Sep
03

In latest plan, the BQX is shorter, underfunded and over 10 years away

By

New renderings of the BQX show the light rail running on a cloud day, a perfect metaphor for the project’s stormy future. (Source: NYCEDC)

To coincide with the unveiling of yet another heavily-subsidized East River Ferry route last week, I wrote piece for Curbed New York laying out the case against ferries as a solution to the city’s mobility crisis. Those familiar with my skepticism toward subsidizing ferries will be familiar with the argument: These boats are a low-capacity mode of transit with a ridership that skews wealthy, and spending $6.60 per ride on top of $500 million in capital subsidies is a giveaway at a time when the city needs to wrest control of its transportation future for the benefit of those in transit deserts and not just those who live in waterfront condos.

Boats can serve as a small complementary piece to a larger holistic puzzle, but the de Blasio Administration doesn’t have a big-picture vision when it comes to transit. This lesson was on full display again later in the week when the mayor revived his dormant streetcar plan, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, with a press conference touting the release of conceptual design report for the BQX. The report, available here as a PDF, was originally billed as a feasibility study, but it falls short in assessing the merits of the project and instead presents updated designs. And updated designs are in there a-plenty.

The new route is shorter, with a southern terminus in Gowanus rather than Sunset Park after neighborhood activists fought against new transit by leaning on a spurious anti-gentrification argument, and the project is now more expensive, with a price tag of $2.7 billion. Along with this new price comes the recognition of the reality that value-capture alone will not fund the project, and the city, living through the same federal administration the rest of us are, now believes the feds will be willing and generous funding partners to the tune of $1 billion. On the plus side, the entirety of the BQX will now enjoy its own dedicated right-of-way (and include the elimination of around 2000 parking spots from Red Hook to Astoria).

The new route of the BQX starts in Gowanus rather than Sunset Park. (Source: NYCEDC)

Oh, and construction isn’t set to begin until early 2024 with the line entering revenue service in June of 2029, eight years after the last year of the de Blasio administration. You will be excused for being extremely skeptical of this timeline and the entire project, which many have taken to calling transit vaporware.

The details of the report are worth perusing. Ridership estimates remain at around 50,000 per day with the bulk traveling between Greenpoint and Downtown Brooklyn, and while the routing largely mirrors the G train for significant stretches, a run through the Brooklyn Navy Yard could deliver New Yorkers to a growing job center that isn’t particularly well-served by anything other than infrequent local buses. The design too has gotten an update with catenary wires, rather than off-wire power, due to concerns that “were not sufficiently advanced to reliably power the expected BQX ridership demands and frequency of service” and salt corrosion during winter could erode reliability.

The timeline for BQX construction leaves much to be desired. (Source: NYCEDC)

But what was once billed a self-funding 16-mile route is now an 11-mile route with a massive budget hole. Value capture will fund only around $1.7 billion, and the city will require federal funding at a time when the feds are actively hindering investment in urban public transit. Like every New York capital transit project these days, costs have already gone up by 30 percent before an EIS is published, let alone a shovel hits the ground, and the timeline, with EIS, ULURP and preliminary design efforts stacked instead of parallel, seems designed to grind the pace of work to a halt.

Ultimately, it’s tough to say if the BQX is a good project or just a good-enough project. As many others have said over the years, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t exactly a transit desert, and other high-ridership SBS routes or cross-borough connectors would be a better fit for high capacity, frequent light rail. The city could realize many of the benefits of the BQX route by running more frequent bus service and prioritizing bus service over this corridor. It also wouldn’t take 11 years and $2.7 billion, a good portion of which won’t materialize from the feds despite Bill de Blasio’s insistence, to accomplish these goals.

But I haven’t been quite the skeptic as others have, and two statements issued last week offer a peek at a potential light rail future for NYC that doesn’t involve cooperating with a recalcitrant Albany. “With the city embroiled in a transit crisis, the BQX will serve as an innovative model for how to build new mass transit sustainably and equitable, while creating new, good paying jobs along the way and making access to those jobs easier,” Jessica Schumer, executive director of Friends of the BQX, said.

A group of transit bigwigs — Richard Ravitch, Tom Prendergast, Jay Walder and Lee Sander — echoed these sentiments. “There are few, if any, projects that match the potential of the BQX to expand opportunity in an equitable way for a wide range of New Yorkers,” the four former MTA heads said in a joint statement. “And we know that light rail, with dedicated right of way and high ridership capacity, is by far the best mode of transit to accomplish that. Our international competitor cities are smartly and successfully investing in that mode of transit, and its encouraging to see New York City taking steps to keep pace on the global stage. Just as important, the BQX will finally put the City of New York in control of its mass-transit destiny by creating a model for impacting millions more in other areas of the ciyt through additional light rail lines.”

As a philosophy regarding light rail planning, no one here is wrong: A true, well-designed light rail network with a strong funding commitment, a realistic price tag and a reasonable construction timeline could give New York City a flexible alternative to the MTA for setting its own transit agenda while increasing access between disparate neighborhoods and across transit deserts. But it shouldn’t take longer for NYC to build an 11-mile line than for Paris to build most of the Grand Paris Express, and the analysis required to create a network simply hasn’t been conducted yet by the city. The BQX is one model, and it’s not a particularly robust one considering the hitches obvious in the new plan. But the seeds of a potential transit future controlled by the city are there if someone wishes to grab them. That’s reason enough to pay attention even if a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.

For more instant analysis on the new BQX plan, check out this thread of mine on Twitter from Thursday. I cover similar ground but in 240-character bites.



28 Responses to “In latest plan, the BQX is shorter, underfunded and over 10 years away”

  1. wiseinfrastructure says:

    NYC wants to get into the light rail game that every other city (even Jersey City) has.

    NY’s first light needs to be a clear success otherwise it will doom any future NYC light rail. QBX is a “marginal at best project” and thus the wrong project – especially as a first project.

    What should be first?
    -a 42nd, 34th or 125th Street light rail?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Fordham Road in the Bronx or Main Street in Queens. 34th and 42nd are terrible ideas, and 125th is okay but not great.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        Union Turnpike

      • Bolwerk says:

        I think something completely in Manhattan is no way to start because there is really no sensible place for any kind of heavy shop in Manhattan. But there’s no reason not to consider something from the boroughs to Manhattan.

        But by that standard, 42nd Street probably only makes immediate sense from New Jersey.

    • Bolwerk says:

      One: define “success”

      Two: why not replace a successful SBS route? You know the ridership is there, and you’re actually making things more efficient when you replace 40 or 60 manned vehicles with 10 or 20 (depending what frequency is demanded).

  2. Subutay Musluoglu says:

    I think we’ve seen this movie before. A politician proposes a shiny new piece of infrastructure that has limited benefits, an expensive price tag, and an unrealistic implementation schedule, making for a combination that eventually dooms its realization. Only in this case, the schedule is unrealistic not because it’s too fast, but because it’s so drawn out that the heavy political and funding lift falls not on the shoulders of the politician that initially proposes it, but on his or her successors. This is what we are seeing here. The mayor knows that BQX is more than likely not going to be built, but he can’t bring himself to cancelling it because of the optics. The sad part here is that yet more money will be spent on studies and consultant fees which could be better allocated elsewhere.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you Ben – there is definitely a place for a modern, comprehensive light rail network across New York City that is integrated within the existing transit fabric, increasing mobility and available options in the transit deserts of the city, while also adding capacity in those areas where the subway is strained. It should be fast and truly prioritized over vehicular traffic, not compromised by accommodation of it. And it shouldn’t take over a decade to build just one single line. Unfortunately, the likelihood of NYC of embarking on such a program is doubtful at this time, for all the usual reasons cited previously here by you and others elsewhere – realistic planning, cost reforms, a closer and more productive relationship between the city and the state, etc, etc. Until there is a genuine attempt to address these issues, it’s business as usual in NYC.

  3. BRIAN BERKE says:

    Wasn’t this an episode of the Simpsons? Marge vs the Monorail?

  4. Larry Littlefield says:

    “The de Blasio Administration doesn’t have a big-picture vision when it comes to transit.”

    Both “President” DeBlasio and “President” Cuomo have such a vision. It involves courting potential campaign contributors and getting to their next job before the 25 years of future selling at New York City Transit leads to a complete collapse.

    • Bolwerk says:

      It’s not impossible, but I suspect neither of them are angling for that job. Maybe de Blasio wants to be governor.

      I bet national Democrats are going to be pretty off incompetent New York Democrats for a while.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        I hope so.

        The only acceptable Democrats I see are in Red States and the only acceptable Republicans I see are in Blue States — other than ours.

        But what I mostly want to see is no more sociopaths from the generations born before me, only people born after I was.

  5. Wing Shun Kong says:

    Buses would be more ideal compared to streetcar as it would be faster to implement and cheaper too.

  6. BrooklynBus says:

    Ben, I don’t see how the elimination of 2,000 parking spaces is a plus. That is unless your goal is to get rid of the automobile. But that will not happen. Everyone who drives will not decide to use the BQX instead because people are coming and going to a variety of places. The same argument was used for the Woodhaven SBS. People said since the buses will be faster, people will choose it over cars. Yet that did not happen SBS still carries less than a fifth of Woodhaven traffic.

    Elimination of parking spaces rather is collateral damage, not a posyive.. Same thing goes for a dedicated right if way along the entire route without consideration as to traffic.

    If this thing is ever built traffic is sure to just get worse, furthe encouraging Moses such as Uber. Additional traffic will also slow other bus routes in the area. But that is what happens when we have planners with a myopic approach who don’t consider traffic or look for excuses to explain the increased traffic as due to other factors, not the loss of traffic lanes and parking spaces.

    Better transportation has to be coordinated. Everyone’s needs need to be considered and that includes automobile drivers. Efforts should be made to reduce car usage but I fail to see how this will accomplish it at an average speed of 11 to 14 mph. If it were high speed, that would be an entirely different ball game.

    I think it was near Washington where rather than admit slow LRT speeds were a problem, they tried to spin it as a positive saying we wanted it to be slow to encourage spur of the moment shopping. What a stupid excuse.

    What we need is for more attention to buses running on time. The city and MTA would have you think the only way to accomplish this is through bus lanes when you do that through better scheduling and fitting service to demand and not by penny pinch go which the MTA is guilty of.

    A bus driver recently posted it takes him two hours routinely to accomplish his one hour run. How can you achieve reluability when your schedules are totally unrealistic? You can’t. You get half the trips you are paying for.

    But rather than dealing with the real transportation problems of today, politicians would rather focus your attention on long range projects. I remember back in the 1970s when the MTA was confronted about the great problems of the 70s, they would respond that they are building a Second Avenue Subway. More recently, the MTA would respond to how they are going to solve bus bunching, the response was through new SBS routes over the next ten or 20 years.

    You are correct that we need to focus less on ferries and projects such as this and deal with the real problems such as unreliability of buses and a subway system that is eroding. But big projects are just so much more sexier than necessities such as new signals, and that’s where the crux of the problem lies.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The bus drivers support better enforcement of bus lanes, though. They complain that car traffic is the main cause of bus delays and bunching, and cite dedicated lanes with real enforcement as their #2 wish (#1 is off-board fare collection).

      SBS, too, is a (partial) solution to bunching. The mechanism through which buses bunch is that a delayed bus will fall further behind as more passengers board at each stop. Reducing boarding time per passenger slows this mechanism down, which ameliorates bunching. TSP can help too if it’s designed to favor delayed buses; there’s transportation engineering literature about it that people beat me with in my comment section.

      The SBS routes tend to still have lots of bunching, but that’s because busier, more frequent routes are more prone to bunching. This is because the more passengers board a bus route, the more a small delay leads to further delays through increased boarding time. So if you compare the B44 SBS with a less frequent route like the B4, the B44 will have more bunching, but if you look at the effect of prepayment on a route with fixed ridership, it makes the schedules more robust rather than less.

    • Guest says:

      Your defense of the private automobile is short-sighted.

      Yes, private automobiles will remain an important mode of transportation in NYC. But in order for us to free space for other forms of transportation, the priority of the automobile is going to have to be reduced in many places. That includes a reduction in parking.

      Get used to it because this is the direction the city is headed. And it’s already occurring before your eyes.

  7. Older and Wiser says:

    I actually like this project, and would like it even better if, by some as yet unforeseen political miracle, the northern section could be extended to the terminals at LGA. People living along the route, as well as many others connecting to the BQX from elsewhere, would realize the priceless benefit of being able to reach airport jobs or flights or arrivals of friends and relatives on a mode of transit that never had to navigate any type of motor vehicle traffic on any type of roadway ever.

    • Mike from Whitestone says:

      But that’s not what this project would be. It will be running with motor vehicle traffic. Even where it is on its own right of way, the BQX will still have to navigate motor vehicles in cross traffic. At least the proposed Triboro RX would run entirely on grade-separated right of way.

  8. Webster says:

    I think the right critique is moreso the projected cost than the timeline: The latter likely stems from the former being too high – I think this is a common issue in US transport projects, and wish it’d get pointed out more often.

    It’d be another thing, entirely, if they were projecting a 2029 completion date, if this thing cost ~$10-15 million/mile ($100mil-$170mil) rather than ~$250 million/mile.

  9. sonicboy678 says:

    I wouldn’t mind this so much if it happened to be a good replacement for the B61 and B62 with grade separation and service to LGA (which would be far more useful than that stupid AirTrain thing Cuomo wants).

    Grade separation would definitely jack up the price in relation to running on the streets, but would also avoid having to deal with idiots on said streets.

    As for the aforementioned bus routes? Well, the resources currently allocated to them would be redistributed between routes needing more service, possible new routes, and reinstated routes.

  10. John-2 says:

    The new routing plan is better than the original one, in terms of the system having connectivity with the nearby subway lines in Brooklyn — you lose the connection at York/Jay to the F, but that’s made up for by the connection at Jay St/Metrotech and the other downtown stations, and running the line down Berry St. through Williamsburg gets the line within a block of the Bedford Avenue L train stop at North Seventh Street. The original routing to the east on Kent set up a line that had no nearby subway connections between York/Jay and Vernon-Jackson, too big a gap to avoid some sort of transfer link to and from Manhattan.

  11. doctorcasino says:

    Ben, I’ve really appreciated your analysis of this project all along the way, but one formulation keeps puzzling me: the idea that this is, even in a limited way, a step towards the city controlling its transit future. The route is obviously drawn by developers, as evidenced by the things you’ve laid out – very poor cost-benefit metrics, and redundancy to the G. It’s not a line anyone would draw if they just sat down and said “where would I put a streetcar line in order to reap maximum transit benefit for the public?” So… how does letting the real estate interests dictate the network constitute the city taking control of its transit future, any more than letting NIMBY property owners or Albany dictate a non-network? I fear you’re inadvertently ending up with something analogous to an “any project is better than no project” mentality – something you’ve done a brilliant job battling when it comes to, say, Cuomo’s LGA schemes.

    It seems to me that rather than setting any precedent towards control of transit by the public, the new BQX (which, okay, yes, will never actually get built) would just become another episode in practicing the giveaway of enormous public expenses to benefit a very small number of developers (and, as a fig leaf, working people in Red Hook, who would benefit much more from a major bus overhaul that could reach them far faster). As with the ferries, what’s being subsidized is not only the rides, but more crucially the apartment buildings which can now advertise proximity to the shiny, yuppie-friendly transit mode. When it comes time for a line that’s actually badly needed, we’ll just hear that the BQX cost more than anticipated and hasn’t seen the needed ridership to justify further expansion of the system. Except in some other neighborhood full of already-underway high-ROI luxury apartments…

  12. smotri says:

    Can’t agree with you more, doctorcasino. While the subways continue their downhill slide and buses go slower and slower, the mayor and friends come up with yet another ill-conceived, bloated budget, taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle. All the time, effort and money spent on ferries and this could have gone into trying to mend fences with the governor (I’m no fan of Cuomo’s, have not voted for him and will not vote for him, by the way) to tackle the real problems that millions of New York City residents face on a daily basis in simply trying to get around town.

  13. Will says:

    Just full blown BRT with the highest naming rights for the line. With branding all over maps and the web. Citi or MetLife, Red Bull or Barclays can put partial down payment

    • Stephen says:

      Oh, Please, NO NAMING RIGHTS. EVER. Naming rights (basically the same thing as the world’s oldest profession) are despicable. I go out of my way to NOT PATRONIZE the corporate naming rights johns whose company names desecrate building, events, stadiums, et al. When they appear in ‘news’ reporting, I keep thinking, oh, they paid to get their names in the stories. Yes, it’s all about perception. Oh, I also do not pay to go to the stadiums or theaters or events. Good thing for me I gave up caring about the Queens baseball team after the 1994 strike. /end of rant.

  14. Will says:

    TBX should be light rail-slash light metro

  15. paulb says:

    The imaginary line no longer extends to Industry City? I don’t get how this make any sense with the city pressing for more jobs and commerce there.

  16. ChrisC says:

    how much to build a bridge across the gowanus express way compared to the little loop on the current map?

    how much time does going up and down that loop add to the total time on the route?

    If they insist on that loop then put a stop there as well.

  17. Billy G says:

    Put in O-bahn style busses on the ROW to be a BRT alternative to allow for quicker implementation of the routes to drive their efficacy and create future demand for the light rail component. The O-Bahn busses have a wider track than the gauge of rail and can straddle the rails in the row and coexist with future light rail.

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