’s transit limitations are driven largely by the MTA. The state-controlled MTA that does not wish to do anything good for the city. If the MTA will not fix problems or add service in an effective manner then it’s necessary for the city to do this on its own.

                  Finally, NYC has an annual budget in the arena of $77 billion. $2.5 billion is NOT a large expenditure. In my view the city would be wise to spend $10 billion PER YEAR on transit improvements right now – that kind of spending is how we got the quality subway we have. It’s pathetic and short-sighted to fail to make those investments.

                  People keep fighting over projects when they should be demanding that ALL of them be built. Yes, Utica Ave Subway. Yes, full 2nd avenue subway. Yes, a full-on subway through the west-half of Queens rather than this streetcar.

                  • Henry says:

                    The G has been operating for the better part of a century, and has had such disappointing ridership that it got cut back and had its trains cut in half. The B61 might be full, but you can always add more buses since it’s not anywhere close to the most frequent bus in Brooklyn. Any of the reliability improvements that a streetcar could offer could also be made by a bus, except you don’t have to spend $2.5B to do it.

                    We shouldn’t be directing development into places that cannot handle it. Most land around subway stations is not as heavily developed as it could be; we should develop East New York, Jamaica, etc. to the fullest extent possible instead of overextending ourselves and building fancy toys for developers.

                    As for infrastructure, keep in mind that we do spend a lot of money on infrastructure, just not all of it is dedicated to mass transit. We are replacing the Kosciuszko, building SAS, building a third water tunnel for the city, expanding the school system, and so on and so forth. It’s natural for an aging city to spend less on infrastructure as time goes on, and to be fair most of the reasons our project list is so small is because of our ridiculously high building costs; in most places they could build a subway line running the exact same route for $2.5B.

                  • Alon Levy says:

                    The crosstown buses in Manhattan aren’t faster than walking, but they still get very high ridership; the M14 and M86 have higher ridership per kilometer than any US light rail line. In Brooklyn, too, the workhorse crosstown buses, the B6 and B35, have lolzy average speeds.

                  • AG says:

                    Except it is very very impractical for them to be all built at the same time. Some take priority. This should not be high on the priority. Let’s be real about why this project is thrust forward.

  5. Steve says:

    I had to laugh at this line: “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.”

    I was recently in Vienna, which has a fantastic light rail that runs in and out of streets, no dedicated ROW. Also Paris, Brussels, the list goes on. New York is old, but it ain’t Europe old. They can come up with better excuses than that.

    • Brandon says:

      Similar to cycling, the need for dedicated ROW is related to the level of auto traffic along the route.

      So traffic either has to be naturally low (almost nowhere in NYC except maybe part of the Red Hook section of this route), artificially kept low through diversion of through-traffic (non-existent method in NYC but used elsewhere), or a dedicated ROW is needed.

      Of course, by the standards of European city centers there is a lot of space on most of our streets for a dedicated lane, so as you’ve said the excuses of New York being old are bunk.

      • Alex says:

        Careful. Red Hook gets inundated with truck traffic during the work day. That could be a big issue with a mixed traffic route through there.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The Paris trams have dedicated ROW for the most part. It’s not common to build mixed-traffic streetcars in Europe – there are some mixed-traffic legacy streetcars, but the new-build lines mostly have their own lanes.

      • Joe says:

        Huh? There are tons of mixed-traffic tram systems in Europe.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Legacy systems, not new lines as in France, which removed the streetcars in the postwar era just as the US did.

          • Roy says:

            Plenty of new street-running tramways in the UK – Manchester’s just finishing up a second street-running route across the city centre. However, most of the systems’ street-running tends to be just in the very city centre and they use abandoned or existing but under-used rail ROW for most of their length.

    • tacony says:

      I would also wonder about frequency of service on the trams with no dedicated ROW. We have an aversion to frequent transit in this country. We’re scared to death of ever running an empty transit vehicle anywhere, so we cut headways to the point where a single bus or tram getting stuck in traffic really harms service. MTA loading guidelines for instance, if applied to European transit systems, would probably thin out half their runs outside of rush hours in a lot of places.

      If the trams in Vienna that run on 2 minute headways through the center all day work great with no dedicated ROW, that’s great! And I’d love to see NYC adopt the idea that more frequent transit should be a goal in and of itself rather than a necessity only to prevent dangerous overcrowding of vehicles and stations.

    • Jedman67 says:

      Jerusalem has a light rail that shares with traffic. But the population is a fraction of NYC, despite being a much older city.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The Blight Rail* has dedicated lanes – they don’t even let buses use the lanes, so plans for extending the rails run into opposition from bus users who are afraid their bus service will be degraded.

        *Best way to render rakevet klala into English (rakevet= train, kala = light, klala = curse).

    • Bolwerk says:

      The problems with street running are exaggerated. The trick seems to be to keep auto traffic low-ish (really no different than a functional mixed traffic bus service).

      That said, it’s clearly not ideal either. It’s not that hard to dedicate a lane.

      • Tower18 says:

        Aside from certain places during rush hour, I’m not certain there’s anything special about traffic in New York that can’t be solved by enforcement of double parking (and/or removing some general parking to add loading zones, and enforcing that too).

        No city in the world has the attitude about double parking that New York has. I see people double park to let out their passengers, when an open legal parking spot is 10 feet away on the same side of the street. But the attitude here is double parking is okay, so why not drop off right at the door?

        Eliminate 90% of double parking and suddenly I don’t think you have traffic problems, at least as it relates to transit, on most streets in the city.

        • Bolwerk says:

          You’d think the shifty pig state manorial tactic of attacking the serfs with confiscatory fining would be way more efficient and effective going against vehicles that waste everyone else’s time. Unlike poor transit users, the name attached to a vehicle registration almost certainly has something to confiscate – if nothing else, the vehicle!

          Fall asleep on the subway coming home from a late shift? Never mind that you hurt no one, and maybe just put yourself at a tiny risk, you deserve a fine and deliberate humiliation for doing nothing wrong.

          Double park and waste the time of everyone behind you? *shrug*

          This is the perverse logic of the “technocrats” like Bloomberg too, though de Blasio supports it as well. The people who are supposed to be above the fray, rationally crafting policies to for utilitarian purposes.

      • tacony says:

        It seems that is in politically very difficult to dedicate a lane. People will get up and yell and scream and threaten a lawsuit if you try. That’s why we have so few dedicated bus lanes in the city, and the buses are so slow because they’re stuck in traffic.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I doubt a lawsuit would go anywhere, but they do scream and unfortunately the city seems to listen to the screamers.

  6. Larry Littlefield says:

    There is a probability, given the size of the MTA debt, that the very economic foundation of our metro area is going to rot away. But those in the political/union class have absolutely no personal stake in that.

    Therefore they can simply choose to not talk about it, and come up with lots of “studies” of other things instead.

  7. Elvis Delgado says:

    Whether this is a good idea is certainly debatable, and previous posts have contained a number of good arguments. But the key point is one that Ben made in passing – even if you’re willing to grant that this is a great idea, there are clearly BETTER ways to spend $2.5 billion.

    If we had unlimited money (LOL!!), this might be justifiable, but since we’re constrained to choose how to spend, it makes absolutely no sense at all to commit so much to a BQX when there are much, much more significant needs that this money could address.

    • mister says:

      I agree! SAS phase 2 and 3, Triboro RX and even the Utica subway are better proposals that are on the table. There are other proposals not on the table right now (Subway to Staten Island, the old Horace Harding rail route) that are better too. This plan is silly.

  8. LLQBTT says:

    The Jay St rendering is inaccurate. Without a barrier, there will be plenty of delivery trucks, taxis, cars, and even buses standing in the ROW.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    The line looks about 22 km long. This means that the proposed cost per km is about the same as that of Stockholm’s fully underground subway expansion, which includes a considerable water crossing and construction in central neighborhoods (though not the CBD proper).

  10. Erik says:

    I would encourage everyone to be extraordinarily skeptical of the $2.5B price tag. The Green Line Extension to the Boston MBTA is a similar project, with a shorter segment of trackage, to be done along existing rights-of-way, and it is now ballooning past the $2B mark. Much of that was due to major sins of procurement policy and process, and the fleecing of the MBTA and DOT by the major contractors, but the price escalations also do have some bearing on reality. Expensive regional construction costs, water and drainage issues that will need to be dealt with, etc. Many of the issues would be worse on this project.

  11. Kevin Walsh says:

    MTA employee, on facebook:

    “I am amazed by the number of subway and bus lines that deBlasio’s Hipster Express would run alongside or criss-cross, all done to serve growing affluent neighborhoods, yet he has never proposed a single thing to aid the public transportation needs of established communities in south or eastern Queens.”

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      The last person that dared to do that was shot down by local NIMBYs. Juanita Watkins helped to kill the E to SE Queens on one of the two redundant LIRR ROWs.


      And local NIMBYs are fighting BRT right now.

      Meanwhile, there is no money for ongoing maintenance. And the second phase of the SAS, which would provide redundancy (via transfer) for the most congested area of the system, is also unfunded.

      • AlexB says:

        I used to think those lines through SE Queens were redundant but when you have 4 separate branches using the same two tracks, it’s not so clear they don’t need another pair.

        • Henry says:

          The RPA has always proposed third-tracking the remaining branch. They can live with three tracks going to the South Shore; it’s not as if they run a very intensive reverse-commute service that can’t be handled on one track.

    • Robert LaMarca says:

      Well said, Kevin.

  12. Joe Steindam says:

    The cult of Michael Kimmelman has grown strong in this city.

    There are certainly ways to make a line like this work. Compared to the earlier concept that was bandied about in the Daily News article that last discussed this proposal, the alignment appears to swerve away from the Brooklyn waterfront after reaching DUMBO to head towards Downtown Brooklyn, which provides some riders with quicker access to a major job center and transit options to Manhattan. There is certainly no reason you couldn’t provide a right of way currently available to cars to this system, other than political willpower. The details (number of stations, number of vehicles, expected frequencies) are mostly missing to make a more qualified judgment. One thing that has amused me was the reference to a 12 MPH travel speed, which many readers on the Times misinterpreted to be the maximum speed of the vehicle, not the average speed operating with stops and starts and perhaps dwelling for traffic signals. Many said that was too slow, although it’s faster than all but the S79 SBS.

    What can be argued, and what Alon pointed to, is a discussion of equity. I am intrigued that the proponents of this project (Michael Kimmelman included) have given this transit project an added mission of serving over 40,000 NYCHA residents. And indeed that is a lot of NYCHA residents, perhaps as many or more than what exists in the area that would be served by Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway (I’m having difficulty comparing numbers this morning). By my best guess, about a quarter of these residents were added when then the project limits were extended to Astoria (IIRC the original concept ended in Long Island City), with three major NYCHA developments along the way (Queensbridge, Ravenswood, and Astoria Houses). But what these numbers obscure is that the rest of the alignment is the complete opposite, or in the process of becoming the complete opposite. And aside from serving low-income residents, there are many who have worse commutes that suffer a different form of inequity in services and economic access. From an enhancing transit access standpoint, this area would fall to the bottom of any discussion for increased service. And in the case of serving low-income communities, this area would fall to the bottom of the list on that metric as well.

    Is anyone intrigued how this proposal, should it ever come to fruition, would likely spell the end of the Mayor’s ferry proposals, since this line would likely provide more capacity and frequency along the main route than the ferry does.

    • Joe Steindam says:

      Self edit: I am indeed mistaken, Astoria was always included in the discussion of the waterfront line. Industry City in Sunset Park was the later addition, which doesn’t add much NYCHA housing, but does add a decent southern anchor.

    • tacony says:

      The NYCHA residents would be better served by exclusive bus lanes to the nearest subway stations than this slowly moving streetcar along the waterfront. Somebody should be able to easily do some sort of analysis showing where jobs are located and how people in the NYCHA developments would get to them on this proposed routing and speed vs. just getting to the nearest subway stations.

      • Joe Steindam says:

        Agreed. It’s amusing how much was made of speed in the Times comments, all surface transit is going to travel in the 10-15 mph range at best, just because as a surface route it will be expected to stop more often, even before you consider dwell times for boarding/alighting/paying fares, or whether it operates in a dedicated ROW.

        It’s a crime that many NYCHA housing was placed in areas that were not as well served by transit (although it makes sense from the standpoint that they were development as slum clearance and blight removal, and there was probably some correlation between disinvestment and lack of transit access). But most of these areas can be served by improvements to the existing buses, with many of the same improvements that we would demand in a high quality Light Rail line (pre-boarding fare payment, boarding/alighting at all doors, signal priority, dedicated ROW if possible).

        • tacony says:

          A consideration is that job locations were very different when a lot of NYCHA housing was first built. For instance the housing in Red Hook sprung up around the jobs along the waterfront. It was a neighborhood of dock workers and longshoremen and their families. The first buildings of Red Hook Houses opened in the 30s when most workers in the neighborhood actually worked in the neighborhood and it still had an active industrial waterfront. It probably wouldn’t have been considered a huge burden that they couldn’t reach jobs in Manhattan as easily, because the working class industrial jobs were there. The port operations shifted to New Jersey starting in the 50s and the neighborhood became further isolated from everything when the Battery Tunnel and 278 were built. But the NYCHA housing predates the major changes in employment where now NYCHA residents are now likely to spend an hour commuting each way to service jobs.

          • Eric F says:

            What never made sense to me were the huge forest of projects in the Rockaways and near Coney Island. Those buildings are not near any job centers, are super long commutes from Manhattan and manage to blight what could be highly desirable beach areas. It’s an amazing urban planning own goal

            • Bolwerk says:

              Think it’s just applied modernism. The idea then was to have people live in those skyscraper-ish projects and commute by car to the center city. It’s dumbed down Le Corbusier, basically, who imagined megacities of white (always white!) skyscrapers in gardens with highways below and blimp parking above. Being a bit nutty in general – he wanted to demolish Paris and replace it with his skyscrapers – and supporting fascism hurt his career after the war, but his ideas caught on with liberal reformists like Moses and also, maybe paradoxically, with authoritarian socialists.

            • AG says:

              Same with the Edenwald Projects… The thing is that public housing projects were actually decent for the first 2 decades.

            • Alon Levy says:

              They have better job access than the projects over here. Stockholm is adamant on a) providing refugees with public housing (since that’s the only way to get urban housing at affordable rates – I’m paying $960 a month for 30 m^2 with sloped ceilings), and b) ensuring those refugees do not sully any of the areas where middle-class herrenvolk live. Enter Södertälje, a suburb at the edge of the metro area, connected by a rail shuttle to the commuter rail. Unemployment there is deep into the two figures, which creates jobs for various pundits and commentators worrying about the failure of integration of immigrants into Swedish society. Win-win for every Aryan Swede.

    • Eric F says:

      40,000 NYCHA residents would be best served by no longer requiring NYCHA for their housing needs.

    • LLQBTT says:

      Add Red Hook, Farragut, and Whitman-Ingersoll

  13. tacony says:

    I just don’t understand the optics of our “progressive” mayor becoming the champion of a plan to spend $2.5 billion in city taxpayers’ money on a shiny new streetcar linking new development full of hipsters and yuppies on the waterfront, while neglecting the huge existing transit needs of working New Yorkers. Phase 2 of the 2nd Avenue subway is a known need, running through an existing low-income neighborhood. There are lots of bus routes in Brooklyn with extremely high ridership that trudge along through heavy traffic with no exclusive lanes. If there’s a candidate for street-running rail in New York, this route isn’t it. The thousands of Brooklyn bus riders deserve better.

    I also don’t understand the “community consultation” aspect of exclusive bus lanes being too politically difficult while exclusive lanes for this light rail plan are suddenly already attained.

    Have we reached the point where the de Blasio administration sees the MTA as “Cuomo’s” transit system, and he sees this proposal is his striking his own path on mobility? If so, I really hope these clowns are both out of office soon and we can put these dark days of idiocy behind us.

    • Alex Marshall says:

      1)For a world city NYC seems to be quite resistant to new ideas. Most great cities now have some form of light rail/streetcar service, and a lot of them work pretty well. Why not NYC?
      2) The big public housing projects along the route could do with transit options other than hiking to the subway or waiting for a bus. So could the non-bike-riding rest of the population.
      3) There are always competing priorities for transit investment. This proposal is a bold step, responding to the city’s changing demographics.
      4) What exactly did Bloomberg do for transit?

      • AG says:

        You make some good points. However, this is not the best option at this time (with the use of the money). Nor is this really about the people in public housing. This is about the Brooklyn and Queen waterfronts where developers are building lots of luxury housing. People think the mayor is virtuous – but this is no different that the carriage issue. His donors want the land on the west side to develop it.
        Is this a terrible idea? No. Is it the best idea for the time? NO

        Putting that $2.5 billion (of course it will end up costing more) to speed up issues already in the capital plan would be one. Even developing the Triboro RX – which would help many more riders in 3 boroughs would be another. Reactivating the Rockaway Line would be another. Adding street cars in the poor areas of the West Bronx and the old Third Ave. corridor (as mentioned by others) which are already densely populated and have no subway – would be better. Again – this has nothing to do with people “in the projects”s.

  14. Jedman67 says:

    If the private developers want to build it, let them fund it privately (or mixed funding, at least). A more cost efficient solution would be to implement an SBS corridor along the waterfront with traffic signal prioritization. Why spend 2.5 billion when you can do the whole project as a BRT for $5 million?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Did someone program a bot that just generates slightly contextualized pro-BRT messages any time it detects social media posts about a local government or community possibly getting light rail? They show up everywhere when LRT is discussed, and they almost always make the same dubious claims.

      No, this corridor sucks, not the mode. The mode would be great elsewhere. BRT works well even in other parts of NYC. But given the constraints on this corridor, BRT probably isn’t just wasteful but probably couldn’t work from a technical standpoint. LRT could work, but belongs somewhere busier or in more need of transit.

  15. Rich B says:

    I agree that MTA fare integration is crucial, ideally with free or discounted subway and bus transfers of some sort.

    Clearly this is more about driving development than serving existing transit needs. That’s fine as long as it’s done correctly. Hudson Yards looks like it will be a big success, so the model can work.

    But is that what’s happening here? Yes, there needs to be up-zoning or it will fail.

    More importantly, who will actually pay? Ideally, developers, but how? Perhaps developers can opt for extra density rights if they contribute to a neighborhood improvement fund that goes toward the rail line? Of course if they’re all getting abatements…

  16. Christopher Stephens says:

    I may not be a professional transit planner, but I’m pretty sure that this entire project could be replicated by Select Bus Service for literally 1% of the price tag for shiny light rail, with only minor speed differences. This plan is a crazy waste of money.

  17. g says:

    With a crumbling subway system headed towards almost wartime ridership the obvious solution is to spend billions on another vanity project with questionable returns. The failure to fully fund the SAS at a minimum thru phase 3 (and connect it to Brooklyn) and other sundry improvements to the system is a massive ethical failure on the part of the mayor and the governor. Parts of the city that have waited decades for long promised transit improvements will simply have to go without again because another politician wants to cut the ribbon on something shiny.

    • johndmuller says:

      I keep telling myself that if the pols can keep on talking about these new and fairly expensive and not terribly urgent transit related endeavors like the LGA projects, the Penn station mallification, PATH to Newark airport, the ferries and now this one — that if they are down to thinking about these transit projects, then surely they must have a solid plan nailed down that assures stable funding and politically greased skids for at least the next 2 phases of SAS (and have got the Gateway project $$ covered as well).

      As much as I would like to see streetcars along the Brooklyn waterfront (preferably nice restorations (or replicas) of old PCC cars a la SanFran), its hard to believe that so many pols could promote so many throw-away ideas with no mention of the SAS or the other clearly more sensible ideas mentioned here like the Utica, or extending the Nostrand, or the subway to Staten Island, Hoboken/Secaucus or across the GWB, or even to Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle or wherever in Nassau, Hudson and Bergen counties.

      Sure I’d like to go down to the Hudson and get on a ferry to Willets Point to see a Mets game or take the streetcar to Jones Beach, but really, … , First Things First please.

      • adirondacker12800 says:

        They need PATH to Newark Airport so they have a place to store trains when they extend the trains on the Newark-World Trade Center line to 10 cars.

  18. Parking says:

    If the transit advocates behind this are serious about making this the main way people travel to, say, Industry City, then they should push for scaling back the construction of new parking spaces there. Ditto for all the other buildings going up along this line.


  19. Transit Fan says:

    Good piece, Ben but I feel like you’re missing the most salient, interesting and potentially important implication of this proposal:

    If this goes forward and gets built, it breaks the MTA’s monopolistic, bureaucratic, sclerotic* death-grip on New York City’s transit system. That’s potentially huge, is it not?

    * Any other “-otic” words I can add to that list? Idiotic?

    • Eric says:

      So no transfers between this streetcar and MTA subway/buses?

      I guess that makes sense, because nobody is supposed to ride streetcars (they are usually slower than walking), they are just there to look pretty to people sitting in nearby coffee shops and lofts.

  20. Stephen Bauman says:

    There’s one misprint in the article. The sample 27 minute travel time is just between Greenpoint and Dumbo, not the entire 16 mile length between Sunset Park and Astoria.

    As a point of reference, the average travel time for Citibike rides between Greenpoint and Dumbo is 26.57 minutes with a standard deviation of 5.05 minutes.

  21. Paul says:

    I’ve got you progressive mayor. ( And you’ll outdo Cuomo even more… ) JPG of the adjust map with the Utica ave. subway, Triboro RX / Light Rail Hybrid and a better LGA plan: Progressive Light Rail Map

  22. Eric F says:

    Does the rendering show a single track alignment?

    • tacony says:

      The renderings appear to show a single track with no separation or even signage delineating the rail ROW from auto traffic. But apparently the renderings are total BS and we’re not supposed to care what they actually show.

      • Eric F says:

        That’s completely deficient, even for a rendering. You’d need two tracks, which means you need to be able to board on two sides, requiring right of way for two tracks with additional space at intervals for stations on both sides.

        I’m going to take the view that this gets built roughly when NYC housing becomes “affordable”.

        The render artist could have had a bit more fun with the project by showing a couple of horse drawn carts in the background (elimination of which is Diblasio’s other big priority).

  23. Horatio says:

    If its already gonna go to Astoria, why not just continue it on to LaGuardia Airport?

    • Rob says:

      Because that’s where De B would have to work with Cuomo, and that is not going to happen. This whole proposal is a MTA avoidance scheme.

  24. AlexB says:

    This is a mediocre idea that DeBlasio has no idea how to implement. It’s the last we’ll hear of it. To make it work, you’d have to eliminate parking and driving lanes throughout the route and completely rebuild pretty much every street requiring mountains of paperwork and extremely time consuming coordination between ConEd, DoT, DoB, community boards, etc. The mayor has no idea. Maybe if he could finish the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway we could have a conversation about a parallel light rail line. I doubt he’d know how to finish the bikeway either.

  25. Ben says:

    Do you ever have anything positive to say about transit in NYC? If this is a project that can in fact pay for itself, honestly sometimes I don’t understand why somebody as smart as you, versed in everything transit, can be so negative in the face of every project to transform NY in the coming years. Everything has a problem–funding, lack of vision, priorities. Surely there is some good, too.

  26. Michael K says:

    The route was chosen because it serves a lot of people and will serve Another 100,000 new residents with all the rezoning over the past decade. The route was looked at through the lens of dedicated lanes and transit vehicle operating costs and the ability of light rail to scale up nicely. Don’t knock it, the city has been studying this with tremendous detail for the past three years.

    • Jeff says:

      Yup. Serves 40,000 NYCHA residents (10% of the NYCHA population), lower income neighborhoods in Red Hook and Sunset Park, new commercial developments (which rely on mass transit to succeed) in Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal. Is basically self funded to boot because of the increase in economic activity in these areas.

      People on this site are only interested in unrealistic fantasies and in drawing lines on an imaginary map without a clue about how the world has changed or how public works get funded these days. Keep dreaming guys, but it ain’t coming true.

    • Stephen Bauman says:

      According to the last census.

      There are 356,795 people living within 1/2 mile of one of the proposed streetcar stops. Only 27,799 of them are not already within 1/2 mile of an existing subway entrance.The same proportion is likely to continue with any projected growth.

  27. Rich B says:

    The renderings are missing one major thing: overhead wires.

    Perhaps they plan on using a third-rail solution like the one just deployed on Dubai, but I doubt it, as that’s prohibitively expensive and fails with any kind of snow.

    So I imagine they left out the wires and supports on purpose, since they generally look horrible would give the community groups all the ammunition they need to shut this down. I don’t blame them. This is just plain fugly.

    But there’s an opportunity here to fix this issue of ugly overhead wire supports. I’d love to see the city hold a contest for engineers and designers to come up with a more attractive design for overhead wire poles.

  28. SCP says:

    “and while few people would take the 27 minute north-to-side ride from Sunset Park to Astoria,”

    How do you know this, exactly? I would do exactly that, and it would be amazing. Right now, it takes an hour to get to Astoria from the northern-ish part of Sunset Park. It should not take that long! People don’t do it now because it’s long and not convenient. If it were convenient, then more people will do it. And even getting to Williamsburg/LIC area in a decent amount of time would be great.

    I definitely support the streetcar/light rail idea, and I would use it.

  29. Cass says:

    I love this idea. It’s about time we had good surface rail in NYC.

    If only they hadn’t begun the endless money pit 2nd Ave Subway; 20 surface lines could have been installed for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.

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