Feb
09

The politics and the realpolitik behind the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar

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

Once more unto the Brooklyn Queens Connector we go. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

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.



58 Responses to “The politics and the realpolitik behind the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar”

  1. MDC says:

    Chaim Deutsch wants to invest in subway accessibility…

    An excellent idea. And in a rational world, $2.5B might be enough to make virtually all NYC subway stations at least minimally ADA-compliant.

    I wish we lived in that world…

    • Bolwerk says:

      Assuming $30M/station, seems to be enough for about 80 of them.

      • SEAN says:

        And witch 80 do you propose?

      • Bolwerk says:

        I’d leave that to the MTA’s superior judgment, but “most used” shouldn’t be the only criterion. Could be environmental reasons to consider too; near a senior center or hospital? Housing project? Major transfer point? Major transfer point for certain disabled users?

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Access to entrances/exits isn’t important if you are using the station to transfer to another line. You aren’t exiting or entering. If the transfer is across the platform elevators don’t help much.

          • Bolwerk says:

            True, I guess partial compliance is sometimes better than nothing.

            • SEAN says:

              I hope my above comment wasn’t read as being at all sarcastic or dismissive. With nearly 400 stations that aren’t accessible, picking the right 80 for improvements is a lot more than throwing darts at the subway map.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I didn’t take it that way (not that I’d care), but I don’t know the answer.

                It was a rule of thumb anyway, but clearly $2.5B is nowhere near enough to do the whole system. Might be able to do a lot more than 80, but those would probably all be the easiest. And the easiest of course are the least useful a lot of the time.

  2. Personnel says:

    “The developers who stand to benefit — and who could help fund a reelection campaign — see this is a value-add for their waterfront buildings.”

    /thread

  3. Webster says:

    It’s a bit odd to me to complain about the cost, at this point, since we don’t even know what the funding/financing scheme will be. It seems obvious to me, that the city likely won’t be funding much of this project, itself, and will instead use some kind of TIF or other mechanism to capture the value from nearby developments and properties.

    I think people ignore this, and it’s rather odd. De Blasio seems to be supporting the project because he thinks he can get developers to pay for it – hey, most of them want it. How true this is, remains to be seen.

    In the long run, I am fine with the BQX happening if it changes discussions about, say, the Triboro RX or other potential routes that, until recently, are always planned as HRT.

    • Avi says:

      The problem with TIF is that it needs to encourage new growth. The waterfront is already being developed(with tax subsidies), so where will the incremental tax revenue to pay for this come from?

      • Webster says:

        As I understand it, the point of TIF is to finance some type of improvement by borrowing against future tax revenue.

        It doesn’t really matter if the development is already occurring (unless the goal is to incentivize that development), no?

        That is what is going on in the Hudson Yards. Beyond just the railyards, themselves, a large swath of developable land on the West Side falls in the HY District, within which an exaction is levied to recover the costs to the city of the 7 extension and to generate revenue for future improvements (i.e. the Empire Complex, potentially).

        • mister says:

          The point of TIF is to build a project and then use the revenue generated by that project to pay off the debt incurred. If the development is already happening, then there is no reason to build the project. The funds are already going to be generated, and so instead of having additional tax revenue to do things like build additional schools/hospitals/public services, you now have to dedicate those funds for a streetcar you didn’t need.

          • Dave says:

            But what is the TIF we’re talking about? Is there a TIF already? Has it already been initiated? Or is this a specific TIF that would be created just for the purpose of the BQX? If so, and the BQX never gets off the ground, then no money will ever be levied through the TIF, so then this $2.5B just doesn’t actually exist. Or does it exist somehow in a future city budget in one form or another?

            • mister says:

              Jeff kind of hits on this in his comment below, but “the TIFr” isn’t something that gets enacted. The idea is that right now, the property has an assessed value and is taxed at a certain percent. When the improvement is made, the value of the property goes up because of the improvement. So the city never increases taxes, but claims increased revenue due to the rise in property values.

              What’s not adding up here is that the property values have already been skyrocketing in this area. Will adding a plodding streetcar really drive up values much more than they have already grown? Hard to say, but if the answer is no, who gets left holding the bag? It’s not the developers.

              • Jeff says:

                There is certainly tons of room for property values to grow, otherwise, why would the real estates developers all strongly back this?

                Besides, this route doesn’t just go through places like Williamsburg and LIC, there are a few neighborhoods along the route that are not fully developed.

                • mister says:

                  Of course there’s room for real estate values to grow: Williamsburg is still not as expensive as the Upper East Side, so property values could grow. The question is will they? It would be one thing if the developers were putting up money for this thing, but they aren’t. So the government is assuming all of the risk.

                  I’m also skeptical of using government funds merely to drive revenues. TIF was used on the west side, but the idea was that it would spur not simply a rise in land values, but also a massive change in land use: they effectively were using the line to create a whole new commercial district. It seems that the rationale here is that we should drive up prices in already existing developments. I’m not sure that the best use of public funds is to create a project that enables developers to raise the price on units they were already building.

                  So our best case scenario is that we drive up housing costs, and our worst case scenario is that tax payers end up holding $2.5 Billion in debt that must be paid off. Why is this a good idea again?

                  • AG says:

                    Agreed on al counts. In addition – the risk was on the developers at Hudson Yards – as there was no guarantee Time Warner or Coach or Neiman Marcus were going to go there. This is the opposite as these developers backing/requesting have no risk since they are already filling up their buildings

                • AG says:

                  Sure they will go up… Is it enough to pay for the project??? $2.5 billion basically means $5 billion in NY. So property values will keep going up yes. Will it go up that much more in order to pay for this??? Doubtful. Developers would also be for planting more trees along the waterfront since that will increase property value too. Even better for them if they don’t have to pay for it.

          • Jeff says:

            TIF mostly applies to incremental property tax revenue. While the development by itself will certainly generate an increase in revenue, the completion of the BQX will undoubtedly increase property value, and by extension the tax revenue as well. It’s just that the value increase will be less, but in this case, the large coverage area of the BQX should offset that.

  4. Gary says:

    I have mixed feelings about this project but come down on the positive side.

    Orcutt’s stated concern doesn’t take into account the new reality if the line is built. Just take a look at the Hudson–Bergen light rail and its effect on development/travel patterns in Jersey City and west side of Hoboken. (I’m not personally familiar with effects on the northerly part of the line).

    Ben gets a lot right here, particularly on the political realities.

    • tacony says:

      The vast majority of the HBLR was built on existing, abandoned railroad right-of-way. The west side of Hoboken had that rail ROW for more than a century. HBLR just involved putting new passenger service on it again. The whole Newport area of Jersey City was formerly abandoned rail yards and industrial waterfront. It’s not a good comparison to this project, which looks to involve entirely street-running rail.

  5. SEAN says:

    Have we reached a point with the MTA such that it maybe better for the real estate industry to come in & take it over? I mean Extel, Tishman & others like them draw huge benefits from access to mass transit with there mini empires around the region. Or amI just fantasizing.

    • Stephen Bauman says:

      The MTA once had a real estate developer as chairman. He used his business acumen to further the MTA. He said that a good lobby attracts customers ergo the MTA built the Fulton Transit Hub.

      • SEAN says:

        When I made the initial comment on real estate & the MTA, I was thinking in terms of MTR in Hong Kong or how things are done in Tokyo. If real estate companies like SL Green & others contribute ridership to the regional transit system as a whole, then they should be involved in it’s upkeep & growth since they receive direct benifits from it.

        • Fool says:

          You mean exactly how the subways was run when it was a profitable, tax paying entity?

          But the dogma of the state would not allow it.

          • mister says:

            The subways as a private operation would likely be no better or worse than any other private utility operation, like Con Ed or National Grid.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Higher financing costs and pressure for a return on investment for equity holders? Seems like a step down from what we have now.

              • mister says:

                It’s a terrible idea. Fares would likely be higher than they are now, and service would probably be worse.

                • Miles Bader says:

                  Why would things necessarily be worse than now? Privatization has good points and bad points, but existing examples don’t look bad at all. A system like Tokyo’s is quite a bit better than the MTA… sure, some of that is cultural and historical, but surely it shows that privization can work very well.

                  Typically the government wouldn’t be entirely hands off, but would place some limits on private operators to reflect the degree to which they have an effective monopoly.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    I would have rather little confidence in our corrupt state government’s capacity for controlling private operators when it can’t even control an agency that it theoretically has full control over. :-p

  6. tacony says:

    Is the routing in the Crain’s article a joke? If you live in the NYCHA Red Hook Houses, you’re expected to walk south down to the water, 2 blocks past the existing B61 and B57 buses, to get on this streetcar which then meanders along the waterfront to the east and north, and doesn’t offer direct connections to any subway. How many people does this really help? Why wouldn’t practically every resident of Red Hook Houses be better served by using this money to improve the existing bus service to connect to the subway?

    Project proponents need to answer this question with hard data, otherwise drop the charade of this project being anything more than a giveaway to make waterfront land more valuable. The overall routing is in some places duplicative of existing bus and subway but more often worse than the existing bus and subway routes. The utility of the route is significantly reduced by the fact that by hugging the waterfront the potential “walkshed” to each stop is cut in half. There are less people, jobs, and destinations within almost any radius of the route than almost any other route you could choose. This is basic transportation planning. “We haven’t seen the report defending the ridership figures or investment dollars” because it’s impossible to defend these fatal flaws.

    • Joe Steindam says:

      The proponents of BQX need to come out with a true map. This version from Crain’s seems to be based on the map that came out in January, which specified street names for the route, but also had the spur from DUMBO to Atlantic Terminal. The generalized map released map shows the alignment going somewhere through Downtown Brooklyn between Red Hook and DUMBO. This is a terrible way to have this debate without a clearly delineated route, station locations and stop spacing.

  7. mister says:

    Ben, thank you for this well thought out take on the proposal. I think you touched all the bases here. As time goes on, it seems more and more clear that this is an attempt to use public money to help developers charge even higher prices for waterfront development that is already taking place.

    What’s really disappointing is that for the first time in a long time there is a mayor and a governor who are both turning their attention to transit, and instead of putting their support behind worthwhile projects, they’re proposing projects that are of dubious merit (Specifically, Cuomo’s LGA proposal).

    • SEAN says:

      What’s really disappointing is that for the first time in a long time there is a mayor and a governor who are both turning their attention to transit, and instead of putting their support behind worthwhile projects, they’re proposing projects that are of dubious merit (Specifically, Cuomo’s LGA proposal).

      In this case with LGA, don’t forget the influence that Cuomo & Christie have over the PA. If they want something from them, they will get it. Have we forgotten about the GWB scandal?

  8. Brooklynite says:

    It’s obvious that this is one of those ideas that the mayor tossed out and isn’t actually planning to do anything about, like the Utica subway or (for Bloomberg as well as de Blasio) the F express plan. Let’s hope this dies a quiet death like those did. Perhaps our mayor’s attention will turn to something actually worthwhile, like Triboro RX? He can even put a “tale of two cities” spin on it if he wants because of the transit-starved communities the line passes through.

    • Stephen Bauman says:

      Perhaps our mayor’s attention will turn to something actually worthwhile, like Triboro RX?

      What criterion/criteria do you use to rate projects as being worthwhile?

      • Brooklynite says:

        Cost effectiveness, connections to existing transit, operational efficiency, timeline of implementation, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. Therefore IMO Triboro RX is a better project, and should be a higher priority.

        • AG says:

          Quite simply Triboro RX will be useful to WAY more people as it will go through more areas of Brooklyn and Queens and connect them to The Bronx. It also would have more connections to different subway lines. That would do way more to connect the “outer boroughs”. As the mayor stated – outer borough job growth is happening faster than Manhattan… Well then connecting all three of those boroughs through more populated neighborhoods will do WAY MORE to open up job opportunities via a decent commute. It’s not even a close comparison really. This project is all about increasing developers real estate value. That happens along all transit corridors in NYC… But let’s not pretend – forget the poor – most middle class New Yorkers won’t be able to live in these waterfront areas. Most can’t move there even right now.
          Part of the mayor’s argument is that job growth is occurring in the Navy Yard and Industry City and Dumbo. Absolutely true. Except this will not benefit anyone except those making 6 figure salaries and above who do and will increasingly live on the waterfront. Thousands of jobs are moving to Hudson Yards. The #7 subway is a quick transfer to millions somewhere along the line. If you work in the Navy Yard and live in Flushing or Soundview or Ozone Park… This does absolutely nothing for you.

        • Stephen Bauman says:

          That’s where we differ. My goal is to get every square inch of land in NYC to be within 1/2 mile of a subway entrance. My criteria for projects is how well they go to achieving that goal. The more people who currently live more than 2 miles from a subway entrance and are brought closer the better the project’s worth. Obviously cost per person brought closer is another criterion.

          That’s why I believe the Triboro RX project falls short. It does not bring many people who currently live more than 2 miles from a subway entrance any closer. Most of the people affected by the Triboro RX already live within 1/2 mile of a subway stop. A few more live within 1 mile of a subway stop. I don’t believe we should be spending money improving subway access for those already served while others have no access. That’s why I’m against the BQX.

          Using an abandoned RR ROW is obviously cost effective. However, one should first ask why it was abandoned. The most common NYC answer is that the 1910’s subway expansion drove the RR out of business. That’s why placing trains back on these ROW’s would bring very few people closer to a subway entrance. That’s counter to most US cities, that never built subways in the 1910’s.

          • adirondacker12800 says:

            It’s not abandoned. Very lightly used but it’s not abandoned.

          • Duke says:

            This sort of goal also ignores real political realities. There are exceptions, but generally speaking the residents of neighborhoods with no direct subway access prefer it that way and would oppose changing it. And would have the power to stop it because of how our planning process is set up. We decided decades ago we didn’t like the government ramming highways through neighborhoods that didn’t want them, so we put protections in place to put an end to this practice. The protections do not discriminate by type of infrastructure, however, and are just as powerful at preventing the government from ramming transit lines through neighborhoods that don’t want them. More powerful, arguably, since the sort of people who favor driving tend to have deeper pockets and more political clout than the sort of people who favor transit.

            It is for this reason that something like a Utica Ave subway is more practical than a subway extension further into eastern Queens – the latter would likely face more local opposition.

            There’s also the factor that with subway construction costs as ridiculously high as they are, it becomes very difficult to justify the cost of building a line that only serves a couple of outer borough neighborhoods. Note how all current and recent heavy rail expansion projects are either in Manhattan (7 extension, SAS), provide greater access to Manhattan for people from a wide area (ESA and Archer Ave subway for greater access from Long Island, 63rd St tunnel for greater access from Roosevelt Island and everywhere along Queens Blvd), or provide access to an airport (Airtrain JFK).

            Unless costs go down A LOT, we can forget about building new lines that simply serve outer borough neighborhoods.

            • Brooklynite says:

              You raise a good point, which explains why Staten Island won’t be getting a subway anytime soon, for example. However, Triboro RX seems to be the exception to the rule: the demographics along most of the route do not fit the typical NIMBY mold, and it’s a preexisting ROW so costs are likely to be much lower than building a new line from scratch.

          • mister says:

            That’s a worthwhile goal, but just because I’m near a subway stop doesn’t mean that subway line takes me in a useful direction. If I live near the L in Canarsie, but work in Industry City, the current subway stop is not the most attractive transit option. If I live along the Queens Boulevard corridor, but want to travel to a place in Brooklyn, the nearest subway stop is, again, not an attractive travel option. And If I live in the Bronx, but want to work in Queens, many of these trips are just not desirable to make via subway.

            If there really is a growing job market in the outer boroughs, then better transit connections are needed. But your point about underserved areas is certainly with merit too: Eastern Queens needs more rail service.

            • Bolwerk says:

              FWIW, I think on the whole it’s a growing McJob market. Aging population alone means stuff like home health aids (change poop diapers for a McWage). There is office space cropping up in some places though. There is retail growth (yay?).

  9. nb says:

    +1,000 for a Red Hook-Brooklyn Battery Tunnel express bus. Costs are low, benefits are huge, and service could start tomorrow.

    • Phantom says:

      I see barely used express buses in my area ( Bay Ridge ) and Staten Island all the time. You will often see completely empty buses, in both directions on the weekend, especially in the first half of the day.

      I would love to see the ridership numbers sliced and diced by time of day on some of the express bus lines. A lot of them are nothing more than pollution and jobs for the boys machines, clogging up the Gowanus and Staten Island Expressway for little worthwhile purpose.

      • tacony says:

        A bunch of the MTA Express Bus routes currently use the Battery Tunnel. They all fly past Red Hook on the expressway. Should a couple detour into Red Hook and make a stop on the way? Maybe that’s an idea.

        The Battery Tunnel is pretty lightly trafficked, as are a lot of the streets in Red Hook, so I’m not sure your cornerns about “clogging up” the roads are warranted here.

        I’m not sure if a Red Hook-Lower Manhattan local bus that runs frequently would do well. Loop around the Red Hook Houses, enter the tunnel, loop around to each subway, and head back? The MTA has moved away from interborough local buses over the years, but it’d be a lot more convenient than an expensive, infrequently-running Express Bus.

        • Phantom says:

          Tacony

          The Gowanus, especially in the Manhattan bound direction is the most consistently congested stretch of highway that I have ever seen. Empty buses or buses with one or two people on them ( a really common thing outside of rush hour ) don’t alleviate any of that congestion.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Very vague comment. Cost per rider per mile is low. Benefits are objectively low, maybe so low they’re only conferred on a few dozen people. Per-rider public subsidy is actually quite high, but I guess you can argue subsidizing a few dozen special people is “cheaper” than subsidizing tens of thousands of everybody.

  10. Stephen Smith says:

    Second, it allows de Blasio to promote a transit project that his political nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo can’t touch or exploit.

    Well, he can disallow free transfers to/from the subway, which would eviscerate ridership on even the best planned route.

  11. EJ says:

    You know how you can tell this proposal came from a bunch of architects and developers? Not one of their renderings shows overhead wire and poles. While I think it’s silly, you’d be surprised how much NIMBY vitriol comes out of the woodwork when someone proposes overhead electric infrastructure.

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