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.