When last we saw the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s half-embraced, half-developed plan for a waterfront streetcar, the project seemed to be inching toward a quiet demise. The city had just admitted that the original self-funding plan would not generate enough money to cover construction costs, and operations would not begin until 2029, eight years after the project’s current champion is term-limited out of Gracie Mansion. But the zombie BQX isn’t dead yet as the NYC EDC announced last week a $7.25 million contract with VHB for the land-use and transportation planning group to produce the project’s environmental impact statement, due in September of 2020.
The EIS is the first in a very staggered planning schedule, and it will precede the ULURP review process with which VHB will also assist. The EIS is designed to, in the words of Railway Age, “preserve the city’s ability to use federal funds for the construction of BQX and ensure that work meets permitting standards set by the United States Army Corps of Engineers or U.S. Coast Guard related to construction in navigable waters.”
As part of the contract, the city also announced another round of significant community outreach to wary residents and politicians along the route, and the project’s proponents used the award of this contract to celebrate a step forward. “These steps show meaningful progress for the project — something we’ve been eager to see,” Jessica Schumer, Executive Director of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the city’s commitment not just to moving the project forward, but to community engagement, which much play a central role. As the city grapples with a transit crisis, now is the moment for it to take control of its mass transit destiny and expand access wherever it can. The BQX is an essential first step and will provide a model for future city-run light rail lines in transit deserts across the city.”
Still, even with this contract award, the future for this project remains murky at best. Critics have questioned the city’s rosy ridership projections of 50,000 per day, and even that would put the BQX on par with moderately busy bus lines at a significantly higher cost. “We don’t expect the ridership to justify the cost,” Ben Fried, the spokesperson for Transit Center, said to The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, many of the people the de Blasio administration have tapped for the project have moved on. Adam Giambrone, who served as the director of the BQX for over two years, departed his post in the fall to take a high-profile job in Saudi Arabia, and Jonathan Gouveia, a one-time NYC EDC VP who focused nearly exclusively on the BQX, joined NYCHA late last month as a senior vice president of real estate. It’s not actually clear who’s spear-heading the effort within the de Blasio administration, and it’s hard to say if the mayor will stay focused enough to push through a project that’s still at least a decade away from revenue service.
Ultimately, I see a city-run light rail as a potential opportunity for a new model of transit development in New York City that removes the MTA (and Albany) from the equation, but the process has to be aggressively managed and pushed forward in a timely basis. The route should be a high-capacity demand corridor that can be implemented quickly and can’t otherwise be replicated with better bus service via aggressive lane, curb and signal management. In that regard, a waterfront route probably doesn’t count it, and investment in the BQX should not take precedence over a renewed focus from the city on better bus service.
But the BQX isn’t dead yet. This EIS award is only a week later than anticipated, and for now, the project remains on schedule for construction to begin in 2024. That, however, I’ll believe when I see it.
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