The politics and the realpolitik behind the Brooklyn-Queens streetcarBy
In the likely scenario that the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Bill de Blasio’s developer-backed waterfront streetcar, never sees the light of day, an inch of progress, a foot of rail, or revenue service, what happens to the $2.5 billion the mayor thinks he has lined up to boost this project? It won’t wind up going toward some other transit project. As hard as we wish it to, the Mayor won’t come to his senses and fund more of the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX proposal, or reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch. It won’t even go to his long-forgotten nine-month old call for a Utica Ave. Subway extension.
As various sides coalesce for or against the BQX, I believe it’s important to recognize this plan as an all-or-nothing affair. As I’ve mentioned before, de Blasio has latched onto it for two reasons. First, follow the money. The developers who stand to benefit — and who could help fund a reelection campaign — see this is a value-add for their waterfront buildings. It helps Two Trees, a company that will otherwise face a massive transit crunch as it builds out the Domino Sugar Factory site in Williamsburg, and it can be billed as an assist for transit-starved areas and neighborhoods lacking in interconnectivity. Second, it allows de Blasio to promote a transit project that his political nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo can’t touch or exploit. In essence, that’s the realpolitik of the QBX, and if it doesn’t happen, the money will simply go toward other city services and not some badly needed transit enhancements.
By itself, though, that the money and political will may be there isn’t enough to drive the project to completion. A previous feasibility study focusing on only the Red Hook-to-Dumbo section of the streetcar line [pdf] couldn’t justify the expense, and while this new routing is an improvement with connections north through Williamsburg and into Queens and south past Sunset Park and Industry City, it’s not a top-five corridor in need of better transit and may not even crack the top ten.
As reactions have rolled in, planning and politics have pushed the realpolitik of the money situation and Cuomo dynamic a bit out of the picture. Let’s look at Jon Orcutt’s take. The former DOT policy director and current advocacy and communications director of the TransitCenter offered up this view that a $2.5 billion project isn’t worth the cost:
From my experience, the biggest travel problem for most people is commuting to Manhattan, as straphangers battling their way onto rush-hour No. 4 or L trains will attest. The apparent lack of connections to subways in Williamsburg and an absence of free transfers to the subway and buses could further depress usage. Add it all up, and the market for travel along the waterfront seems far too small to warrant an investment of this size.
There’s a reason the streetcar proposal runs where it does: because it was hatched by developers putting in high-end condo buildings along the waterfront, now incongruously backed by the populist de Blasio. And although supporters are now putting forth arguments about transit access for low-income New Yorkers, most NYCHA sites along the streetcar route are already near subway stops. In fact, the streetcar route into Sunset Park directly parallels D, N and R subway service one block away. Red Hook certainly needs transportation improvement, but executing the city’s plan for a Select Bus route from Red Hook to Manhattan via the uncongested Battery Tunnel would meet the area’s travel needs in a much more direct way.
From what we know about the BQX to date, it is not part of any thought-out transportation strategy. Compare this to London, where light rail was introduced in the 1980s with deliberate planning for an area with no Underground service and for high-speed, completely dedicated rail rights of way. The service was always well integrated into Underground stations and fare systems.
I highlight that sentence regarding a transportation strategy because I said something similar to The Guardian last week. Is de Blasio planning to create a streetcar network or is this single line, with a massive up-front capital investment, all he has since that’s all his developer supporters have requested? It’s a question worth asking.
Meanwhile, as we stray further into politics, the realpolitik comes back into play. A bunch of Brooklyn politicians have more or less decried the streetcar plan because it’s not going into other projects. Mark Treyger, for reasons he probably cannot defend, wants the money to restart F express service; Chaim Deutsch wants to invest in subway accessibility; and Vincent Gentile wants better R train service and a streetcar into Bay Ridge. Conveniently, these three council members seem content to let Gov. Cuomo, the real man in charge of the MTA, off the hook. After all, why should de Blasio invest billions of dollars into something he can’t control that’s run by someone with whom he cannot cooperate?
I’ve said in the past I want to like this project, but it’s starting to rub me the wrong way. We haven’t seen the report defending the ridership figures or investment dollars. We have a map produced by Crain’s New York that’s laughable in its twists and turns, and we have a political fight between Albany and City Hall being waged by a mayor who comes across as the pawns of real estate interests. It’s ugly and not quite kosher. But when the dollars go back into something that isn’t a transit investment, will be worse off or not? That’s the $2.5 billion question.