Home Brooklyn A trolley plan for Brooklyn inches slowly forward

A trolley plan for Brooklyn inches slowly forward

by Benjamin Kabak

The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association’s trolleys, seen here at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, disappeared without a trace in sometime after mid-2005. (Photo via BHRA)

For decades, the word Brooklyn was synonymous with the trolley. Throughout the early years of the 1900s, the borough became known for its extensive streetcar system, and its baseball team now the property of Los Angeles still carries with it shortened form of the Trolley Dodger. Ripped up by the auto industry in the 1950s, the trolley tracks remain a buried part of Brooklyn’s past, but now they could be inching closer to being a part of the borough’s transportation future as well.

The New York City Department of Transportation and House Representative Nydia Velazquez announced yesterday evening a new feasibility study that will explore a long-proposed trolley route in Brooklyn. The URS Corporation will conduct a five-month study on a route that would run from Ikea in Red Hook to either Atlantic Ave. at Pier 6 of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park or the Borough Hall subway stop. The study will cost $295,000 and will be funded by a grant Velazquez has had in her pocket since 2005.

“A streetcar system in Red Hook has the potential to reconnect this neighborhood with the rest of the city and greatly improve transit options for residents,” the Congresswoman said. After the study, DOT plans to meet with local groups to explore how a streetcar route would impact the neighborhood.

This announcement is not without controversy however. It stems from a long-standing dispute between the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, New York City and Representative Velazquez. Over ten years ago, the BHRA received approval and funds to establish a streetcar route from Red Hook to the Borough Hall subway stop. They built part of the route on private land and purchased 17 streetcars, some of which remain parked behind the Red Hook Fairway today.

But after Phase I — the private construction — wrapped, the city pulled the plug on the project and revoke the consent it had granted BHRA. Bob Diamond, the group’s head, was rightfully outraged, and a long-term standoff followed. Velazquez succeeded in securing the grant nearly half a decade ago but refused to release the funds for a feasibility study. The streetcars languished in storage in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then disappeared without a trace in mid-2005. Diamond grew frustrated with the city and as a recently as last week, threatened to cease his Atlantic Ave. subway tours, close up shop with the BHRA and leave New York.

Since that flurry of press coverage over Diamond’s outrage, the city has seemingly embraced the streetcar idea, and the study will proceed apace. Velazquez has requested $10 million in funds for construction of a Red Hook route, and the money is pending approval in the House. Considering the state of Congress and the upcoming midterm elections, that grant is no sure thing, but the politicking behind this plan is moving forward.

So what then would the trolley route look like? Diamond and the BHRA recently published an updated route to include the new Ikea and other destinations in Red Hook. Click the image below for more details.

The questions harder to answer are the ones URS will examine. Someone will have to be best positioned to own and operate this trolley route, be that the MTA, NYC DOT or a private group. URS will have to determine the operational and maintenance costs and whether or not this route would enjoy ridership. It will explore demographic and economic development data as well as current transit patterns and needs. It will assess technology and construction issues as well as the economic impact a streetcar route would have on the neighborhood.

As BHRA is pushing the street car as an impetus behind transit-oriented development, the Columbia Street waterfront and Red Hook could use better public transit access. Still, as presented this streetcar plan is only slightly more than a glorified feeder route that would mirror a bus route and deliver residents to a subway route. Progress, though, is progress, and it’s about time that Velazquez’s office release the money for the study. It might not lead to a new borough-wide trolley network, but it is forward progress nonetheless.

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Alon Levy September 10, 2010 - 3:18 am

Here is a map of frequent Brooklyn buses, which approximates the map of highest-ridership buses. Red Hook has none, and even the neighborhoods abutting it don’t have any. In contrast, Bed-Stuy has three frequent north-south routes, including the two highest-ridership lines in Brooklyn, and five east-west routes.

A Red Hook streetcar isn’t transportation. It’s hipster-oriented development. If you want transportation, put the streetcar somewhere useful, like Utica.

Kid Twist September 10, 2010 - 11:13 am


bib libby September 10, 2010 - 5:45 am

East Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Bed Stuy would benefit from more and better mass transit. And Utica is a good place for a new trolley line. But many bus and train lines already run through those neighborhoods. See them all here. Surely the convenience they provide is one reason why so many people choose to live there.

Red Hook only has one bus line, and no trains. It is one of the few neighborhoods so close to the city where it is not easy to live without a car. No wonder the area is underpopulated compared to the rest of Brooklyn. With more and better transportation, many more people would live in Red Hook too — revitalizing the area, and easing the housing strain on other neighborhoods.

During times when we can’t have everything, we should try for what we need most. Better mass transit in Red Hook is long overdue.

Alon Levy September 11, 2010 - 3:35 pm

The BMT would not approve of your thinking. A neighborhood with little transit it would first serve with buses, upgrading to trolleys, streetcars, and eventually rapid transit as demand increased. What it would not do is build higher-order transit just because the neighborhood “has one bus line, and no trains.”

Kai B September 10, 2010 - 8:36 am

The general proposal sounds great, however two things strike me as odd:

1) Is Bob Diamond really serious about using the old railroad tunnel under Atlantic Ave for this project. Besides adding a ton of cost to this project (think entry/exit ramps and emergency exits), putting this line in a dingy tunnel under what’s becoming Brooklyn’s hottest retail strip seems rater ridiculous. People will want at least two stops where Diamond has the line going through the tunnel. It is perfectly fine to run a trolley through this business district. Similar routes exist all over the world and in San Francisco: http://streetcar.org/blog/2010.....-line.html

2) Using 1950s trolley cars might be interesting for tourism purposes, but if this line is to get any real street credibility and use by actually residents of the area, then this line better get modern streetcars. Yes, I know there are a dozen or so rusty PCCs parked in Red Hook, but it’s 2010 and it would should operate with comfortable quiet streetcars, such as these Siemens models that are ADA accessible (with minor station curb): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KzCSQfYZ7A or these Czech models in Portland: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKSt8NA1ees

Nathanael September 12, 2010 - 10:57 pm

The approach ramps are an issue, but the tunnel is oversized relative to the size of trolley cars, and not terribly long, so emergency exits probably won’t be an issue; an emergency exit path can easily be placed on each side.

Regarding stations in the middle, that’s expense, but possibly appropriate.

Hard to tell without a proper study, but remember, *exclusive ROW runs faster*.

Nesta September 10, 2010 - 9:04 am

This plan is fantastic only if the route will make money. We don’t need yet another NY business crying poverty over operational costs like the TA does every few years.

AlexB September 10, 2010 - 9:32 am

It’s a little weird that they show the trolley going through that tunnel. It would take a lot of work to re-build the openings at each end. That tunnel is ancient. It seems like there would be something unsafe about using it.

I used to live on Columbia St and hated how the B61 (or is it B62 now?) only stopped at Jay St. It would be nice if the route could make a stop at Court St/Borough Hall and Jay St/Borough Hall. I think going up Adams, taking a right on Livingston, a left on Jay/Smith, then continuing as a single track to Court, taking a left on Court, and then resuming double track at Atlantic. Don’t get me started on the double parkers on Court, though. Other issues: Why can’t they double track it on Van Brundt like they are on Columbia? It would be nice if it could extend to Brooklyn Bridge Park in the north and the Smith-9th or even 9th St stop on the R in the south.

It’s funny how the city seemed to be waiting for Bob Diamond to get out before they moved forward. Kinda funny and sad.

Regarding spending money here instead of on a busier corridor, I think this corridor lends itself to a streetcar due to its short length and central Brooklyn location. Streetcars aren’t necessarily faster than a bus and I don’t think they would really benefit a corridor like Utica all that much. To me, streetcars are more like adding fancy street lights or paving stones. In Red Hook, the streetcar could spur a lot more development around the waterfront via urban design. Utica really needs a separate right of way and more advanced, higher capacity technology like light rail or a subway.

Alon Levy September 11, 2010 - 4:01 pm

Red Hook doesn’t even need redevelopment. It’s perfectly fine as it is. Not every neighborhood has to be hipster-friendly. The waterfront’s already being used for port activity; the condos can go elsewhere.

Streetcars would actually benefit Utica a fair deal. The steam-era, street-running variety wouldn’t benefit any corridor, but low-floor vehicles with deidcated lanes and absolute signal priority would be helpful. The primary advantage of rail over buses is capacity. All else being equal the speed difference is trivial, and redevelopment can occur over well-branded frequent bus networks or anchors (=Ikea). Rail gets more ridership, but you’d like the rail bias factor to benefit a high-demand route, not a low-demand one.

Alex September 10, 2010 - 10:10 am

Those are pretty clearly old Rapid cars from Cleveland’s RTA. Bizarre they’d show up in Brooklyn.

Douglas John Bowen September 10, 2010 - 10:15 am

“Buses will do” is so 1950s-think, and this New Jerseyan continues to hope that the oh-too-many New Yorkers somehow locked into insular modal preference will look beyond the borders of the four* boroughs and see how streetcars and LRT have proved their worth elsewhere in the U.S.

Brooklynites and Manhattanites, in particular, might simply gaze across the Hudson Ocean to see how effective Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit (admittedly LRT, not streetcars–but it DOES have street running) has changed the landscape dramatically, and in many ways for the better. Those buildings one sees are now holograms, nor reflections of New York’s (still much mightier) skyline.

As for the “pay their own way; we don’t want more costs” argument: More cars is the answer? More buses make money? Streetcar development is frontloaded with capital costs that buses don’t have, very true–but when it comes to operating costs, per-passenger costs, maintenance, and equipment longevity, streetcars win, hands down.

*Staten Islanders are requesting not just “light rail,” but specifically an extension of an existing system, HBLRT. That may be politically improbable, but it shows at least one borough gets the idea of surface rail-base transit. One can only hope New York residents remove their blinders.

Al D September 10, 2010 - 10:54 am

This is a great idea and can’t happen soon enough.

Jeff September 10, 2010 - 11:28 am

The problem with justifying these types of transportation investments is that it’s tough to quantify the psychological advantages of a streetcar versus a bus. Why is it, exactly, that as things stand, I would likely forgo the B61 in favor of a moderately long walk from Smith-9th St, but if there was a streetcar, or LRT, or any other rail-based option, I would transfer to it as a natural part of the transit route to Red Hook? Honestly, I have no idea. Since neither the bus nor the streetcar has a dedicated ROW, there shouldn’t be much of a difference in travel time. They are both intended as the most “local” of the public transit hierarchy, as in similarly frequent stops. Rail-based vehicles offer superior passenger comfort, but it’s definitely not the bumpy ride that sends me on foot in favor of the bus. Could it be the more substantial appearance of the infrastructure, with the stations, and the tracks, and whatnot, of the streetcar? The novelty of a streetcar in North America? A subconscious, cultural association, despite my unusually strong affection for public transport in general, with city buses as a second-class form of transportation?

To be honest, I have no idea. But I do feel fairly certain that I am not alone having these feelings, and that this reality will not, can not, factor into whatever review process DOT is thinking of. The bus will look better on paper, but the streetcar will look better on the streets of Brooklyn.

Build the damn thing.

Aaron September 10, 2010 - 3:29 pm

I don’t have a link handy but psychological studies have been done that show that the physical permanence of the rail infrastructure actually increases use measurably.

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2010 - 3:31 pm

I think it’s based on the idea that, if you’re waiting at a closed track, something must eventually show up. If you’re waiting for a bus on an open road, it’s possible that nothing will show up.

Nathanael September 12, 2010 - 10:55 pm

Given the nasty tendencies of buses to be rerouted without warning and delayed without warning, this is totally true.

I remember leaving a bus stop in Boston — a bus stop where the bus were were waiting for was supposed to arrive every 5 minutes — and walking two blocks to the Green Line, changing to the Red Line, catching a shuttle bus bridge because the middle of the Red Line was under construction, continuing on the Red Line, and finally arriving at the destination station/bus stop, and heading for the restaurant.

Our friends who waited for the bus got there half an hour later.

This is typical. I don’t know why it’s typical — theoretically you could run a train line as poorly as bus lines are run — but nobody actually *does*. At the very worst they provide extensive information when the trains are cancelled or delayed or diverted.

Alon Levy September 11, 2010 - 3:46 pm

Jeff, you don’t need to speculate. There exists a literature on rail bias in ridership, as well as practices in various cities that use both buses and streetcars successfully. For examples: the Munich transit planners believe rail bias is 50%, whereas Ma Peters’ DOT assumed a bias of 20% for ridership estimate purposes.

But none of this has anything to do with the route choice. The most pro-rail transit planners don’t put streetcars where buses have failed; they put streetcars where buses have succeeded. They’re not going for “Will look better on the streets”; they’re going for “will increase ridership and decrease operating costs.”

BrooklynBus September 10, 2010 - 6:50 pm

I do not like the idea of the trolley using Atlantic Avenue, unless it would be feasible to use the tunnel which I doubt. Atlantic Avenue cannot afford to lose a lane of traffic nnd running it in mixed traffic would be a poor idea.

I think a better idea would be to continue it along the waterfront and then run on Old Fulton Street (or through DUMBO) and along Cadman Plaza East through Borough Hall Park, then along the Fulton Mall and along Fulton Street to Ashland to terminate at Atlantic Terminal where an intermodal terminal could be built. The trolley could replace all of the bus lines along the Fulton Mall and on Livingston Street. That way it could run along its own right-of-way through most of the entire route.

Jonathan September 10, 2010 - 7:23 pm

BrooklynBus, if the trolley replaces the Fulton Mall and Livingston Street buses, how do the people who take those buses get to downtown Brooklyn?

Sharon September 11, 2010 - 1:48 am

the buses and trolly can use the same roadway

BrooklynBus September 11, 2010 - 10:00 am

With the current number of buses in Downtown Brooklyn along Fulton and Livingston Streets, if they were replaced with trolleys, one could operate virtually continuously, every minute or two or three all day long. A multimodal terminal on the empty lot near Atlantic Terminal could handle all the east-west bus routes currently entering Downtown Brooklyn. It could be constructed in such a way to permit an easy transfer to the trolley. Most trolleys would terminate at Cadman Plaza with a few continuing along the waterfront. There would be no fares charged on the trolleys anywhere in Downtown Brooklyn, allowing for speedy service. The only ones who would ride for free would be those getting on and off within Downtown Brooklyn. (This would also encourage business along the Mall.) Little revenue would be lost since 95% of the riders would be paying anyway at the terminal entering their next bus and therfore would be allowed another transfer.

Pollution would be reduced and the trolleys could help to revitalize the Mall and Downtown Brooklyn. I just wish the planned reconstruction of the Mall could be delayed to possibly include trolley tracks. Also the current study should include this as an option to Atlantic Avenue.

I actually thought of this over 30 years ago, and even once mapped out how the bus routes would operate. I still think it’s a good idea and worthy of study.

Cap'n Transit September 10, 2010 - 9:02 pm

So just how do you calculate what an avenue can afford?

BrooklynBus September 11, 2010 - 10:05 am

Traffic on Atlantic Avenue is heavy as it is. The loss of lanes would make it even more congested as well as force more traffic onto adjacent residential streets. (Yes, I know your theories, if we reduce capacity, people will just give up their cars. I’m sorry I don’t agree with that, especially when the MTA continues to reduce service giving people fewer alternatives.)

sharon September 12, 2010 - 7:17 pm

The reason people don’t give up there cars is most who drive needs require them to drive. People forget that areas built up after the 1940’s don’t have subways and the subways were never designed with inter brooklyn travel in mind. Those who think people will give up their cars live in places like park slope and not in Marine Park

BrooklynBus September 13, 2010 - 7:23 pm

Exactly. Not only were the subways not designed for intra-Brooklyn travel, it was also not designed for interborough travel. Buses are just too slow for long trips. A bus trip from Sheepshead Bay to Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park, both in Brooklyn, takes an hour and a half. Why shouldn’t people who have cars use them if they can?

ajedrez September 11, 2010 - 1:17 am

I’m not understanding the route. Doesn’t that mean that it makes a loop around Downtown Brooklyn?

BrooklynBus September 11, 2010 - 10:13 am

No, not a loop. I’m proposing that Atlantic Avenue not be used. Instead the trolleys would begin near Atlantic Terminal, connecting with all the east-west bus routes currently serving Downtown Brooklyn which it would replace. (The B45 could continue along Atlantic Avenue to LICH.) The trolley would operate north to Fulton Street (via Ashland Place which could be closed off to traffic) then along Fulton Mall, through Borough Hall Park (formerly Fulton Street), to Washington Street (Cadman Plaza East) either to Tillary Street, Cadman Plaza West and Old Fulton Street, or straight on Washington Street through DUMBO, Water Street or Front Street, to along the waterfront to Atlantic Avenue and proposed route along Columbia Street.

Bob Diamond September 11, 2010 - 2:36 pm

The account above is generally accurate, however, I wouldn’t at all characterize it as a “dispute with Velazquez” though.

Its always good to know your history- so as not to repeat the problems of last time…

The problem was with Robert Grotell, then DOT Deputy Comm., and continues with Joe Palmieri, then and current, DOT Boro Comm.
Palmieri is the person thats been stonewalling the study grant for the past five (5) years. I have written proof, in the form of a letter from him.

In addition to these two people, at that time, there was some sort of “political group” operating behind the scenes, which also caused the disaffection of some of BHRA’s volunteers into the splinter group, “Brooklyn City Streetcar”.

Its only logical to assume the same people (including then President of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Dev. Corp. Eric Deutsch) were responsible for the 11 PCC streetcars and an antique switching engine parked in the Navy Yard vanishing.

My suspicion at the time, was that “someone” wanted to “launder” our project and equipment- and federal grants- into a new group, with a similar sounding name. Its note worthy, that the name of our overall streetcar project was “Brooklyn City Railroad”. Sound familiar?
Cheers,- and keep your fingers crossed !!!
Bob D.

Nathanael September 12, 2010 - 10:59 pm

Good to know that there is no conflict with Velasquez.

Brandi September 13, 2010 - 9:04 pm

I don’t mean to be a hater but in this case this streetcar is not a good idea for the MTA. They are in a severe budget crisis and they could spend the extra $10 or so million elsewhere. Red Hook does have less transit access than other areas of Brooklyn but maybe select bus service would be a good idea for now. The MTA needs to focus on immediate things like getting a stop at 10th and 41st on the 7 line extension. They are blowing a huge opportunity there. Granted I understand it is more the city’s extension than theirs but someone needs to start putting the pressure there. I mean I think the BRT and subway services needed to be expanded throughout the city but they need to have Albany put up a little more support first. Don’t get me wrong I think streetcars are a good idea but you have to prioritize sometimes.

A critique of the Brooklyn trolley plan :: Second Ave. Sagas September 15, 2010 - 12:42 pm

[…] Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, the NYC Department of Transportation will spend $500,000 on a feasibility study that will examine a proposal to send a trolley from Downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook via Atlantic Ave. […]

This Week: Prendergast speaks, Arts for Transit celebrates :: Second Ave. Sagas November 15, 2010 - 5:29 pm

[…] Community Board 2 on the streetcar feasibility study. NYC DOT officials will discuss the plans for trolley service in Red Hook from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. (St. Francis College – Board Room 180 Remsen St., 1st Floor, […]

James Reilly November 27, 2010 - 2:26 pm

The idea of a redhook trolley line is absurd. A complete waste of tax money.

There are, however, several viable streetcar routes.

(1) From the Indian Museum south to South Ferry, thence to South Street Seaport and Chinatown. This would utilize vintage streetcars such as built for Arkansas and Tampa.
(2) On Staten Island St. George to Sailors Snug Harbor.
(3) Bryant Park to the 40th street Ferry Terminal in Manhatten.

A stubborn city without streetcars :: Second Ave. Sagas January 13, 2011 - 12:27 am

[…] exist. Vision42′s version of 42nd St. hasn’t gained serious traction, and the plan to bring streetcars to the Brooklyn waterfront is mired somewhere in the bureaucracy of the Department of […]

Karl April 20, 2011 - 12:42 pm

Trolleys have a proven track record of bringing tourists to where ever they run and since N.Y.C. had trolleys decades ago this will be even a greater attraction, many cities with trolley operations have recently acquired ” old time trolley cars either refurbished or brand new ” and are running them for tourists and local people as well like Portland Oregon which is a huge trolley city. don’t let this opportunity slip through the fingers of people who aren’t interested in this great way of seeing a great part of Brooklyn.

Streetscars, like the Dodgers, won’t return to Brooklyn :: Second Ave. Sagas April 22, 2011 - 1:52 am

[…] singing a different tune. With advocates howling, the Department of Transportation has wrapped up a six-month study by determining that streetcars are too expensive and won’t deliver benefits to Red Hook […]


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